Tom's Blog

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What's in bloom in the Crane Wet Prairie

It is hard to believe that the Sandhill Crane Wet Prairie is only in its third growing season. We have had so many successes here, including the best Indian grass we have ever had at this early stage. Of course, the weather has cooperated by providing abundant moisture.

This prairie is a long narrow strip (about 3 acres) along the edge of the wetland, which provides a great groundwater source. Our decision five years ago to remove all the honeysuckle, walnuts, and other woody vegetation and plant it as a wet prairie is now paying off. And even the cranes seem to like it.

The photo here is of turtle head (Chelone glabra), which we had in our native wet prairies even before we started restoration work. Also, the winter we planted the Crane Prairie (December 2005) we had especially good seed production in these native populations because earlier that year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had conducted a major burn of the wetland property of five different landowners, of which we were one. Turtle head flowered especially prolifically that summer and we collected lots of seed. Now, in its third growing season, we are starting to see plants.

This species has a coefficient of conservatism of 7 and is listed as an obligate wetland plant. However, it is not that uncommon, and is listed in all 72 counties in Wisconsin. According to Cochrane and Iltis, this is a plant with considerable horticultural promise, and in a wet garden it could make a show from first flowering until frost.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is found principally in wet prairies but (interestingly enough) we also have it in our savannas. This is not uncommon, as many wet prairie species are found in the savannas, presumably because the dappled shade keeps the soil from drying out. It is a lot more common than turtle head, as shown by its coefficient of conservatism (3). According to Cochrane and Iltis, this species hybridizes with white vervain (which is also present in the Crane Prairie) to create Englemann's vervain Verbena X Englemanii.

The next species to be described which is blooming in the Crane Prairie is the real stunner. There are very few prairie species with legitimate red flowers, but you can't argue with the color of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). According to Cochrane and Ilitis, this is one of the few species in the Wisconsin flora to be pollinated by Ruby Throated Hummingbirds. This species also has a Coefficient of 7. It is easy to see where cardinal flower got its name.

Cardinal flower is often found together with great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and we have them both together in the Crane Prairie.

Both of these species are monocarpic, which means that they may grow for several (or many?) years in the vegetative state, but once they flower they die. In a rich habitat such as a garden they may turn themselves into annuals, flowering the first year after planting. Because of this monocarpic character, we never know where or when they will appear. Especially with blue lobelia, we have had huge populations one year to be followed by essentially no plants the following year. After a few off years, they may then reappear.

Neither of these lobelias is an obligate wetland species, and we have found them in our savannas from time to time.

The final species to be mentioned here is ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), which is also now in full flower. This species takes a little longer to get established and we don't have it yet in the Crane Prairie, although it is doing very well in the Barn and Valley Prairies (both wet prairies). The photo below was taken in the latter prairie. I'm not sure where its common name came from, but its flower color is distinctive. If you spot this color in the distance, even if hidden among many other species, you can almost be sure it is ironweed. Again, we have a native population of this species growing in one of our savannas.

One of the joys of Pleasant Valley Conservancy is that we have a complete range of prairie habitats, from the very wettest in our marsh to the very driest on the south-facing slope. It is not often that you can stand at a little blue stem patch and throw a baseball into a wetland (not that I would every try this trick!). In fact, we have quite a bit of this moisture gradient in the Crane Prairie itself. Beginning at the marsh edge (where you can guarantee you will get your feet wet even in the driest summer), you can walk less than 500 feet to the road cut below Pleasant Valley Road, which is dry as dust.


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