Friday, July 31, 2009

Big Bluestem

The tall prairie grasses are now making their push towards greatness. The king of the tall grasses at Blue Jay Barrens, at least by height, is the Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii. Shown above is the flowering portion of this wonderful grass.

This particular Big Bluestem plant is the growth leader this year. Unlike the others of its kind, this little clump is growing in an area of deep soil and the grass has responded to these more favorable conditions. These stalks topped out at a little over nine feet.

Here’s a close-up of some seed stalks at the joints. Big Bluestem has a bluish blush to it when seen from a distance, but on close examination it’s hard to find blue on the plant. These joints were the only place I could any blue on this specimen.

These plants growing on the dry hillside are just beginning to stick up a seed stalk. Even here, the Big Bluestem is dwarfing the surrounding vegetation. When I bought this property, Big Bluestem was a rarity here. It responded extremely well to the extra sunlight afforded by the cedar clearing.

This is one prairie plant that I can photograph from below without crouching. When I stand beside this grass, I can’t help thinking about the early settlers getting lost in the towering prairie grasses as they sought new homes in the west. I managed to navigate this clump of grass without losing my bearings.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


This is the flower head of the Bundleflower, Desmanthus illinoensis, a plant of some controversy in Ohio. The controversy centers around debate as to whether Bundleflower is native to Ohio or an introduced species. The majority of authorities now seem to think this is a native plant. I like this decision since I manage for native plants and like this one in particular.

This is a tall plant that reaches a little of four feet. It can compete with the tall prairie grasses and survive in some extremely dry conditions. The bulk of the growth occurs early in the summer before the grasses get too tall.

Bundleflower has a variety of desirable characters. First has to be the flower cluster that looks like a powder puff or starburst fireworks. The flowers may continue all summer, it not being uncommon to find mature seeds on the same plants as new flowers.

Next would have to be the doubly compound leaves. There are cherished ornamental plants that don’t offer more than the beauty of these leaves.

The detail and arrangement of these tiny leaflets is amazing. How can you not like a plant with leaves as intriguing as these? But there’s still more.

This is the developing seed head. Bundleflower is a legume, like peas or beans, and the seeds develop in pods. Instead of single pods, you have a tight cluster of sickle shaped pods, each holding six or seven seeds. The plants also fix nitrogen in root nodules, making nitrogen available to other plants growing in the vicinity.

No two seed pods take on the same configuration. They may be as varied as fingerprints. When they mature, the pods turn a dark chocolate brown and split along the seam to release the seeds. When the plant has dried, the stalks with attached pod clusters can be an interesting addition to a dried flower arrangement.

The seeds have a high oil content and make a nutritious livestock feed supplement. There have been domesticated varieties of this plant developed for commercial production. Evaluations have been done to assess the plant’s worth for vegetable oil production, livestock feed, and forage. I’m sure plant breeders can turn this into a rugged mega-seed producer, but I’ll always prefer the humble native original.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wheel Bug

Here’s a nice insect with a dinosaur look to it. This is the Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus, the largest of our local assassin bugs. It’s a predator that stalks the plants looking for insect prey. It prefers to prey on soft bodied insects, but I’ve seen it tackle a wide range of prey items.

The common name comes from this raised area of the thorax that resembles a cogged wheel.

The Wheel Bug is a true bug as evidenced by that tube shaped beak folded beneath the head. Insect prey is held by the strong forelegs while that beak is used to suck the prey dry. Although not normally aggressive to humans, the bug will bite if picked up and tightly held. The bite can be quite painful and result in a burning sensation that lasts for several minutes.

These bugs like to prowl about on flower heads where they’re likely to capture butterflies, bees and flies. They’re also good at zeroing in on areas containing leaf eating larvae.

The Wheel Bug’s flower to flower hunting technique makes it a fairly effective pollinator. The hairy legs have turned yellow from their pollen load.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Little Oak

It sometimes amazes me how much adversity the plants at Blue Jay Barrens can survive. This is a small Chinquapin Oak, Quercus muehlenbergii. It has been here, at approximately this same size, for as long as I’ve owned the property. It survives on a partially shaded, rocky, south facing slope.

Here’s a perspective shot of me standing beside the tree. To help you get a feel for the size, I’ll tell you that I’m not over 12 feet tall and the tree barely reaches my chest. The top of this tree has died and a lower branch is now becoming the dominant leader. This sequence of events has played out many times in the past.

The lower trunk shows a lot of age. You can see the remains of a stub on the left where the tree once died back almost to ground level. This looks much like an old Bonsai specimen.

A little farther up the tree, there is another die back and promotion of a side sprout to leader.

Of course, rough growing conditions are not all this tree must endure. Several of the leaves are wearing small oak galls. Galls are usually formed on leaves as a result of either a fungus infection or a response to an insect egg. I believe this is of the latter variety, forming around a tiny wasp egg.

There are also plenty of insects around to munch on the leaves. This insect is a small Walking Stick. It’ll be larger and much more stick-like this autumn. When they are abundant, Walking Sticks can nearly strip a tree of leaves. It wouldn’t take many to eat all the leaves on a tree this size.

It could be quite an insult to a tree to be decades old, but have a Bush Cricket take up residence in your leaves. I don’t know if the cricket or some other insect is responsible for the damage to this leaf. Between the cricket’s hind legs is the egg of a butterfly or moth. Soon we’ll have a young larva taking its share of leaves from the tree.

Here’s an interesting Harvestman, A.K.A. Daddy Long Legs, cruising the branches in search of a meal.

