[The Prairie] seems to be a constant contradiction of itself. It is delicate, yet resilient; it appears to be simple, but closer inspection indicates that it is extremely complex; it may appear monotonous, but it is diverse and ever-changing throughout the seasons.
– James Stubbendieck
Here in the Midwest, especially northern Illinois, the summer’s excessive heat and humidity have wreaked havoc on my newly planted native plugs. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has described the 2012 climate patterns as a drought. Drought is very difficult to define, nevertheless, “[c]ommon to all types of drought is the fact that they originate from a deficiency of precipitation resulting from an unusual weather pattern” (Enloe). The NCDC uses the Palmer Drought Index for annual drought comparisons. The balance between moisture demand also known as temperature driven evapotranspiration and moisture supply in the form of precipitation are the variables used to measure the Palmer drought indices. Short term moisture conditions for the current month are recorded as the Palmer Z Index, while long term moisture conditions are portrayed with the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI) and Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). More specifically, the PHDI and PDSI represent the current month’s cumulative moisture conditions integrated over the last several months.
At the end of June, the NCDC reported that 55% of the United States was affected by “moderate to extreme drought” and 33% of these were experiencing “severe to extreme drought”. On of July 26th 2012, the NCDC reported that 63.9% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions based on the Palmer Drought Indices. At the time of this post, The NCDC has reported that 63.2% of the lower forty-eight states were still experiencing drought conditions despite the some much-welcomed precipitation deposited on much of the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio. Despite the recent wetter and cooler temperatures here in Illinois, the crops and my native plugs have been devastated by this summer’s heat and dry conditions. Nevertheless, blooming two to three weeks earlier than normal and experiencing a shortened bloom time, my established natives have continued to thrive.
Carolyn Harstad, author of Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest has noted that native plants, once established, are more likely to survive and thrive because they have adapted to a region’s climatic swings. The climatic adaptation of deep and extensive root systems by native plants has reduced their need for supplemental watering, fertilizing, and chemical maintenance. Artificial fertilization and herbicide use all contribute to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a force currently degrading our environment through the destruction of natural resources. Scientists have shown that environmental degradation results in climatic extremes or global warming. While some will say droughts and temperature extreme are all part of nature, one thing is for certain, prairies have the resiliency to rebound and diversify in harsh temperatures and hydrologic conditions. Chris Helzer, an ecologist, director for The Nature Conservancy, and blogger on The Prairie Ecologist has cited a fascinating article about the 1934 drought entitled, Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas by prairie biologist, J.E. Weaver detailing the drought response of prairie plants. After reading this paper, I believe the continued survival of my established native plants during the “Drought of 2012” supports both Weaver’s and Harstad’s observation that established native plants are equipped to withstand climatic stress.
Plugs newly planted in May on the steep, southern facing slope for the most part have all succumbed to the climatic extremes of the excessive temperature and dryness. While I am aware that new transplants require consistent watering and weeding during their first year of growth, the planting site’s topography coupled with the lack of rain, and the inability to access creek water were more than either the plants of I could manage. However, there is hope. Just like Dibol and Doverspike reported in their posts, “Drought of 2012″ and “Plant survival in harsh drought conditions” of Prairie Nursery’s blog The Native Plant Herald, my established creek side prairie garden has bloomed. The garden composed of Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Butterflyweed, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Yellow Coneflower, Rough Blazingstar, Ox Eyed Sunflower, Ironweed, Crooked Stem Aster and New England Aster seem unaffected by the drought and extreme temperature this summer and flowered magnificently. Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Switchgrass, and Sideoats Grama, all deep rooted grasses, planted among the forbs also look healthy and have begun to produce fruit. Fruit, sustenance for the the fauna has been produced in spite of the inhospitable weather conditions.
The essence of a gardener is hope and faith. The hope continues based on Helzer, Muller, and Weaver’s experience that established plants that have succumbed to a year’s climatic extremes re-emerge in the coming spring, stronger and healthier than ever. The butterflies sipping the nectar of the New England Aster remind me that they are symbolic of resurrection. The butterfly forms a cocoon, appears dead, only later to emerge more beautiful and stronger than before. Perhaps even the plugs will be reborn, too. Only time will tell. I have faith, it is supported by my hope that my native plant garden will recover from the Great Drought of 2012.
- How to get started with native plants (mnn.com)
- Lower Temperatures and Rain Won’t Be Enough to Ease US Drought – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Droughts Reshaping America….. (unbiasedtruth.net)
- 2012 Drought Inches Up In U.S. Historical Rankings (climatecentral.org)
- How droughts will reshape the United States – Washington Post (blog) (washingtonpost.com)
- Native plant adaptations provide drought, heat tolerance (caller.com)
- Bees are Buzzing Despite Drought Affecting Half the Country (gardenwalkgardentalk.com)
Dibol, Neil. “Drought of 2012.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces. Prairie Nursery. 11 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.
Doverspike, Sarie. “Plant Survival in harsh drought conditions.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces, Prairie Nursery. 9 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.
Enloe, Jesse. “Drought Termination and Amelioration.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. N.D. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.
“Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants.” Great Lakes, United States Environmental Protection Agency. 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 20. Jul. 2012.
Harstad, Carolyn. Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, In. 1999.
Helzer, Chris. “The Great Drought (Again).” The Prairie Ecologist. N.P. 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.
Mueller, Irene and Weaver, J. E. “Relative Drought Resistance of Seedlings of Dominant Prairie Grasses.” Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1942 Web.1 Sept. 2012.
Phillips, Jack. “Drought Spreads, Half of US Counties Now Disaster Areas.” The Epoch Times. 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Aug 2012.
Plume, Karl. “Drought eases in U.S. Midwest, worsens in northern Plains.” Reuters. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.
“Summer 2012 Drought Update.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 26 Jul. 2012. Web. 27 Jul. 2012.
Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas” Agronomy
Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.