A Year of Liberty Prairie Scenes

Liberty Prairie photo essay by my husband, Steve Cepa. The entire year is chronicled on the Bull Creek website including additional prairie or wild life photos.


The Scent of Rain

Rain on the prairie

Rain on the prairie (Photo credit: readerwalker)

“Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air and you.”
Langston Hughes

Unlike last year, we’ve had a lot of rain and flooding here in Northern, Illinois. Needless to say, it has been a wetter than normal spring. Some days one can smell the rain before it reaches and as it hits the dry earth. The distinctive scent of rain as it hits the land is referred to as petrichor.


Petrichor or the scent of rain has been identified by Isabel Joy Bear, R. G. Thomas, and Nancy Gerber as a combination of three fatty acids: palmitic, stearic, and oleic acid and the bicyclic alcohol, geosmin. Interestingly enough, the human nose is able to detect geosmin at very low concentrations. Could this be rain’s pheromone?

Much like the scent of a woman or man, the fragrance of rain can be a very exhilarating experience. Psychologist Pamela Dalton of the Monell Chemical Senses Center has shown that while humans don’t have innate responses to the smell of rain, we have learned to associate them with our experiences. Rain brings relief from the relentless summer heat, providing memories that associate rain with a cleansing and refreshing event says Dalton.

Meanwhile, Anthropologist DianaYoung says the aboriginal people link the smell of rain to the color green, a connection she calls “cultural synesthesia.” When one look at the language of other cultures, the etymology of the word green comes from the Middle English and Old English word grene, and like the German word grün, has the same root as the words grass and grow. Taken literally, rain makes the grass grow green.

While rain does make grass green, rain generally promotes both plant germination and growth. In fact, the three fatty acids identified as the compounds that make up the scent of rain, actually act as growth inhibitors on cress, mustard, and grass. It is believed that after long periods of dryness, these compounds inhibit seed germination unless there is sufficient rainfall to wash away the inhibitory acids.

That being said, there has been sufficient rain to wash away the petrichor in my prairie garden. Once the flooding had subsided, prairie plant volunteers along with invasive weeds have successfully germinated. My prairie garden is full of wonderful shades of green! And much to my relief, many of last spring’s seedling plugs survived the great drought of 2012.

Related articles


Bear, I.J.; R.G. Thomas (March 1964). “Nature of argillaceous odour”. Nature 201 (4923): 993–995. doi:10.1038/201993a0.

“Storm Scents: It’s True, You Can Smell Oncoming Summer Rain: Researchers have teased out the aromas associated with a rainstorm and deciphered the olfactory messages they convey”Scientific American. Retrieved July 20, 2012.

Bear, I.J.; R.G. Thomas (September 1965). “Petrichor and plant growth”. Nature 207 (5005): 1415–1416. doi:10.1038/2071415a0.

“Scent of Rain.” Chemical and Engineering News. 6 May 2013: 56.

April Showers


“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do, If bees are few.”
Emily Dickinson

Here in Northern Illinois, we have had a particularly cold and wet March. And now, twelve days into April, it seems as though the weather will never warm or dry up. I really should not even whisper a complaint about either the cold or the precipitation after coming off one of the hottest and driest summers in the past thirty years. This coveted moisture is part of spring. It turns the dormancy of winter into signs of spring green. As I write this post, the daffodils are rapidly breaking through the soil’s surface to the fanfare of croci’s petals of purple, gold and white. Slowly too, the native plants are awakening, as hints of green foliage begin to appear at their crowns. Spring is my favorite time of year. The temperatures are mild and the earth is fragrant. Life begins anew.

Now is a perfect time to plan and order plugs for spring prairie planting. Here in Northern Illinois, the soil will have sufficiently warmed and dried out enough for planting by mid-May. In the meantime, by day you can prepare the soil for planting by removing invasive plants and by night, design your prairie garden. As you plan, be sure to select plants that will create a complex and diverse plant community comprised of many different species of grasses and forbs. The theory behind establishing an ecologically sound and thriving prairie landscape was discussed in a previous post titled Restoration in Progress.

Native flora does not grow in isolation from the other organisms around them but are connected to the other living things in their habitat so it also important to select ecotype native plants or seeds. The importance of ecotype native plant selection was presented early in a post titled, Ecotype Native Plant Selection. Local ecotype plant materials originate in, and are native to, a 250 mile radius in one’s geographic region. Below you will find a list of upcoming native plants sale with ecotype plants from within the acceptable range for Northern Illinois prairies.

Citizens for Conservation 17th Annual Native Plant, Shrub & Tree Sale Saturday, May 4 • 9:00 am to 3:00 pm CFC Headquarters – 459 W. Highway 22, Lake Barrington, IL

Lake County Forest Preserve District 16th Annual Native Plant Sale Saturday, May 11 • 9:00 am to 3:00 pm Sunday, May 12 • 10:00 am to 3:00 pm Independence Grove Forest Preserve – 16400 W Buckley Road, Libertyville, IL

Lake Forest Open Lands Association Go Native Plant Sale Saturday, May 18 • 9:00 am to 4:00 pm Mellody Farm Nature Preserve – 350 North Waukegan Road, Lake Forest, IL

Conserve Lake County Native Plant Sale All Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays from May 17 to June 9 • 8:00 am to 3:00 pm Almond Marsh Forest Preserve – 32492 N. Almond Road, Grayslake, IL

If you are overwhelmed by the idea of designing a prairie garden, Prairie Nursery offers some beautiful, pre-planned prairie garden designs that fit every soil and sun condition. Whether you choose to plan your own prairie garden or use a pre-planned garden both the earth and the gardener will be transformed and renewed. Happy planning and planting.

