A Thousand Suns

The last time I hiked the several miles from Iron Bridge Trailhead to South Patrol Road Prairie was back in early March. It was a little cooler then. My guess is because the landscape lacked the thousand suns that rise up out of the prairie every summer.

Back in March, Midewin was a lifeless, barren brown.

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Today, the second-year Iron Bridge Prairie is ablaze with color.

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Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

In the miles between these two (of several) prairie restorations at Midewin, there remain vast swaths of pasture grasses and a bumper crop of non-native Queen Anne’s lace. Until such areas may be re-born as prairie, they are managed as vital grassland bird habitat.

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Because Midewin is so big and resources not unlimited, some areas are less well managed at the moment. But even these are instructive. The dense tangle of invasive plants, trees and shrubs is a living argument against “letting nature take its course.”

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A little further on lies South Patrol Road Prairie. About a decade old, it is  the living counter-argument for recovering the health of our native plant communities. Back in March, a bunch of volunteers hand-broadcast native wetland seed throughout the low-lying areas in the prairie.

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Later that month, the Forest Service broadcast additional native seed throughout the upland areas.

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Today, these kinds of on-going management activities make for increasingly perfect pictures of ecological health.

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Cup plant earns its name from its leaves, which capture dew and rainwater. But it’s the dozen suns atop 10-foot stalks that most capture my imagination.

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Prairie dock might well have been called elephant ears for the large, leathery leaves at the base of the plant. But rivaling cup plants in height, this prairie dock specimen boasts several planet-like buds surrounding its own flowering sun.

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Both prairie dock and cup plant, however, look up to compass plant, which can top out at 12 feet tall.

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Other joys in the summer prairie universe include the dangling, multi-hued flowers of big bluestem.

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And prairie blazing star rising, rocket-like, from a  cosmos of yellow coneflowers.

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So, whether it’s all the blossoming suns or that other sun that makes for such a hot, sweaty walk, I don’t much care. A few months ago, I was freezing my butt off out here sowing wet prairie seed. And too soon, all the prairie suns will fade and die back to the earth. And all the birds and butterflies will leave us.

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And I’ll miss the all the color and heat of this fleeting summer season.

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Prairie Skyscrapers

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This morning, I helped plant 3,000 prairie plant plugs, courtesy of a grant from the US Forest Foundation. Each plant plug stood no more than six inches high. It often takes plants a few years to reach their full height, because much of their initial energy goes into developing their extensive root systems, which can reach depths of 15 feet.

Just across the road where we’re planting plugs lies South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration area at Midewin. Among the nearly 200 native prairie species now flourishing there are some of the skyscraper species that put the “tall” in the “tallgrass prairie.” For a taste…

Here are rattlesnake master and compass plant seedlings.

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Here is rattlesnake master full grown. I can look its clusters of prickly flowers right in the eye.

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Here’scompass plant, its rays of yellow blossoms like little suns atop a stalk rising to a height of 12 feet.

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Common milkweed is not among the tallest prairie plants, but from the right angle it looks as if it may have been designed by the architect of modernist, mid-rise skyscrapers.

Yellow coneflowers rise to a height of only four feet, but who can resist their petals fluttering in the summer wind like Native American prayer ties.

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