Tom's Blog

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pleasant Valley Conservancy: Updated trail map and new wetland access

I have made several improvements to the Pleasant Valley Conservancy Trail Map.
The link here gives access and a low-resolution version is shown below. Also, the web site has access to a high-resolution version that can be downloaded.

Among other improvements, the base map air photo is the latest available (from 2013), and has been enhanced to make the savanna areas stand out.



This link leads to last year's Blog Post where I present information on the 2013 base photo.

To use this map in your tablet:

For those with iPads, the high-resolution PDF can be downloaded and saved in a form accessible in Adobe Reader. The advantage is that you don't need to have Internet access to see the map in the iPad.
(Presumably, a tablet running Android would also work.)

Go to the App Store (or Google Play for Androids) and search for Adobe Reader. Download this app and check to be sure it works.

Go to your browser (I use Chrome) and open the page in the Pleasant Valley Conservancy web site which has the trail map. Tap on the link to download the PDF version. The map should come up in your browser. Tap the lower right hand corner and select the option to open the map in Adobe Reader. (Ignore the other options.) The map should now be full screen in Reader and a double-tap should open up an even larger version, which you can move around with your finger.

You now have a high-resolution map that you can carry with you on your hike. This map will stay permanently in your tablet.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Wetland trail now walkable again

We finally found time to remow the wetland trail that forms a loop between the end of the Boardwalk and the barn. The interns did this on their last day, assisted by Amanda, Susan, and Ben. With all the rain we have had this summer the trail was fairly overgrown, so it took all morning to get it in shape.

The map shows the general route. Starting at the Parking follow the lane along the Valley Prairie until you get to the barn, where the mowed trail starts (or ends). At the end of the mowed section follow the Boardwalk back to the Crane Prairie, where you pick up the lane again. Follow the lane to the end of the Crane Prairie, then go back to your car along Pleasant Valley Road. (A bit over a mile walk.) This gives you a chance to see the wetland both closeup and afar, and also enjoy the tallgrass prairie on the south slope.

A pair of cranes has been present all summer. Also, while mowing the trail the interns and Susan saw a Blanding's turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), an endangered species.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Four Rudbeckia species

In our area there are four species of Rudbeckia that might be present in a remnant or restoration. Also, Ratibida pinnata is generally present and may sometimes confuse things. These species are commonly called coneflowers or black-eyed Susans. In the field it may be difficult to decide which is which. Because most of these species are planted in native plant gardens, there are numerous cultivars, often with additional names (for instance Rudbeckia hirta ‘Autumn Colors’ ‘Indian Summer’). Many of the commercial plant and seed companies don’t provide enough detail to permit easy identification.

Ratibida (yellow or gray headed coneflower) is the most straightforward to distinguish. Its ray flowers always hang down and its disk flowers are tall and compact, providing a characteristic flower structure.

Rudbeckia laciniata (cut-leaf coneflower) can be distinguished from the other Rudbeckia species because its disk flowers are yellowish or grayish-green rather than purple. Also, it lives in moist places and shores and its lower leaves are pinnately divided. Although laciniata  is listed in Czarapata’s book as a potentially invasive species in the upper Midwest, we have never seen any evidence of it getting “out of hand” at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. It was already present in our wetland when we first started restoration, and has never “taken over”. It is a tall plant and provides a nice backdrop in the wet prairies.

Rudbeckia triloba (brown-eyed Susan) is easily distinguished because its lower leaves are tri-lobed. Also, its flowers are smaller, with the ray and disk flowers both shorter than the other species.
Rudbeckia triloba is a short-lived perennial which establishes well and readily self-seeds. Once planted in a prairie it should continue as a colorful species for many years, even though it may move around. Some Wisconsin “purists” question whether it is “native” to our region, since it can often be found in disturbed habitats. However, our experience at Pleasant Valley Conservancy is that it is well behaved, and provides an attractive color late in August when many other species are starting to fade. It also does well in the more sunnier areas of the savannas.

 Finally, we need to separate hirta from subtomentosa. hirta has a simple narrow leaf, whereas subtomentosa has a dissected leaf, as shown in the photos. As always with leaf shape, the lower leaves tend to be more reliable than the upper ones. Even then, leaf shape can often vary, so that this character is not always reliable. The best character, from my observations, is the stem. hirta’s is stiff and hairy, whereas subtomentosa’s is smooth and glabrous. Run your hands up the stem and feel the difference.

 Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan) is an annual, biennual, or short-lived perennial. Some botanists consider it an “aggressive weed”, but you will find it in almost every planted prairie in southern Wisconsin. It is very reliable in a prairie planting, easy to establish and provides guaranteed color by the second growing season. A single patch may not persist but it seeds well and should remain as a long-lived member of the prairie.


R. subtomentosa (sweet black-eyed Susan) is a long-lived perennial. At Pleasant Valley Conservancy we never knew we had this species until it was recently pointed out to us by a visitor. Sure enough, we found quite a bit of it in the Barn Prairie as well as in the wet prairie nearby. Where did it come from? Seed heads of these two species will be quite similar, and it seems likely that seeds of both species could easily end up in a single mix. So we undoubtedly planted it accidentally. According to the Herbarium records, it is found mainly in southwestern Wisconsin, along the lower Wisconsin and Sugar rivers. However, with so much prairie planting going on these days in Wisconsin, I suspect those restrictions will no longer apply.

Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed-Susan)

Hairy stem of black-eyed Susan
Leaves of black-eyed-Susan

Smooth glabrous stem of sweet black-eyed Susan


Tripartite leaf of sweet black-eyed Susan

Rudbeckia subtomentosa (sweet black-eyed Susan

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Great year for large-flowered foxglove in the oak savannas

Large-flowered false foxglove (Aureolaria grandiflora) is one of the great members of the oak savanna flora. Its savanna dependence derives from its absolute requirement for parasitism on roots of members of the white oak group (white and bur oak). It is generally fairly showy but this year populations are especially lush. In Unit 10, where the oaks are primarily burs, there are large populations.


We first established this species at Pleasant Valley Conservancy about 10 years ago, planting seeds under the drip lines of the oaks. Within two-three years small populations of flowering plants had developed, and they have gradually spread across the savanna areas.

This species is a member of the Orobanchaceae family (formerly Scrophulariaceae), a group with a number of hemiparasitic species. In addition to Aureolaria, genera in our area that are hemiparasitic include Agalinis and Castilleja (Indian paintbrush).

According to research done by Musselman (American Midland Naturalist, Vol. 82, July 1969), seeds of Aureolaria germinate normally and start to form seedlings, but unless they parasitize an oak rootlet they seldom get past the cotyledon stage before dying. 

Although Aureolaria grandiflora is an obligate parasite on oaks, it does not do any harm to the tree. It primarily "infects" the tiny roots that are present under the drip line of the canopy. 

The especially prolific growth this year is probably linked with the unusual summer weather we have been having (fairly cool and good rainfall).

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why aren't compass plants flowering this year?

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie is a great site for compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), but this year only about 10% of the plants are flowering. Why? Even though they are non-flowering, compass plants have nice fresh foliage, indicating that they are alive and well. See update below

I have been unable to find any work in the literature on this phenomenon in S. laciniatum, although there is work with other species. In some species, all (or virtually all) of a single species in a population will flower, and none at all the next year. In some cases, this cycle will be repeated again, and perhaps again and again. So the question is: how do plants know when other plants (of the same species) are flowering?

At Rettenmund, this is the first year I have noticed that flowering has not occurred. Certainly, for the past four or five years we have had good flowering. Why this year?

Note added 8-11-2014. I just learned yesterday from Mark Martin at Goose Pond Sanctuary that their compass plants are not flowering this year either. This makes me think the phenomenon must be weather-related.

The compass plant consists of two parts, the greatly dissected basal leaves, and the thick, robust flower stalk that often grows quite tall and carries the flowers. My information is that the flower stalk arises (separately from the leaves) from the thick basal crown. Thus whether or not a plant will flower depends upon differentiation of flower primordia in the crown. Although I have found no data on this, I assume that the trigger which starts flower stalk differentiation occurs the previous fall. If a stalk primordium does not develop, then no flowering occurs.

A single plant can form more than one flower stalk, although they are all connected underground via the root stock and crown. See photo below (The crown must be quite large.)

A multi-stemmed (9) compass plant in the middle of Toby's Prairie. Note that all the significant foliage is basal.
Although very little flowering is occurring at Rettenmund, we have normal compass plant flowering at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. Thus, it seems unlikely that we can blame this on bad fall weather, or bad winter weather, or bad spring weather, since Rettenmund and Pleasant Valley are only 4 miles apart.