Little Blue

File:4th Place - Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills (7469132472).jpg

Coyote in Little Bluestem in Red Hills
by Greg Kramos

“A child said, what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; how could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he. I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.”

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

NCDC USA Drought Map
by Richard Heim

Rain, rain, rain. We’ve had rain on several days the past few months but the Earth is still thirsty! The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) released September through December’s Palmer Z drought index numbers and 52% of the upper Midwest, Plains, and Western half of the United States are still experiencing drought conditions. Despite the lack of moisture this season, Little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, a native perennial bunchgrass, thrived.

A plant’s metabolism is partially responsible for its survival during extreme weather conditions. Perennial grasses can be classified as either C3 or C4 plants. Classification as a C3 or C4 plant is determined by the metabolic or biochemical pathway the plant uses to capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. While the C3 pathway is present in all grass species, the additional C4 pathway evolved in species adapting to very wet or dry habitats. 

The C3 and C4 metabolic pathways are very different from one another. Each pathway is associated with a plant’s growing requirements. Little bluestem is a warm season, sun-loving, short grass species with preference for mesic to dry growing conditions and a C4 metabolism. Much like the weather of 2012, extremely dry growing conditions were experienced during the Great Drought of the 1930s. In 1932, Weaver and Fitzpatrick noted that Schizachyrium scoparium was more drought tolerant than some other prairie grass species found in the plains of North America. More recently, Hake conducted physiological field studies confirming the species-specific drought tolerance of Little bluestem. 

Little bluestem

Little bluestem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Global climate change has brought about conditions of drought, high temperatures, and increased levels of nitrogen and carbon dioxide providing C4 plants, like Little bluestem, with a distinct advantage over those possessing the C3 metabolic pathway. In spite of its toughness, Little bluestem’s clumped foliage is delicate and beautiful. Slender, erect, blue-green stems or culms appear in August and reach 2-3 ft. tall by September. The alternate, 1/4 inch wide and 10 in. long leaves are located on the lower part of each culm. In late fall, the culms and leaves turn a rusty-red color and are topped with white tufts of shining seeds. 



The tufts of shining white seeds or spikelets form on 1 1/4 to 3 in. stalks or racemes the end of each culm. Several pairs of spikelets occur on opposite sides of the raceme’s central stem. Between the central stem of each spikelet, long white hairs are produced. Two pairs of spikelets are produced; a sessile, fertile spikelet and a sterile spikelet. The fertile spikelet is about 1/4 in. in length and the sterile spikelet is 1/8 in. in length. Each fertile spikelet produces a single elongated grain. The floret’s anthers are brown to reddish brown and the stigmas are pale purple in color. 

Below the ground, Little bluestem possesses a dense and fibrous root system. Reaching 5 to 8 ft. in depth, the predominantly vertical roots provide both erosion control and protection from drought. Little bluestem has a symbiotic relationship with the fungus, arbuscular mycorrhizae, which improves its supply of water and nutrients. In return, Little bluestem transfers 20% of its plant fixed carbon to the fungus. In light of its erosion control and drought tolerance characteristics, Little bluestem is often used in conjunction with other C4 grasses for prairie restorations and revegetation of abandoned cultivated lands. 

Little bluestem in winter

Little bluestem in winter

An adaptable grass, Little bluestem thrives a wide range of soils and tolerates  harsh growing conditions but prefers neutral to slightly basic sites with deep, shallow, sandy, fine-textured and rocky soils that are characteristically medium to dry, well-drained, and infertile. The plant thrives in full sun but will tolerate light shade. Little bluestem readily seeds itself. Caution should be exercised when planting it in small areas with ideal growing conditions since reseeding can result in Little bluestem becoming the dominate species in the garden. 

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type, have an effect on the geographical distribution of a grass. The Little bluestem range extends throughout all of the lower 48 states except Nevada and are most prominent in the Great Plains and open canopy of the eastern United States. More state specific plant locations can be found on the USDA’s Schizachyrium scoparium distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Little bluestem’s native habitats include hill, gravel, sand, loam, and clay prairies, scrubby barrens, rocky slopes of thinly wooded bluffs, sandy savannas, hilltop glades, dunes, gravel railroad right of ways, and abandoned fields. 

Little bluestem’s vast geographic distribution also plays an important role in various ecosystems throughout North America. It is the food source and/or cover for songbirds, upland game birds, ground birds, mammals, and insects. During the winter in Illinois, Little bluestem seeds are favored by the Field Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Slate-Colored Junco, and other small songbirds. Other Illinois avian inhabitants such as the Prairie Chicken, Sharp Tailed Grouse and the quail use the foliage of Little bluestem as nesting material or cover. The foliage of Little bluestem found in Illinois is quite palatable to bison, cattle, White Tailed Deer, and other mammalian herbivores. Ecologists have identified an invaluable relationship between the Little bluestem and insects. Insects are abundant in prairies, providing an ample food source for others higher up in the food chain, birds in particular. Little bluestem’s leaves are the food source for butterflies, skippers, grasshoppers, spittlebugs, leafhoppers, thrips, and beetles. In Illinois, the native grass provides nutrients for Atrytonopsis hiannaHesperia leonardusHesperia meteaHesperia ottoeHesperia sassacusNastra lherminierPolites origenes, numerous grasshopper species,  Prosapia ignipectusFlexamia delongiLaevicephalus unicoloratusIllinothrips rossi, and Aniostena nigrita.

