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.

 

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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!

Resources

“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

Resources

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.

A Jump Start to Spring

Little Bluestem Seed

Sideoat Grama Seed

Purple Coneflower Seed

Winter here in northern Illinois has been unusually mild, resulting in a faster than normal beat to the rhythm of spring. Daffodils, one of the early indicators of spring, have begun to break through the soils surface. Gardening catalogs and Bluebirds announce spring’s arrival, too. Each of the previously mentioned occurrences suggest that the time has also come to start preparing some native plant seeds for germination!

In nature, spring’s rising soil temperatures and increased daylight wake dormant seeds from their winter slumber. When native forb, sedge and grass seeds are started indoors, unique stratification and germination requirements are required to break the seed’s dormancy. With a little research on each seed species, prior to planting, one can artificially break its dormancy and successfully grow most native plants from seed indoors. Species specific methods of stratification described by Prairie Moon Nursery in an earlier post entitled, “Lady Aster” is linked here for your convenience. However, some of the easier methods for breaking seed dormancy are described below:

DRY, COLD STRATIFICATION: (mimics volunteer seeding)

  • Store the seeds in an airtight container in a cold, dry refrigerator at a temperature of between 33-40 degrees Fahrenheit; and
  •  in response to warmer temperatures the sown seeds should begin to germinate.

COLD, MOIST STRATIFICATION (mimics over-wintering):

  • Combine equal parts sand and perlite or vermiculite and moisten the mixture with 1/2 part water;
  • add seeds to the mixture, place in a labeled, sealable polyethylene bag;
  • place the bag in the refrigerator (33-38 F) NOT the freezer for cold storage;
  •  3-18 weeks of cold storage time is needed to break dormancy, however, the time may vary from, depending on the species;
  • at the end of prescribed stratification period, sow the whole batch of seeds immediately into their final planting site or into individual planting containers 2/3 filled with a good quality potting mix;
  • lightly cover the stratified material with potting soil, pressing the top layer down to remove all the air space, and moisten the soil surface;
  • for potted plants, cover the container with plastic to promote germination; and
  • continue to water the seedlings as necessary until the plants have 2-3 true leaves. Once the true leaves are present, the seedlings are ready for transplantation.

HOT WATER TREATMENT (mimics passage through a stomach or heat from a fire):

  • In a non-aluminum pan bring un-softened water to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and let the water cool for 1-2 minutes;
  • place the seeds into a bowl and pour the hot water over the seeds;
  • allow the seeds to soak and come to room temperature for 24 hours; and
  • plant or cold, moist stratify the seeds if needed by the plant species.

SCARIFICATION (mimics passage through a stomach):

  • This stratification method is good for species that produce a berry or a pulp-covered seed. The objective is to abrade seed coats, a process that can be accomplished by rubbing the seeds between two sheets of medium grit sandpaper;
  •  seed that will be sown directly outdoors in the fall or winter should not be scarified in order to prevent premature germination and winter kill; and
  • plant or cold, moist stratify if needed.

These methods of stratification replicate the process native plant seeds undergo to break their dormancy. When mimicking nature’s stratification steps as closely as possible, gardeners are afforded the best possible germination rate for their native seeds. Now is the time to start your native plant garden by ordering seeds from a native plant nursery within 90 miles of your home or ecotype region and begin stratifying them for germination!

Resources

“Germination Instruction for Seeds,” prairiemoon.com. Prairie Moon Nursery, 2012 Web. Feb.18 2012.

Hansen, Jeff, “Growing Native Plants From Seed,” KansasNativePlant.com. Kansas Native Plants, 13 Sept. 2011 Web. 19 Feb. 2012.

Phillips, Harry R., Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers, An easy-to-use guide for all gardeners, The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Winter Habitats

Goldfinch Photo by Doug Greenberg on Flickr

We’ve had our first snow here in Northern Illinois. While many people love cold weather other dread it, nevertheless, we all us seek refuge from it in the warmth of our homes. Fauna are also forced to find places in their habitat to keep them protected from the weather. Prairie landscapes provide not only shelter but also food  and nesting sources for the winter creatures.

Once the feeders are empty, birds forage on their own to find food in their habitats. There are many native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs that provide nourishment for the birds with their fruits, berries, or seeds in the fall and winter months. Below is a brief list of some native flora and the food source the provide as well as the fauna that they feed.