Looks like one of those long legs went missing. I used to keep guys like this as pets when I was younger. They did quite nicely in a terrarium. Most people never get a good look at the bodies of these interesting creatures. All people see are a bunch of legs and that’s their signal to leave.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Purple Coneflower

The Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, was the first plant I came across at Blue Jay Barrens that I knew belonged to the prairie.

This is where I saw it. From here I could see the bright lavender rays waving on a long stalk just to the right of that center cedar. That was twenty years ago and my field notes indicate about a dozen plants were growing in this area.

That particular plant is gone, but there are now many more. The rays show signs of predation. In a healthy ecosystem, something is always eating something else. I’d be worried if I saw plants that weren’t being chewed on.

I found quite a few plants growing in the shade. Without sunlight, the coneflower survives as a few basal leaves and rarely flowers.

This is one of those areas that contained many dozens of plants that didn’t flower. Five years ago I cut enough cedars to allow about 50% sunlight to reach the ground. The number of blooming plants increases each year.

I’m still evaluating this site. There are a lot of woody plants trying to grow here that could compete with the coneflowers. I’ll probably mow this area in the winter and remove a couple more cedars.

This is the part of the Purple Coneflowers that I most enjoy. This central disk looks like a fiber optics display.

When the plant is through and the seeds have been dropped, you are left with the cone. This was left from last season.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rain at Blue Jay Barrens

Several storms came through Blue Jay Barrens yesterday. This is the scene from behind the house. The storms were coming in fast from the west, which would be the left side of the picture. The early morning sun illuminated the field, while the storm clouds were already over our heads. If you see some dark specks in the photo, you are seeing a couple of soaring Turkey Vultures cruising over the Blue Jay Barrens woodlands. If you’re seeing more than two specks, it may be time for you to clean your monitor or get your eyes checked.

The sunlight was quickly blocked by the approaching storm clouds. To the right is The Hill that I posted about some time ago. When I learn how, I’ll provide links in situations like this. Until then, you are free to browse the archives for any vital information you may have missed.

The Turkey Vultures kept circling, but drifted eastward ahead of the storm. This bird gave me a good looking over. Maybe it was planning on coming back to see if lightening turned me into a nice fried morsel.

The clouds provided some interesting formations just ahead of the rain. There were a lot of lightening flashes and thunder, but no cloud to ground strikes.

Heavy rain. The past two years have been super dry and I’m really happy to see this rain. Blue Jay Barrens averages less rainfall than the surrounding area, a fact supported by 23 years of rainfall records. A rain like this means no satellite signal for a while and usually a loss of electricity, with a corresponding loss of water since the well pump stops working. It also means the garden has a chance of producing for while longer and the well may be recharged enough that I won’t have to impose water use restrictions on the family.
After the storm, the cooler air usually means fog rising out of the woods. Sort of like a tiny bit of the Smokey Mountains.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ambush Bug

Three weeks ago I posted about a Bumble Bee that I found hanging by its mandibles from a flower. Now I’ve found a second bee, a Honey Bee, in the same position. This bee is dead, or at least completely unresponsive, according to the standard poke-with-a-stick test.

Maybe this is not an uncommon end for a bee. It’s just something I’ve not encountered before, and now I’ve seen it in two species this month. I’ll just have to pay attention and see if I can spot some more.

But, enlarging a digital image allows me to see things I could never see in the field. Look to the left of the bee’s eye. That’s not a plant part. That bee has been snared.

Although this isn’t the best of images, I believe this to be an Ambush Bug, of the family Phymatidae. The Ambush Bug hides in flowers and captures prey that is considerably larger than itself. Its coloration is a perfect match for this milkweed flower.

Here is a rather unfocused image of the entire bug. Quite an impressive job of camouflage. It’s hard to focus on something when you don’t even realize it’s there.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Smooth Sumac

There are many plants just starting to display some showy blooms at Blue Jay Barrens, but this plant will draw your eye from them all. This is the seed head of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra. This vibrant crimson display can be seen for a long way across the field.

A closer look at the sumac fruit. Even though the fruit is now beginning to ripen, birds won’t be paying it much attention until mid to late winter. This seems to be one of those survival foods and it does its job well. These plants hold their fruit and remain standing through the toughest of winter weather.

Sumacs quickly form a thicket and at Blue Jay Barrens, will grow to a height of about 12 feet. I mow most of the sumac areas every two to three years as part of my management effort to maintain open fields. One result of the mowing is an increase in Sumac fruit production. This particular area is into its second growing season and is producing an impressive amount of fruit.

Regrowth is rapid after mowing. This plant was cut in February of this year and is now about five feet tall. The mowing cycle maximizes the leaf area to root mass ratio for maximum growth. It also causes the type of plant stress that stimulates production of fruit. Mowing too often would cause the plants to begin dieing and mowing less often would cause the growth to get tall and woody. Tall growth stops sending up these vigorous young sprouts and is very susceptible to winter kill. The areas of sumac that I do not mow are a tangle of dead and fallen trunks. These areas are often slow to recover following a winter die off.

This is the last of the Smooth Sumac blooms for 2009. Many types of pollinators visit these large flower clusters.

Sumac patches are often a collection of cloned sprouts. Since they all share the same genetic schedule, the stage of fruit development on one plant is mirrored on all of the related plants.

Some of these seed heads are massive. I disturbed a bird busily digging for something inside this seed head. It didn’t seem to be after the fruit, but was digging for something hidden in the cluster. You can see where it exposed the white skin of fruits that received no sunlight.