Monday, February 20, 2012

February Prairie Greens

The prairies always look their most desolate in February.  The grasses have weathered several winter storms and have lost most of their bright colors.  Add to that the fact that I’ve been looking at the same brown color for three months and you can understand why I make an annual February search for growing plants hidden beneath the drab grasses.

I have to give credit to some of the grasses for maintaining a remnant of their fiery brightness through the winter.  Elliott’s Beard Grass adds a flash of color to the winter prairie landscape, but I’m looking for some living plant parts.

Hidden within the tall grasses, Blue-green Sedge has fresh green leaves throughout the winter.  Long periods of freezing days with no snow cover sometimes browns the leaf tips, but it’s evident that this species is adding new growth at every opportunity.

Gray Goldenrod also slowly adds growth through the winter.  This is the normal condition for these native plants.  Unlike some cultivated plants that are putting on early growth because of the mild winter, the native plants are responding to other cues and growing according to their natural pattern.  They will survive and prosper no matter what variances in winter weather may occur.

For many native plants, day length is a stimulus that moves them from one stage of growth to another.  Rose-pink basal rosettes remain small but active during the winter.  No matter how warm the February days, the plants won’t enlarge and prepare to flower until the proper time in the spring.  Rose-pink is a biennial that depends on its crop of seeds to insure future generations.  If plants like these couldn’t time their flowering to best advantage, the species would not persist.

Pasture Thistle is another biennial that is regularly active through the cold season.  The number of winter rosettes gives a hint to the number of blooms you’ll see later on.  This plant is a particular favorite of mine.  The bright purple thistle flowers are a lead in to the prairie blooming season.  The thistles sort of set the mood for what’s to come.  Indications today, forecast a very colorful prairie this summer.

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