Friday, May 9, 2014

The Start of Prairie Flower Season

At first glance, the mid-spring prairie appears to be clinging tenaciously to winter.  The dead stalks of Indian Grass, Big and Little Bluestem and Side Oats Gramma hide from view the first of the season’s prairie bloomers.  The plants that will bring color to the field in summer are just beginning to grow, but hidden down in all of that brownery, early flowering species are hard at work.

I consider the blooming of the Hoary Puccoon to be the beginning of prairie flower season.  Hoary Puccoon is the first showy species to flower and at its peak will shower the prairie with orange.

Young plants begin as a single stalk.  Once they become established, they will form a multi-stemmed clump.

One of the earliest bloomers is almost lost from view.  Juniper Sedge, Carex juniperorum, is a low growing, grass-like plant that looks as if it’s been ground beneath someone’s boot heel.  The thin leaves radiate out from a central core in an almost horizontal manner.  It’s nothing to get excited about unless you know the story of its rarity and how it managed to remain unnoticed by professional botanists for decades before being recognized as a new species just 25 years ago.

Its flower has past its prime, but with something as nondescript as this, it’s hard to tell.

I’m certain that I don’t have this particular species on the Blue Jay Barrens plant list.  The only reason I don’t add it now is the fact that I’m not certain of the identification.  I originally saw it late last year and thought it might be Senecio plattensis, but the plants were too far gone to be certain.  However, when I run this plant through the keys it quickly falls out as Senecio pauperculus, listed as a Threatened species in Ohio.  That would be the end of it if I didn’t know that the keys are just an aid in identification and not the last word.  When I go on to read the species description, things don’t seem to match.  Then, as seems to happen to me all too often, I read that these Senecio species can show much variety and have a tendency to intergrade. 

So, I’m going to have to study these plants a little more closely before making up my mind.  Until then, all I can say is that I have a field full of some lovely little Senecio plants.

Wood Strawberry is doing quite well this year.  The ripe berries are a favorite of the Eastern Box Turtles.

Fringed Houstonia, Hedyotis canadensis, is blooming in profusion, but with a height of only a few inches it is barely noticeable.

Pussytoes are poised to bloom.  They tower above the emerging prairie grasses.

White Blue-eyed Grass is scattered throughout the prairie.  Even though it is also a diminutive plant, it is generally easier to see than its companion spring bloomers.

Of course, plants aren’t the only things showing off their colors.

A newly emerged Luna Moth, fluids still being pumped into the expanding wings, brings an added dimension to the prairie.

Botanical forays to the prairie now include a serenade provided by the Prairie Warbler. 

Even though prairie is part of their name, it’s actually the scattered cedars that attract the Prairie Warblers.  Short cedars and pines are common nest sites for these birds.  By the time these warblers end their singing, the prairie will be brightening with the early summer prairie flowers.

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