Prairies are a fascinating habitat for any plant lover. The prairie begins at ground level each spring, and by mid-summer features a stunning array of flowers that are 8 to 10 feet tall. The amount of energy used by these plants to grow so large in such a short time is staggering. But as tall as some plants grow, a magnifying glass is a handy tool to keep on-hand while exploring the prairie. Many of these intricate prairie flowers are often too small to see with the naked eye.
Prairie Flowers and Late Summer Beauty
From a natural cycle standpoint, and in the prairie in particular, summer is far from over. Asters, Goldenrods, and other prairie plants will flower through mid-September. You can witness grasses beginning to flower; toward the top, a grass’ flower sheath will split and begin to gradually expose seeds. Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) is blossoming right now across the prairie. Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) leaves turn a lovely aged bronze color. Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is one of the few native grasses with a fragrant flower and it happens to smell like popcorn. A glorious native Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) at over six-feet-tall can be viewed near the building entrance. The way you can tell it’s a native thistle is the underside of the leaves is white.
Throughout August, Black-eyed Susans continue to blossom. First Lady, and passionate native plant gardener Lady Bird Johnson, coined the phrase “damned yellow composites,” or “DYCs,” about yellow plants in the family Asteraceae. These prairie flowers were given this name for two reasons; firstly because although native they can tend to dominate an ecosystem. Secondly, the tiny flowers are quite difficult to see. As composites, when viewing the “flower” of Black-eyed Susans, you’re viewing many flowers at once. All of those brown dots centered within the yellow petals are actually individual flowers. You may also notice a pattern in their arrangement, as they’re ordered in the famous Fibonacci Sequence.
Bumble Bees in the Prairie
Right now, our prairies are gloriously abuzz with a variety of bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects. Last summer we announced the discovery of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis), shortened to RPBB, on Center grounds. The RPBB is the only federally endangered species in Milwaukee County. We’re pleased to report that as of this summer, we have confirmed 12 sightings of RPBB throughout the Center’s 185 acres. These findings are a testament to our conservation efforts, and we’re proud to provide a home for this vulnerable native species. Unlike some insect species, RPBB are generalists – they’re not especially particular about which prairie flowers they frequent. This year RPBBs have been documented on Bergamot, Boneset, Rosinweed, and Virginia Mountain Mint, and more than half of our sightings have been on Culver’s Root.
We’ve also recently identified the Yellow Bumblebee (Bombus fervidus), which is state listed as imperiled. Having these two species is a great indicator to the quality of habitat we have at Schlitz Audubon. We use all data collected regarding these and other species to inform our Conservation Plan as we work to make Schlitz Audubon a more resplendent haven for pollinators.
Prairies have evolved with harsh winters, grazing bison, and frequent fires. Growing points of the plants are located low to the soil, or even just under the soil surface, safeguarding against above ground disturbances. Prairie plants symbiotically share the resources of sun, water, and soil. This use of space is best exhibited by root systems, considering that roots make up 67% of a prairie grass. Grasses form large netted webs of roots knitting together below the surface of the prairie. Forbs, plants with broad leaves and large flowers, plumb the depths of the soil, traveling several feet down in search of water.
Prairie flowers will continue blossoming through mid-September, so visit often to experience new and various shades of beauty!