Commonly found in prairies across North America, the ornamental, native bunchgrass, Little bluestem, plays an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species, it is also a drought resistant native grass, particularly suited for survival in our changing environment. Weather extremes are the new norm throughout the world. This phenomena seems to be born out in an unseasonably warm and dry year in Illinois. Our winter this year has also been warm and dry. In fact, the 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center recently stated that the recent year’s weather “…is consistent with what we would expect in a warming world.” Clearly environmental adaptations are necessary for ecosystems to remain sustainable in a warming world. This report will require all gardeners, even native gardeners, and prairie restorationists will need to adapt their plant selections to accommodate the climate change. I plan to do my part to help create a more sustainable landscape by planting a few more Little bluestems in my garden!

Related articles


Coucher, T., “Little Bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium.” Field Guides, eoL: Encyclopedia of Life Learning, Harvard Univerity. N.D. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Maricle, Brian R. and Adler, Peter B., “Effects on precipitation and photosynthesis and water potential in Andropogon gerardii and Schizachyrium scoparium in a southern mixed grass prairie.” Environmental and Experimental Botany. 16 Mar. 2011 Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Schizachyrium scoparium (Mich.) Nash.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. University Texas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Sep. 2012.

Hake, D. R. etal.,”Water stress of tallgrass prairie plants in central Oklahoma.” J Range Management, Mar. 1984. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Little Bluestem.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 10 Nov. 2012.

Steinberg, Peter D. ” Schizahyrium scoparium.” Fire Effects Information System, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2013.

” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“State of the Climate Drought Annual 2012.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

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.

Weaver, J. E. and Fitzpatrick, T. J., “Ecology and relative importance of the dominants of the tallgrass prairie.”  Botanical Gazette. 1 Apr. 1932 Web. 1 Oct. 2012.

“What are C3 and C4 native grass Species?” NSW Government, Department of Primary Industries: Agriculture.  N.D. Web 1 Nov. 2012 .

The Heat is On

Sea of Gold

[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

Dry Dry Dry

Dry Dry Dry Photo by Andreas

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.

Drought Map for July 2012
by Richard Heim

U.S. Drought Map for August 2012
By Brewer and Love-Brotak

Illinois Drought September 2012
by Brian Fuchs

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 CoreopsisButterflyweedPurple ConeflowerBlack-eyed SusanYellow ConeflowerRough BlazingstarOx Eyed Sunflower, IronweedCrooked Stem Aster and New England Aster seem unaffected by the drought and extreme temperature this summer and flowered magnificently. Little BluestemPrairie DropseedSwitchgrass, 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.

Creek Side Survivors

Pale Purple Coneflower

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.

Yellow Coneflower and Crooked Stem Aster

Related articles


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.

Bluejackets to Jello

Ohio Spiderwort Bloom

Bluejacket bud

Ohio Spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, also called Bluejacketis a beautiful native forb that produces one bloom each morning. These forbs bloom constantly and profusely from May through July. The flower of the forb is innately sensitive to the day’s rising temperature and each bloom shrivels, essentially dissolving, into a gelatinous fluid by midday. This sensitivity also allows the flora to act as an environmental indicator, responding to air quality and radiation. The spiderwort’s petals change color from blue to violet in reaction to air quality, with the degree of color change an indicator of the amount pollution in the air. As previously stated, this forb is also a sensitive to radiation, and has been used to detect very low radiation levels in its immediate environment. In response to radiation exposure, the forb’s blue stamens turn pink.

Tradescantia ohiensis

Tradescantia ohiensis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This species of spiderwort is a clump-forming, herbaceous native perennial that grows up to 3′ tall with dark bluish-green, arching, unbranched, leaves. Each 1.75 inch wide and 18 inch long vertically-channeled, alternate leaf appears as if it has been folded in half lengthwise as one of a possible eight nodes along a round, smooth or glabrous central stem. The .75 inch to 1.5 inch in diameter, three-petaled, blue flowers occur in a small cluster on the stems at the top of the plant. The forb flowers from late May into early July in the midwestern states and goes dormant in late summer. Each spent flower produces several, tri-sectioned seed capsules that when mature, split into 3 sections, to produce 3-6 oval, brown seeds per capsule. The forb’s root system is thick, fleshy, and fibrous, sending off occasional offshoots nearby making it ideally suited for propagation via root division.

An adaptable plant, Spiderworts tolerate a wide range of growing conditions but prefers moist to medium wet, well-drained, acidic, sandy soil in full sun to part shade. Their leaves respond to harsh weather conditions, competition from other plants, or age by developing brown blotches or becoming yellow in color. Caution should be exercised when planting the Spiderwort in areas with ideal growing conditions since they tend to self-seed and can become somewhat aggressive competition, forming colonies and crowding out other nearby natives. However, it must be noted that when planted in shady conditions, flower production may be less profuse.

