Prairie: Garden of the Senses!

By Greg Lecker

Exploring an August Prairie is an experience for all the senses.  Sounds abound – birds, but mostly cicadas.  Cicadas can be surprisingly loud, especially at close range.  Their calling is temperature dependent – signifying temperatures in the 80’s and above.  They can be found July through September wherever deciduous trees are found – though they do not harm trees or other plants.  But again, though one may not find them visually, one cannot miss them audibly!  That high pitched power line whine that induces apprehension (in me at least, at times) – that is the cicada’s calling card.  Born from eggs laid in tree bark, cicadas hatch (as nymphs) and crawl down the bark to nurse from tree roots for four to five years!

Having grown up, they climb back up the tree, transform into winged insects and begin mating – or at least calling for a mate.  I’m always taken by stories connecting nature to mythology; and I’ve found one that applies to cicadas.  The Titan goddess Eos falls in love with a beautiful prince, and grants him immortality, but forgetfully not youth.  (Details; details.)  His body shrivels to a corpse-like shell of his former self; yet he continues calling forth with the power of the young.   I don’t find them unattractive, though in the only form I’ve seen them – a shed skin or a dead cicada on the sidewalk – they’re not fully whole.  Annual (or dogday) cicadas are 1-1/2” long, stout with a green or brown body, marked with black accents.  They hold their wings tent-like over their body.  Annual” because these cicadas can be found annually; compared with the type that appear once every thirteen to seventeen years!

Prairie Dock and Cup PlantComposite Portrait:  Prairie Dock and Cup Plant

Sight overwhelms first:  lush height and width, riotous yellow accent amidst a sea, of, yes, waves of greens.  In the prairie, the flower plant family most dominant in terms of variety and beauty is the Composite or Aster Family – and they are blooming now.  The term “composite” describes the flower heads:  clusters of many small flowers (florets). The florets may be of two different types — disk and ray florets. The disk florets, the smallest and most numerous, are located in the central portion of a typical flower head and form the yellow center of a daisy or the brown center of a black-eyed Susan.  The “petals” surrounding the central disk are the ray florets. Most composites have both disk and ray florets, while some have only one or the other.

Providing food, water, and cover, Cup Plant is species that many native plant gardeners select to attract birds.  Cup Plant bears lance-shaped leaves opposite pairs that clasp around the stem forming a pocket for water collection.  The scientific name of Cup Plant, perfoliatum, means “through the leaf,” referring to the stem that appears to pierce the leaves.  These leaf cups catch and store rainwater, often for many days.

Cup PlantCup Plant

That tall plant in the prairie – it’s most likely Prairie dock.  Like compass plant, its flowers are arranged opposite on a stem that stretches to thirteen feet.  The flowers may point north and south – though I wouldn’t rely on this for navigation.   Its basal leaves are very large, 1 foot or more in length, thick, rough, resinous, and heart- or spade-shaped. Like the compass plant, the leaves of the prairie dock stand erect presenting only their thin edges to the intense mid-day sun, thus reducing transpiration.  The foliage grows 24”-36” tall.  In August, smooth tall stalks arise from the cluster of leaves. At the top of these tall stalks, about six bright yellow sunflower-like heads open from smooth, round buds, and last for a month or longer.  Very long-lived, individual plants are known to flourish for decades.

Prairie DockPrairie Dock

Come explore the prairie – bring bug spray and a change of footwear.  You won’t get “cold feet” but you may leave with wet feet from the damp mown grass and dripping foliage!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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