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The Aldo Leopold Foundation will be closed to the public for a private event on Saturday, September 30.


A Summer Prairie Walk

Welcome back to the ‘prairie walk’ series! In case you missed it, we took a virtual walk through Leopold Country this spring to share some of the eye-catching wildflowers. Now, with summer in full swing, we’ll take a look at the most prominent wildflowers that have graced the prairie throughout June and early July.

On June 8th, the pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), a native herbaceous perennial of the daisy family, had stretched skyward with its delicate blooms. It often grows up to two to four feet tall and is easily identified by its colorful (usually pink or red) daisy-like flowers with raised, cone-like centers. The individual flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning it has both male and female reproductive parts and it can pollinate itself, but often butterflies and bees visit this attractive blossom and assist.

Pale purple coneflower with monarch

Pale purple coneflower. (All photos in this post were taken by the author, Associate Fellow Tanya Iretskaya, near the Leopold Center in Baraboo, WI.)

The Latin name refers to the shape of the ‘spiky’ flower center (involucral bracts), and translated from Greek it means “spiny one” or “hedgehog.” Pallida refers to the pale shade of its pink-purple color.

Echinacea has been widely used in herbal medicine. Its roots have a salty taste and are known to have helped the pioneers in reducing thirst when water was scarce. Today it is commonly found and used as a supplement to prevent the common cold and boost the immune system.

By mid-June (the 19th in our records) the prairie was colored in yellow and orange – courtesy of the blooming butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). This beautiful and very bright native wildflower with umbels, made of eight to 25 small flowers each, radiating out from a single stalk, is a member of the milkweed family. The genus name honors Asclepius, a mythological Greek god, patron saint of the medicine, and the ‘tuberosa’ refers to the plants’ tuberous roots. Many Native American tribes used various parts of the plant as food, while its thick and bitter-tasting roots are known to have been used for various medicinal purposes, including the treatment of pleurisy.

Butterfly weed

Butterfly weed.

The plant is very colorful and produces copious amounts of nectar, attracting many species of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. However, it is widely famous for being an important nectar source for Monarch butterflies (currently an endangered species); and, even more, for being the larval food plant of their developing caterpillars (which can often be seen feeding on the butterfly weed’s leaves).

In the last week of June (the 25th in our records) purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) started blooming, showcasing its cylindrical-shaped floral spikes of about 2 inches long. An interesting fact about it is that in addition to being beautiful, it is extremely useful to the land, the soil, animals, and humans.

Like other legumes, bacteria on the roots of the purple prairie clover enable the fixing of nitrogen in the soil, thus greatly enriching it. Additionally, its deep taproot makes it very resistant to heat, drought, and fires all the while contributing to erosion control. In brief, this plant is a big player in prairie restoration and the rehabilitation of disturbed areas.

Purple praire clover

Purple prairie clover.

An edible plant,  it’s actually quite palatable and nutritious with both domestic livestock and wild herbivores feasting on it readily, often to the point of overgrazing and overusing the plant resources. The Pawnee people used its dried stems as brooms and brushes, and consequently, one of its common names is the “red tassel flower”.

Compass plant

Compass plant.

Seen from afar, towering above the rest, the compass plant’s (Silphium laciniatum) yellow flowers start appearing in the second half of June (first seen in our prairie on the 25th this year). These images reflect the earlier stage of development as mature plants produce up to 12 stems and have six to 20 or more of these composite flowers, whose blooms last several weeks. The plant is extraordinary below the ground as well. Its central taproot can grow up to 15 feet. Compass plants can live up to 100 years and, being a Silphium, they, thanks to Aldo Leopold’s July chapter of A Sand County Almanac, are an emblem of the lost prairies.

Its common name is derived from the unusual vertical orientation of its adult leaves and the belief that they indicate the cardinal directions, with the tips of the leaves pointing north or south and the upper and lower surfaces of the blades facing east and west. It is said that the early settlers would make their way in the dark by feeling the leaves.

While not considered an edible, several Native American tribes used the plant’s resin as a chewing gum, hence the colloquial name:  gum weed. However, the plant is reported to be palatable and enjoyable by livestock, especially in its juvenile stage. And, of course, it is favored by prairie song birds, but not as a source of food, but rather a sturdy perch from which to hunt grassland insects.

Another native perennial, the lavender-colored wild bergamot, also commonly known as bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) started blooming at the beginning of July (the 3rd to be exact), and it seems to have been omnipresent ever since. You’ll see from the photo that not only do bees love the plant, hummingbirds and butterflies (a fritillary in this case) use it as a food source, too.


Wild bergamot.

A member of the mint family, its leaves have a minty smell, and indeed many people would associate bergamot with tea. However, it is different from the “Earl Grey” variety, which uses orange bergamot, a separate hybrid plant with origins in the Mediterranean and South-East Asia. Interestingly, it was bee balm tea that American colonists drank as a substitute during their boycott of the English tea.

Many Native Americans (including the Ho-Chunk and the Blackfoot) had uses for wild bergamot as well, be it to treat colds (in the form of tea), infections, or minor wounds (as a poultice).

And that brings our summer prairie walk to an end – for now. Let’s get together again in a few weeks to explore the late summer and early fall blooms. In the meantime, go out and enjoy the nice warm days, the prairie smells, and the bounty of its different colors!

Want to read Tanya’s last entry in this series? Or, did you miss her blog on spring wildflowers?