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type have an effect on the geographical distribution of a plant. The Ohio Spiderwort is geographically distributed from Ontario south to eastern Texas and eastward to include populations in the midwest as well as northeastern and southeastern states. More statewide specific distribution can be found on the USDA’s Tradescantia ohiensis distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Ohio Spiderwort’s native habitat includes moist to mesic prairies, black and bur oak savannas, limestone glades, thickets and woodland margins, moist or riverside meadows, and roadside or railroad ditches. Widely scattered, these plants sometimes appear in sizable colonies in disturbed areas. In nature, the Spiderwort is a companion to Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass as well as Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Bee Balm, Golden Alexander and Pale Purple Coneflower.

Pollination is vital to the survival both the native flora and fauna of an ecosystem. Pollination ecologists have identified several invaluable relationships between the Ohio spiderwort and native fauna. Perhaps the most important relationship is between the forb and bees for they are the predominate pollinators of these flowers as well as most flowering plants. Bees, specifically the long-tongued bees, honey bees, bumblebees and Halictine bees feed on the Spiderwort’s nectar and in the process carry pollen from one Spiderwort flower to another flower of the same species, leading to successful pollination of the forb. Other fauna such as Karner blue butterfly, Syrphid flies, Leaf beetles, White-tailed deer, Cottontail rabbits, Box turtles, snails, and various species of birds use the Spiderworts as a food source, feeding on stray pollen, foliage, or seeds. The non-toxic foliage, particularly its flowers and stems, are added to salads and said to have a flavor similar to asparagus.

Commonly found in prairies, the beautiful Ohio Spiderworts play an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species it also acts as gauge in determining the health of a habitat. Plant a few spiderworts in your garden to help establish a sustainable landscape!


“Bumblebee Behavior.” Bumblebee. N.P. 1997. Web. 12 Jul.2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. N.D. University Teas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Jul. 2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Rafinesque.” Flora of North America. eFloras,  Missouri Botanical Garden & Harvard University Herbaria.  2008. Web. 7 Jul. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Definitions and Line Drawings of Botanical Terminology.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Flower-Visiting Insects of the Ohio Spiderowort.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web. 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Ohio Spiderwort.” Illinois Wildflowers. 2002 N.P. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Ichikawa, Sadao. “Somatic Mutatiion Rate in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs at Low Radiation Levels: Finding of Low Doubling Doses of Mutations”The Japanese Journal of Genetics . 47 (6) 1972: 411–421. Web.

Tenaglia, Dan. “Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Missouri Plants.  N.P. N.D. Web. 11 Jul. 2012.

Nature’s Origami

Nature’s Origami
photo untouched

One of the first spring flowers to bloom in my native plant garden are the intricately formed Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Also known as Eastern red columbine or Wild red columbine, this flower presents itself proudly as an elaborate assembly of yellow petals, stamens, and pistils surrounded by upturned, red petals and spurs. The five, outer, red petals extend backward to form tubular, nectar-filled spurs that collectively resemble an origami fortune-teller game or cluster of five doves perched around a fountain. In fact, the flower’s common name comes from the Latin word, columbinus, which means “dove-like.” The relatively large, one and a half inch long dove-like flowers, presented as individuals or in groups of 2 to 3, are supported by slender, round, green to reddish green, glabrous stems. Along its stems, past the basal leaves, the mature plant produces long petioles with alternate, ternately compound leaflets. Obovate in shape, the 3-inch long and 2 inch wide, glabrous leaflet is further divided into round-toothed, secondary lobes. This 1 to 3 foot tall, sparingly branched, native plant has short fibrous root system, and as a result, this hardy perennial is short-lived, lasting three to five years. However, all is not lost, since Columbine prodigiously regenerates itself by self-seeding!

Self-seeding Columbine

In Illinois, Columbine flowers from early May to mid June. Two weeks after the flowers have emerged they will go to seed. Once ripened, the seed dispersed by man or nature is easily propagated. Propagation occurs via wind-driven self-seeding or by a purposeful gardener who has collected and stored the fruit for later, fall planting. Hand sown seeds should be scattered on the soil’s surface and lightly tamped. Cold-moist stratification treatment is required for over-wintered seeds stored for spring planting. Summer seeds left to self-seed will germinate less profusely than those sown by hand and pressed into the soil. All seedlings, whether they were self-sown or scattered by man, usually flower the second year following germination.

A prolific progenitor, Columbine, specifically genus Aquilegia, made its way into North America via the Bering land bridge that connected the continents of Asia and North America during the Pleistocene period some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and rapidly spread throughout Alaska and the North American continent. As the columbines moved across the continent, new species evolved in response to their new environment and pollinators. These new Columbine species developed characteristics that were similar to their original features, yet different. The evolved columbines produced different shaped and colored flowers, as well as different positions for presenting their flowers, sepals, and spurs than their ancestors. Overtime, the Columbine’s genes changed. These new genes, responsible for both the initial evolution of nectar spurs and subsequent plant diversification, helped the plants physically adapt and respond to their new pollinators. The plant’s structure evolved to control which pollinators could facilitate its reproductive success. Pollination was accomplished only by insects or birds that possessed an appendage long enough to retrieve the nectar from the spur. Nectar retrieval resulted in an insect’s or bird’s body becoming pollen covered from the flower’s anthers positioned above the spurs. Pollen transferred from one Columbine plant to another plant occurred to complete the cross-pollination process. Today, in their current habitats, the Red columbine’s pollinators of choice are the Columbine Duskywing, Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Short-tongued halictid bees, and butterflies, as well as the Boer and Hawk moths.