At the moment, all I can conclude is that compass plants at Rettenmund are having an "off" year. We'll have to wait to see what next year develops.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Blazing star and swamp milkweed

After a while one gets bored with the masses of mid-summer yellow prairie flowers, which makes the purple species that are coming along now especially welcome.

One of the great species is prairie blazing star (sometimes called gay feather) (Liatris pycnostachya). I have seen whole fields of it, but I find it more attractive as a focal point in a prairie. It  has a fairly wide range, from mesic through wet-mesic to wet. Although it forms corms which can be dug and divided for replanting, it is fairly easy to get started from seed. In a new prairie planted from a seed mix, it usually takes about 3 years to start showing.

This is a western Great Plains species, and is found from the Dakotas south to Texas and east to Indiana. In Wisconsin it is only found south of the Tension Zone. (The Tension Zone, first characterized by Curtis in his work on the Vegetation of Wisconsin, is a wide S-shaped boundary that separates northern from southern Wisconsin.)

One of the interesting characteristics of species of the genus Liatris is that they bloom from the top down, in contrast to most flowering plants. The photo here shows two stalks in the early stages of  flowering. According to Cochrane, since bee pollinators visit the bottom flowers of a stalk first, this method of flowering ensures that the young flowers are visited first.














The other reddish or purple-flowered species that is now in full bloom is the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This is only found in wet places, and occurs at Pleasant Valley Conservancy only in our wetland where standing water is present or nearby. The best place to see this species is along the lane that separates the Crane Prairie from the wetland. Individual plants tend to be widely scattered.

The milkweeds have a complex flower structure and pollen is carried in special structures called pollinia. Bees are the principal pollinators and by chance a pollinium will get attached to an insect leg and be carried to another plant. Because of the complex pollination system, only a few flowers on each plant will get fertilized and form seed pods. (There are several potential seed pods starting to form in the photo below.)

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) growing at the wet edge of the Crane Prairie. 


Swamp milkweed is fairly easy to do experimental work with and hence has been the favorite species for research on ecology, evolution, and genetics. (Wyatt R. S. B. Broyles 1994. Ecology and evolution of reproduction in milkweeds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 25423-441.)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Towing the broken down red Mule

We have two Kawasaki Mule utility vehicles and they are indispensable for our restoration work. Thursday the red Mule broke down for Kathie when she was at the far end of the service road, about a mile from Conservancy entrance. Fortunately, she was able to reach Ben on the cell phone. We have a heavy duty chain that we use to pull cars out of ditches or when stuck (you'd be surprised how often that happens!), so we threw it in the back of the green Mule and drove to the scene of the breakdown. I drove the green vehicle and Kathie guided the red one.

The main problem with pulling a vehicle is to keep tension on the chain, so there are no stop and start jerks. The vehicle being towed has the responsibility to keep tension by judicious use of the foot brake. We had no trouble along the top straightaway but going down the steep hill at the end was another problem. Our road down the hill has two steep downward parts with a level area in between. (The level area is due to a 20-foot erosion-resistant phase of Black Earth Dolomite inserted between two sandstone layers.) At the top of the first down we disconnected the tow vehicle and let Kathie coast down to the middle level area. Then we hooked up again and I towed her all the way to the bottom. This last was tricky, as the bottom hill is quite steep, and if  you lose control you would fly all the way to the town road below, unless you ran into a large hickory first. Most of Kathie's control was with the foot brake, but she also had her hand on the emergency brake in case the foot brake failed.

We know what could happen if a vehicle went out of control on this lower steep road, as due to a stupid error on my part, the green mule once got loose and went all the way to Pleasant Valley Road, rolling over on the final road cut. (I jumped out just in time.) The repair bill was >$2000!

The photo here shows the final stage of towing.



We could have used our GMC Sierra truck to bring the red Mule out, but it would have been harder to coordinate the job. The two Mules worked beautifully together.

We checked the spark plug and a few other possibilities, then called our service people (Richie's in Barneveld) to come and pick the Mule up. Hopefully we will have it back in a few days.

We bought the red Mule about 10 years ago and it has been indispensable for our restoration work. We have a 65 gallon pumper unit that fits in the back (for burns) and a 25 gallon Fimco herbicide sprayer (for spraying projects too large for the Solo backpack sprayer). The green Mule we later bought second hand and use it when we have more people working, or to take visitors on tours. With the large knobby tires, it works beautifully in snow and we used it all last winter for wetland restoration work. It easily plowed through 6-8 inches of snow along the lane that separates the Crane Prairie from the marsh.