“During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom.”
These are Aldo Leopold’s opening words in his essay “Prairie birthday” from A Sand County Almanac.
Having arrived in Wisconsin without real previous exposure to what a sight a blooming prairie is, I definitely appreciated (and still do) the spectacle. Joining the land stewardship crew as a fellow, I was eager to get to know these plants up close and participate in an almost century-long phenology study started by Leopold himself.
I invite you to come along with me on a series of short walks in Leopold Country to marvel at some of the eye-catching prairie wildflowers and learn a bit about them, too. In this first walk, we’ll go back in time a few weeks to explore how the prairie looked in early spring – late April through May. Enjoy!
The first eye-catching flower to bloom this year (April 30th in our records) was the one and only prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) commonly known as “old man’s whiskers.” It’s a perennial of the rose family and native to North America. Its fruits, the dry seeds with 2-inch long feathery plumes, are actually what give the pinkish smoke to the prairie air and the name to the flower.
Like many plants, it’s not only pretty (and indispensable to the ecosystem) but it has medicinal properties, too. It is known, for example, that the Ojibwa made tea out of prairie smoke roots to treat coughs and sore chests. Externally, the concoction served as a body wash for aches and pains.
Come mid-May, (May 15th in our records) a new, gentler shade of red appears – this time in the shadier part of our ‘garden.’ A woodland species, the wild red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), is another perennial, but of the buttercup family. Its showy bell-like flowers earned it a nickname of “granny’s nightcap,” which I find amusing.
Fun fact: Both the English and Latin words in this flower’s name involve birds as inspiration. Columbine comes from the Latin term Columba, meaning dove; while the Latin Aquila means eagle. Apparently, the flower petals resemble an eagle’s claw, while the flowers as a whole look like a bunch of doves clustered together.
This is one of the hardiest plants in the prairie, in part due to the long root system, which makes it very drought resistant. The wild red columbine is also a source of food for other members of the prairie. Hummingbirds and other long-tongued creatures like butterflies come to it for its nectar, while finches and buntings will feast on its seeds. Native Americans had a use for this plant as well, albeit for romantic purposes. They would rub the crushed seeds in their hands to create a love charm.
Large-flowered penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) of the figwort family bloomed on May 25th for the first time this year. It’s another drought-tolerant perennial, thus often found in sandy or gravelly soils. Because of its bell-shaped flowers, it is commonly known as Canterbury bells, but other colloquial names include wild foxglove, pink, showy, or shell-leaf beardtongue. “Beardtongue” likely comes from its hairy stamen (located in the center of the flowers) that looks like a tongue.
I’ve almost always seen bumblebees around this plant – no doubt coming for its sweet nectar.
As for medicinal uses, Native Americans used its roots for treating toothaches.
Come May 29th, two more important flowers open up in our prairie – the spiderwort and the yarrow.
What’s in a name? A poultice of spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) leaves can be applied to stings and spider bites, thus a possible explanation of how this purple flower got its name. Other sources refer to the shape of its multiple flowers or clusters of blossoms and the dew reminding them of dew drops on a cobweb. The Latin name, however, honors John Tradescant the Elder. and his son of the same name, both famous English court gardeners of King Charles I. Tradescant the Elder was also a personal friend of John Smith (the same one from the Pocahontas story) who brought back American specimens for Tradescant’s collection.
Like most wildflowers, the spiderwort is pollinated by bumblebees and serves as a food source for some animals – deer, rabbits, and turtles. The juice of the plant though can be used as eye drops to relieve congestion. Interestingly, in Spanish, the flower is sometimes called “flor de Santa Lucia,” referencing Saint Lucia, the patron saint of eyesight. So many cultural and historical anecdotes for one wildflower!
Last but definitely not least is common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). The list of its colloquial names is long: nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, thousand-leaf and many more. Most of the common names refer to the wonderful abilities of its clusters of tiny white flowers (and the upper portions of its fern-like leaves) of stopping the flow of blood from wounds and being a natural antiseptic. Even the Latin name refers to the legend of Achilles that said he treated the wounds of his soldiers with nothing else but a yarrow’s tincture.
Even birds use it. Studies of the common starling confirmed that if put in a nest, yarrow inhibits the growth of parasites.
A word of caution, however, before proceeding to use yarrow here and there: it is a very good accumulator of nutrients from the soil. Its deep roots mine the soil for phosphorus, potassium, copper, and lead, too (where present), absorbing them all. Beware!
Thank you for your virtual company on this spring prairie walk, but for now, we’ll pause. Summer has definitely arrived and, according to Aldo Leopold, “In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day.” I invite you to go outside, to take a walk, and to look around you and see what’s blooming now. In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll find out whether we’ve noticed the same things. Stay tuned!
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