Columbine’s Spurs

Eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is usually found in habitats with light shade to partial sun, moist to dry drainage conditions, and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. Once it becomes established, a mature plant can tolerate full sun as long as the air temperature does not exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocky open woodlands, wooded slopes, sandy savannas, sparsely wooded stream bluffs, shaded limestone cliffs, and glades, fens, bogs, logged woodland clearings, and thickets along railroad tracks are the preferred environment for Columbines. Current geographical distribution of Aquilegia canadensis is from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Other columbine species in this genus occur in the Western states. This flora is native to eastern and central North America, an endangered species in Florida, and the only species native to Illinois.

Each year, the origami shaped columbines herald in the coming of the spring wildflower season. Whether the Red columbine resemble a cluster of five peace-filled doves or an origami fortune-teller game, one thing is for certain, they represent nature’s ability to adapt. Moreover, change is something we hope can facilitate survival in a somewhat inhospitable world.

Intricacy of Evolution

Related articles


Anderson, J. “Aquilegia canadensis L.: red columbine.” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: Columbines Natural History.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: The Columbine Flower.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

Aquilegia canadensis L.” Native Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Wild Columbine.” Woodland Wildflowers of Illinois.  2004. Web. 12 Jun. 2012.

Kramer, Elena and Hodges, Scott A. “Dramatic Diversity of Columbine Flowers Explained By a Simple Change in Cell Shape.” Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Jun. 2012.

Massey, Jimmy R. and Murphy, James C. “Leaf Parts.” Vascular Plant Systematics. 1996. Web. 15 Jun. 2012.

Rook, E.S. “Aquilegia canadensis.” Flora, Fauna, Earth, and Sky: The Natural History of the Northwoods, 26 Feb. 2004. Web 11 Jun. 2012.

Black Energy: cultivar of life

Black Energy

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

Aldo Leopold

Most living things depend on the Earth’s skin, soil, for life. Soil is made up of native rocks (45%), organic material (5%), air (25%) and water (25%) but its essential components are clay minerals, humus, as well as plant and microbe metabolites. Plants rely on soil for mechanical and life support, a thermal buffer, a habitat that provides its essential symbiotic organisms, as well as a source of water, toxin neutralizer, and nutrient supply. Clay minerals along with small plant and microbe metabolite molecules provide most of the soil’s nutrients. These chemicals are vital for the conversion of sunlight into energy for plant metabolism, which is responsible for growth. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the three major plant nutrients. Soil nutrient levels are determined through soil testing.  Soil analysis will provide the levels of pH, N, K, and P in the soil, as described in a previous post, Tend the Soil .

Plants absorb nitrogen from the soil through their roots in the form of either nitrate ions or ammonium ions.  The absorbed nitrogen is used by the plants  for incorporation into amino acids, nucleic acids, and chlorophyll. Excess nitrogen, can result in rapid, lush growth and a diminished root system. Prairie plants depend on their extensive root system for survival so excess N levels should be avoided.

Many restoration ecologist have also found that fertilizers, specifically increased nitrogen, N, promote competitive invasive species growth in prairie restoration projects. Prairie plants do not need additional nitrogen so there is no need to fertilize them. However, plant growth can be improved with the use of inoculants (microorganisms) but seek the advice of your prairie seed supplier before adding these to your soil.

Soil particularly high in nitrogen can be amended by incorporating organic matter, like straw, into the soil. Cultivation of the organic matter into the soil will reduce the excess nitrogen available to weed and invasive plant seeds. It is however, important to make sure the organic matter is herbicide, grass, and weed seed free. Contact your local University Extension Service for more information on nitrogen reduction in soil.

Clay or humus rich soils act as chemical buffers for a wide variety substances present in the soil that might be responsible from an unfavorable pH. The soil’s buffering property can be either an asset or a detriment to soil depending on how much acid, alkali, pesticides, oil, water, and ions stored in its reservoirs.  Positively speaking, these buffers stabilize the soil against abrupt chemical or physical changes that may adversely affect a plant’s growth. However, the buffers can also store large amounts of undesirable substances, resulting in chemical alteration of the soil’s properties.  Remediation of chemically altered soil properties is a difficult and lengthy process requiring the addition of lime and sphagnum peat or organic mulch for acidic and basic soils, respectively.

Salts containing calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and potassium (K+), and sodium (Na+) cations are commonly found in soil. The earth’s crust is often the origin of these salts. However, salts also result when rocks weather and their dissolved ions have been carried away by water and deposited on the soil’s surface or accumulate in underground water. Fertilizers, organic amendments, and water runoff also add salts to the soil.

Soil salts dramatically affect soil structure, porosity, and plant-water relations. Decreased soil and plant productivity are a result of increased levels of soil salts. Specifically, seeds will fail to germinate or germinate slowly, and plant growth will be slow and stunted in high salinity soil. High salt concentration in soil will cause the plants to wilt and die, no matter how much they have been watered, because the plant- root salt ion concentration becomes unbalanced, interfering with its ability to effectively draw water from the soil.

Salt affected soils are commonly found in areas where evaporation exceeds precipitation and resulting dissolved salts accumulate, or in areas where runoff or vegetative changes have caused salts to leach and accumulate in low-lying places or areas with low water tables. Soil testing that includes a detailed salinity analysis is required to determine what type of salt build up, if any, is present in your soil. Contact your local University Extension Service for more soil testing information. In Illinois, contact one of the following soil testing labs for information regarding salinity testing capabilities, sample collection protocol and remediation recommendations.

