Old Friends on the Prairie

By Boak Wiesner

The first truly smothering of heat of the summer finds me out on the prairie, and since it’s my intention to move slowly, the blossoms of many wildflowers attract my attention. Last time I was here, I was looking closely at leaves; this time, it’s the different kinds of inflorescences, that is, the arrangement of the flowers, makes me lean in.

Just as I head out into the open sun, some Spiderwort catches my eye. After the spring’s plethora of white flowers, its deep purple sets a nice tone for the summer. I wonder if the various colored flower petals might be due to the pH of the soil, as some plant pigments make usual acid-base indicators. The flowers of Spiderwort form a raceme, because it looks like a cluster of grapes, but upside down.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis)

Spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis)

Vetch also shows purple flowers which form racemes. Part of the Legume family, in its roots grow nodules filled with bacteria that can break apart nitrogen, which is what air is, mostly, and then reduce it to ammonium, which can then be used to make amino acids and proteins. Thus Vetch can be a good nutritious foods source for animals.

Vetch (Vicia sativa)

Vetch (Vicia sativa)

Some Prairie Fleabane look like small eyes among the prairie grasses. Their blossoms are composites: each white petal is alone of its flower and there are many florets grouped together.

Prairie Fleabane (Erigeron strigosus)

Prairie Fleabane (Erigeron strigosus)

I come up on the first prairie wildflower I learned as I began my Nature Notes gig, lo these many years ago, Golden Alexanders, so I’m cheered by it and my memory of that moment. Its flowers form umbels, relatively flat clusters of small flowers.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

The most conspicuous flower these days, though, is that of White Wild Indigo, whose scientific name comes from word for milk, the appearance of its flowers, don’t you think?

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia lactea)

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia lactea)

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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