 Common Plant Name

Food source

Nesting (N) or Shelter source (S) or (GS)

Attracted Fauna

Black-eyed Susan

Seed

American Goldfinches, chickadees, nut hatches, sparrows, towhees
Blazing star

Seed

Finches and sparrows
Prairie coreopsis

Seed

Goldenrod

Seed

Plant= insect (S)

finches, pine siskins, yellow-rumped warblers, indigo buntings
Joe-pye weed

Seed

Fluff=bird (N)

chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos
New England Aster

Seed

Leaves= bird (N)
Purple cone flowers

Seed

American Goldfinches, pine siskin
Wild columbine

Seed

sparrows
Wild Geranium

Seed

Mourning dove and bobwhites
Big blue stem

Seed

Plant

Plant=birds & waterfowl (S) Insects (S)

Plant = deer forage

Seed=Songbirds

Plant=Deer and small mammal

Little blue stem

Seed

Plant= birds (GS)

Songbirds, upland game birds, small mammals
Side oats grama

Seed

Plant

Plant=bird (S)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals

Plant=Deer

Switchgrass

Seed

Plant = bird & small mammal (GS N)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals
Buttonbush

Fruit

Seeds

Plant=Bird (N) Fruit=WaterfowlSeed=Insects, beaver, muskrat
Nannyberry

Fruit

Plant=Bird (N) Gray catbird, common flicker, American Robin, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing
For humans, prairie plantings add visual interest to the winter landscape. Even the smallest prairie gardens can make a difference in whether small creatures survive winter, whereas larger restorations support the wintering of a greater number of fauna. These plants and animals and chose this habitat as their home and we should try to save or restore it. As a bonus for our efforts, we get to enjoy their company, along with the diverse landscape in which they inhabit. So this spring, as you are planning your garden, plant with a purpose!

The Golden Late Bloomer

Prairie Coreopsis

What a treat, Prairie Coreopsis, aka Stiff Coreopsis, Coreopsis palmata Nutt., produced bright golden-yellow flowers right up until November despite the fact that its bloom time only extends until August. As the temperatures dipped, the uniquely shaped, oppositepalmately three-lobed leaves have begun to turn an orange-purple color. A prolific bloomer, this native forb kept on flowering even during the dog days of summer providing sustenance for bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Not only an entomological delicacy, this overachiever also provided a mammalian treat for the herbivorous rabbits, ground hogs, and deer.

The Prairie Coreopsis spreads via underground rhizomes forming a dense mat, which makes it excellent for stabilizing slopes. We have installed these plants on the upper shoreline zone of our restoration project. Not a finicky native plant, the preferred habitats of this forb include mesic to dry moisture conditions and soil types ranging from black soil prairies, sand prairies, gravelly hill prairies, thickets, rocky upland forests, to Black Oak savannas. Seems like this easy to grow plant could be incorporated into many native gardens across the United States. For more information regarding Prairie Coreopsis and its geographical distribution visit the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service web page.

Coreopsis at Nachusa Grasslands Preserve

Lady Aster

New England Aster in Bloom

Most of my seed collection is complete for the season. The New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae, a tall, vibrant purple, late blooming forb has provided it’s nectar as sustenance for the bees and migrating, monarch butterflies. Now in early November, the regal beauty is providing me with a bounty of seeds for harvesting. Usually, after collecting the seeds, I will set them aside to thoroughly dry before bagging them for storage until spring planting.

Spent New England Aster Achenes

Dried New England Achene Head

I plan to plant my homegrown New England Aster plugs in waves on the upper shoreline of Bull Creek. They will help to act as a buffer in our ongoing creek restoration project. This should be an optimum location for them to grow, given that they thrive in habitats that have full to part sun and wet to mesic soil conditions. The New England Aster is amenable to natural stratification, but given the fact that I plan to install them on an erosion prone slope, successful germination would be unlikely. Plugs are definitely the way to go in this situation. In very early spring, after subjecting the seeds to a moist stratification process, I will plant these easy to grow seeds in flats and install them in their intended location when they possess three or more leaves. More information regarding native New England Aster growing conditions as well as  statewide and county specific distribution can be found on the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service web page.  A table listing the stratification methods of choice for many plants native to Illinois can be found on the The Center for Biodiversity’s webpage.

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