With soil salinity results in hand, one will definitively know whether their soil is salt affected. If the soil analysis reveals a high buildup of salt concentration, the soil will fall into one of three salinic categories: saline, saline-sodic and sodic. The easiest soils to correct are the saline soils; sodic soils are more difficult. Accumulated salts can have adverse effects on soil function and one of the following means can accomplish management and soil remediation:

  • improving soil drainage;
  • leaching salts from the soil with excessive watering;
  • applying mulch to reduce evaporation rate of the soil’s water content;
  • chemical application to reduce the exchangeable sodium content in the soil; and
  • combination of these methods.

Phosphorus, P, the last of the three major plant nutrients to be addressed in this post is also found in soil and water, as well as all living things. This essential nutrient is required by plants and animals for proper energy utilization. Plants use dissolved orthophosphate from the soil. Usually, soil P levels are naturally low. Extreme P deficiencies, determined by soil testing, can be remediated with the addition of either inorganic phosphorus containing fertilizers available from treated rock phosphates or organic phosphorus sources found in animal manures. However, caution must be used when adding additional phosphorus to the soil because industrial and municipal point source discharge and agricultural and urban nonpoint source runoff of phosphorus has resulted in an explosion of competing, nonnative plant populations and algal blooms on nearby streams, lakes and rivers.

 All plants have the basic nutrient needs of nitrogen and phosphorus.  F. Stuart Chapin has found that the nutritional characteristics of wild or native plants are similar to those required by herbaceous crops from fertile habitats. The growth rates for both groups are relative to their nutrient supply. However, native plants respond to moderate nutrient stress through increased root absorption to compensate for the limiting nutrients as well as developing an increased root to shoot ratio, a decreased photosynthetic rate, and decreased reproductive output.

Chapin has found “…where light and water are not unduly limiting, extremely nutrient-deficient sites are dominated by slowly growing stress-tolerant species, nutrient-rich sites by rapidly growing competitive and ruderal species, and intermediate sites by a combination of the two and by plants with intermediate characteristics.”  Native plants have adapted to infertile soils, in fact, this environment is acceptable for these stress-tolerant species, whose slow growth rates are maintained by their low nutrient absorption. Native plant species have the ability to maximize soil nutrients by maintaining a large root biomass and symbiotic relationship with the fungus, mycorrhizae. The slow growth rate of the native plants enables them to maintain nutrient reserves, which helps them to survive periods of low nutrient availability. That being said, it is best to review your soil testing results with your local University Extension Service for soil remediation recommendations.

Soil Testing

Soil Samples

Soil testing results for several sample sites of our restoration project were as follows:

Sampling Area ID #

Date of Sample

Type of Plant Growth


Nitrogen (N)

Phosphorus (P)

Potassium (K)

Feel Test




dandelions, natives, buckthorn




very high

humus odor, fibrous but silky, sticks together when moist

loamy organic



dandelions, natives, buckthorn


very low

very low


floury texture when dry, clod forming




Bishop’s wort, natives, buckthorn




very high

dry, clod forming




Vinca, thistle, day lily




very high

dry, barely forms to clod when moist

sandy loam



Red osier dogwood, grass





smooth texture, forms ball when wet


Based on the testing results above, the soil of our restoration site was treated for low nitrogen. To amend the low nitrogen levels, native Purple prairie clover plants, that naturally add nitrogen to the soil, were planted in the restoration area. In addition to treating the low nitrogen content of the soil, the low phosphorous level was also addressed. A small amount of cow manure was added to each hole dug for a native plant plug in a sampling area of the restoration sight. Soil remediation is only recommended when soil testing results indicate an extreme nutrient deficiency that would jeopardize the root development of native plants. Before amending your soil consult your local University for remediation recommendations.

Buckholtz, Daryl D. and Brown, J.R. Potassium in Missouri Soils. University of Missouri Extension, Oct. 1993. Web. 14 May 2012.
Chapin III, F. Stuart. “The Mineral Nutrition of Wild Plants.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 11. (1980), pp. 233-260.
Carroll, Steven B. and Salt, Steven D. Ecology for Gardeners. Timber Press, Inc. Portland, Oregon. 2004.
 Everhart, Eldon.  “How to Change Your Soil’s pH.” Horticultural Home and Pest News. Iowa State University, University Extension. 6 Apr. 1994. Web. 1 May 2012.
 McCauley, Ann.  Jones, Clain. and Jacobsen, Jeff.  “Basic Soil Properties.” Soil and Water Management I, Montana State University Extension Services. 2005. Web. 2 May 2012.
Provin, Tony. and  Pitt, J. L. ” Managing Soil Salinity.” Texas A & M University System. AgriLife Extension. N. D. Web. 19 May 2012.
Sharpley, Andrew. Daniels, Mike. VanDevender, Karl. Slaton, Nathan. “Soil Phosphorus: Management and Recommendations.” University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.  University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services. N. D. Web. 19 May 2012.
Schulte, E.E. and Kelling K.A. “Soil and Applied Potassium.” Understanding Plant Nutrients. University of Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension. N. D.   Web. 18 May 2012.

Alien Alert

Garlic Mustard

We’ve had an insurgence of alien plants invade our creek side this spring. I have to attribute this new uprising of Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, to the unseasonably warm winter we’ve had here in Illinois. I imagine, that given that Garlic mustard appears on the noxious weed list for thirty-seven of the fifty states, I am not alone in my mission contain the beast.

