By Greg Lecker
…..fire and rebirth…tested by fire….trial by fire. Literary phrases conjure up one’s growth after enduring a challenge. For a prairie, fire offers rejuvenation. For millennia, natural fires and fires set by Native Americans and our country’s early settlers restored energy to the ecosystem. Even today, ranchers in some states conduct controlled burns to bring a flush of green growth for their cattle to graze upon.
The first week of May 2014 offered perfect conditions for a controlled burn at the Arboretum’s Bennett Johnson Prairie. Weather conditions allowed for a fire that could be contained; non-native cool-season grasses and weeds had sprouted – but no prairie plants had emerged. Arboretum planners and curators decided to move forward. Controlled burns are not widely advertised, if at all. Reasons for this include: short notice of favorable weather conditions; and discouragement of crowds that may present a public safety challenge.
In a discussion I overheard between an Arboretum staff member and a volunteer, I learned of the necessities and advantages of periodic controlled burns in maintaining prairie – the most threatened ecosystem in our country — less than one percent remains. Fire releases nutrients locked in prior years’ biomass, clears overgrown thatch that chokes seedlings, and sets back or kills trees that would otherwise overtake a prairie.
Until native plants mature and bloom across Three Mile Drive, the Capen display garden offers one the opportunity to see native plants in bloom. Pasque Flowers bloom with fuzzy forms illuminated by early morning rising sun. With the brightening day, the nodding flowers will raise their sleepy heads to greet the warm weekend.
On this morning when garden watering was postponed to spare me a shower while I painted a floral still life, I learned from a garden curator of continued efforts by the Arboretum to salvage plants to protect these gems in these gardens. From time to time, community growth pressures and construction across the state threaten plants. When notified, the Arboretum can conduct a rescue and transplant native plants to the appropriate ecosystem within the Arboretum. How wonderful that something positive results from the destruction that inevitable development poses!
Pasque Flowers that bloomed earlier have begun to unfurl their delicate seed heads. I find these Suessian “Truffula trees” at least as attractive as flowers themselves. Corydalis blooms shine in the blurry foreground of my far-sighted eyes and camera lens. I gaze over Prickly Pear transplanted by a garden volunteer to find Prairie Smoke in full bloom.
Smoke from a prairie smoldering is followed by a flush of flowers. Inversely complementary, the diminutive but colorful Prairie Smoke blooms will be followed by a profusion of puffy seed heads. Stop by in the coming weeks and months to witness these transformations first-hand!
Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.