It is important for one to know your enemy. Alien identification is critical to eradication!  Gardeners often confuse first year Garlic mustard plants with Wood Violets and the noxious weed, Creeping Charlie.

Wood Violet by Kylee Baumle

Mature garlic mustard surrounded by Creeping Charlie

Creeping Charlie

A description of the adult and yearling plant follows:





  • the adult, flowering plant has alternate, heart or triangular shaped, 1 to 3 inch wide, coarsely toothed leaves, and ranges in height from 12 to 48 inches;
  • it produces one or two stems with numerous white flowers that consist of four separate petals;
  • the petioles are longer on the leaves towards the base;
  • a distinctive onion or garlic odor is emitted from the plant when crushed. The olfactory characteristic of this plant helps to distinguish Garlic mustard from all other woodland mustard plants;
  • its taproot is white, slender and often bent in an S-shape near the top;
  • soon after flowering, 1 to 2.5 inches long seed capsules form, quickly lengthening and maturing to produce more than 100 black seeds per plant; and
  • first year plants have wrinkled kidney shaped, scalloped-edged leaves arranged in a cluster of 3 or 4 round, that form a rosette.

Triangular leaf and white flower


A complete plant profile is available on United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service  web page.

Garlic mustard has been found throughout the northeastern and Midwestern U.S. from Canada to South Carolina and west to Kansas, North Dakota, and as far as Colorado and Utah. Early settlers introduced the plant from Europe onto a new continent, North America, and specifically, the United States. Garlic mustard was brought to the New World because people believed it had medicinal properties. Some settlers even cooked with this cool-season, biennial herb.

Clearly, this alien has occupied our soils for a long time, giving rise to a particular stronghold in the shade of upland and floodplain forests, savannas, yards, and roadsides. Invasion has usually begun along the forest’s edge, with the troops progressing along streams and trails. Light, moisture, nutrients, soil, and space are monopolized by the aggressive Garlic mustard once it has taken hold in an area. Once established, Garlic mustard, a fierce competitor, releases its secret chemical weapon, glucosinolates, into the soil, preventing other, desirable, native woodland wildflowers and trees from flourishing. Aggressive spread of the plant has lead to domination of the forest floor and native herbaceous species displacement within ten years.

Native woodland flora’s survival and the wildlife that depend on them are threatened by garlic mustard invasion. Garlic mustard is spread in two ways: an advancing plant front and population expansion facilitated by animal, flowing water or inadvertent human seed  dispersion. Once dispersed, seeds remain viable for five years. In the Midwest, garlic mustard seeds germinate in early April. Vegetative plant growth begins early in the spring, and flowering from May through early June. Viable seeds are produced within days of initial flowering. Seeds begin to ripen in mid-July, and are disseminated throughout the month of August.

Description: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolat...

Description: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), seeds. The numbers on the scale are centimeters. Date: 2005-08-19 (ISO 8601) Author: Björn Appel, Username Warden Licence: GFDL, CC-BY-SA-2.5 or CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE (at your option) Related: Comment: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Understanding of the Garlic mustard’s life cycle is key to effective control strategies. Over time, warfare tactics may vary depending on the extent of the invasion. However, after the initial counter insurgence, eradication procedures must be applied for eight or more years to insure that garlic mustard seed bank has been depleted. Each spring, vulnerable areas such as woodlands should be monitored to ensure prompt detection of new invasions and help to prevent re-occurrence. A gardener’s arsenal against Garlic mustard includes:

  • hand pulling followed by bagging and burning or deep burial of the enemy;
  •  decapitation at a height of two to three inches above the soil’s surface before flowering. Follow-up monitoring is required to insure complete enemy elimination;
  • chemical warfare may be needed for instances of extensive infestation. Land-locked, enemy eradication can be accomplished with spring or fall application of a 1% or 2% glyphosate solution. Killzall (TM) and Aqua Master (TM) are safer chemical weapons for use near water; and
  • finally, controlled burns, may be used in the spring to kill the newly germinated seedlings. Permits and certification are usually required to conduct a burn. Contact your local fire control agency for permitting requirements prior to using this method.

Prairie restoration requires gardener’s to engage in warfare against invasive aliens such as Garlic mustard. The battle can be long and intensive, but territory reclamation is vital to the growth of the forest communities’ native plants and animals. Ethically speaking, this is a just war!

Related articles


Eberhardt, Laurie and Finger, Jonathan. “Mapping and Testing a Possible Control Method for Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Pierce Cedar Creek Institute,   Ecological Society of America presentation, Aug. 2007.

“Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Invasive Species, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 3 Sept. 2004. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Pyle, Charlotte. “Alliaria petiolata (M. Bieb.) Cavara & Grande garlic mustard.” Plants Profile, United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resource Conservation Services, USDA, Oct. 2002. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Glucosinolate.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.

Sun & Rise Over Run

May Apple: Sun - Full to Partial Shade, Soil Moisture-Dry to Medium

In the previous post, Tend the Soil , I focused on one of the three primary factors that affect plant growth in restoration projects, soil conditions. As previously noted, evaluation of all three factors is essential in the creation of a viable restoration plan; the other crucial influences on prairie plant growth are sunlight and site slope topography.

A critical factor to consider when selecting plants for a restoration area is the sunlight exposure. Six to 10 hours of sun a day are needed to sustain prairie plant growth. Some species require full sun to thrive whereas many woodland plants do best in the shade of a woodland tree canopy. Other native plants have the ability to grow in areas with a wide range of sunlight conditions.  According to the Prairie Nursery, sunlight conditions can be divided into four basic levels:

1) full sun: direct sun all day to at least one half day of full sun;
2) partial sun: direct sun for no more than one half day, shaded for at least one half day;
3) partial shade: little or no direct sun, with diffuse light from the edges or through a canopy of tree leaves creates partial shade conditions; and

4) full shade: no direct or diffuse light reaches the ground. A dense canopy of trees completely shades the forest floor. The forest also minimizes wind speeds, protecting woodland plants from excessive drying or physical damage from high winds. The shade of sugar maples, beech, basswood, and dense conifers typify full shade conditions. (Diboll 5)

Ox Eyed Sunflower: Sun- Full, Soil Moisture -Dry, Medium, or Moist

Prairie plant species that have adapted to conditions of high light intensities, heat, wind, and even hail grow in full sun. Native plants that have adapted to growing conditions with low light intensity, but require protection from temperature changes, high winds, and hail thrive in full shade. Plants that prefer the intermediate sunlight conditions between full sun and full shade or partial sun can often tolerate full sun growing conditions in a garden situation that provides some shade or protection for part of the day. Sun-loving plants on the other hand, do not thrive without sufficient sunlight, and therefore, cannot be planted in shady areas. Similarly, shade loving plants only grow in tree canopy protected areas and usually cannot tolerate full sun. Shady prairie areas should be planted with native savanna or woodland species. Both Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery offer seed mixes and pre-designed gardens to fit a site’s sun and soil conditions.

Sunlight intensity and soil drainage are also affected by the land’s slope and aspect. Slope refers to the steepness of the land’s surface and aspect refers to the geographical direction the slope faces. No matter what soil type, hilltops and steep slopes tend to be drier than depressions and valleys. In general, slopes increase the rate of the soil’s water drainage affecting the overall soil moisture available to the vegetation.

It is important to note, the greater the slope, the faster the soil drainage, which results in drier the soil. South and west facing slopes will be hotter and drier due to exposure to direct sun and winds in spring and fall for at least part of the day. East facing slopes will generally have more moderate soil conditions, receiving only the cooler morning sun. Cooler and wetter conditions are seen on north facing slopes because they receive direct sun for only a short period of time in mid-summer.

Four unique groups of prairie plants have been created based upon the hydrology or soil moisture level in which the natives grow best: Dry, Medium, Moist, and Wet. These are defined below:

  • dry soils are soils extremely well-drained sandy or rocky in nature and do not hold water and tend to dry out rapidly;
  • medium soils are well drained, loamy and clay-based soils that do not experience standing water;
  • moist soils tend to be damp and may have standing water for a few days in spring or fall. However, the  soil’s surface usually dries out by late spring or early summer, while the subsoil remains moist; and
  • wet soils are damp almost all year round, even in mid-summer. Spring usually brings flooding to wet soils, with standing water remaining  for a week or longer in early spring, but for only a few days in the summer.

A list of prairie and savanna flora associated with soil moisture gradient in the adjacent diagram can be found in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Technical Bulletin number cited below or here. Prairie Nursery also has assembled a list of plant species categorized by soil moisture requirements.

To determine the hydrology and moisture level of the soil, observe site and determine whether the natural state is dry, medium, or wet in nature. Observe the area after rainfall and note whether the site forms puddles, retains water, or  water drains quickly. Decide whether the site in a low-lying area or upland. Make note of any river, lake, or spring is located on the site and its proximity to your restoration site. Compare the sites characteristics to the moisture levels given above to determine the site’s moisture level. Performing a percolation test is an alternative to the previously suggested subjective, soil moisture evaluation.” Water drainage should be one-quarter inch per hour or faster for dry or mesic prairie plants to do well. Plant wet prairie species if your soil drains slower than that. If you have areas that are consistently wet, plan to plant wetland species in that area.” Finally, species moisture requirements differs greatly between dry prairie, mesic prairie, wet prairie, and wetland habitats; select species that will thrive on your site.

In these two consecutive posts, we’ve learned that three main factors determine the growing conditions for a plant; they are 1) soil, 2) sun, and 3) slope aspect. Soil, sun, and slope of the site must be evaluated when selecting plants, since all three of these essential factors determine whether plants will flourish in a certain location. Once a site’s growing conditions have been determined, site specific plants can be selected to match the site.

Related articles


Cochrane, Theodore and  Iltis, Hugh. Soil moisture gradient and the effect on species composition. Atlas of the Wisconsin Prairie and Savanna Flora, WDNR Technical Bulletin No. 191, 2000. Web. 15 Apr 2012.

Diboll, Neil. “Designing and Planting Your Prairie Garden.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., N.D. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Diaboll, Neil. “Step By Step Site Analysis Procedures for Developing a Native Landscape Plan.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 24 Mar 2012.

Kilde, Rebecca. “Going Native: a prairie restoration handbook for Minnesota land owners.” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Section of Ecological services Scientific and Natural areas Program, 2000. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

“An introduction to using native plants in restoration projects.” National Park Service, N.D. Web. 14 Apr. 2012.

Smiley, Thomas E. and Martin, Thomas R. Soil Drainage Analysis and Treatment Considerations. Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories Technical Report. N.P. N.D. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

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