A Prairie Ramble

July 26, 2018  

It was mostly sunny with a few white, downy cumulus clouds skidding across the azure sky. Temperatures  in the eighties instead of the nineties, some relief from the extreme heat, and the humidity had gone down considerably. We had agreed on our last outing, way back in May, that we should get out in the evening instead of the morning. From Highway 84, Larry turned onto Pritchard’s road. We didn’t travel far down that gravel road before he pulled off to the side and parked the truck beside a line of trees, and a rolling prairie on the opposite side of the road. We were parked across from a moderate hill; twenty, thirty feet tall perhaps, I’m not the best at estimating distances. Larry let Hank out of the pickup. Camera ready, hung around my neck, I stepped out, went around the front to the other side. We began our walk at 6:38 pm, crossing the road, heading for the hill. This was prairie I had not traversed before. I was thrilled to be exploring it.  

Though prairie, this area was becoming woody, lots of little oak trees are starting to colonize it. We rustled through the grass, beginning our climb. Lead plants immediately caught my attention: thick, silvery green stem, compound leaves, the head fuzzy, tight cluster of  flowers. Larry continued to walk while I paused to photograph the lead plant. I only walked a few feet more, when I again stopped, this time for dotted mint. A fascinating looking plant – the flowers it flaunts are in fact leaf bracts that surround the true flower. The leaf bracts are white, shaped almost like daisy petals. A couple of them are stuck on a sturdy stem. Dotted mint is a feast for the eyes. They have character, a look of spunk and individuality, and smell deliciously, of course, like mint but the scent is far more wild than peppermint or spearmint. Pollinators also love this plant. A cluster of individual plants grew together in a patch among grasses and sedges. Larry and Hank were far ahead of me now. Not wanting to lose sight of them, I continued onward. Up, up the steep hill, through plants up to my thighs, past lead plants beginning to bloom; little tiny, purple flowers in tight clusters. It was challenging to focus the camera on the bobbing flower heads so I took a couple of shots. I had reached the top of the knoll and paused to look out. Dotted mint plants were sprinkled liberally in the valley between the dunes, up the slope and on top of a few others. These dunes were quite woody – cedar, oak, chokecherry, and some other short, shrubby plants. Many other prairie plants grew alongside the dotted mint I didn’t know and certainly couldn’t name other than milkweed. I moseyed down the dune to Larry.  

“No, we’re not supposed to pick on the SNA [Scientific Natural Area], but we’re trying to kill these things,” he explained while picking fruit off a small tree. I laughed. Larry encouraged, “wander around, take pictures.” Standing near him plucking berries, I began photographing. “Dotted mint is pretty, isn’t it?” He asked.  

“Oh yeah, I’ve never seen it in bloom like this. I’ve always only been here in September when it’s done.” 

“Mmhmm, it’s great.” 

“Oh, so amazing! I love it!” I took several photos of the dotted mint and evening primrose,a tall plant with yellow flowers coming out of tubes. Larry continued to harvest the black ball shaped fruit, placing them into a plastic jug slung over his shoulder with a string.  

“What are they?” 

“Chokecherries. They’re gorgeous.”  

“Yeah.” I snapped a couple photos. “What’s that red berry over there?” 

“Oh yeah, that’s honeysuckle. Nonnative honeysuckle.” 

“Oh.” Hank whimpered. I walked over to the honeysuckle. “I’m not throwing your stick.” We continued onward. A big bluestem plant was about up to my waist. It was thrilling to see such tall grass, a remnant of the days of massive bison herds roaming free across the prairies. I scrambled to catch up to Larry. Grass rustled against my feet and clothes. I halted, again, at a dotted mint; an ant crawled around on a leaf bract. Engrossed, I observed it for a moment. The dotted mint enthralled me. Another evening primrose caught my attention, its yellow blossom a drop of sunlight. Next, a beautiful thimbleweed plant not yet flowering snagged my gaze and admiration. Sedges and grasses mingled. Then I beheld a plant that had fruit bodies looking like apples – looking it up later, I learned it was a rose hip. I weaved my way through thick vegetation, some taller than my waist. Other areas are so dense it’d be a tangled mass to walk through. I paused to photograph bee balm, also known as bergamot. I love their eccentric blossoms, erupting from the head of the plant. Wild grapes spread their vines up and across other plants. I shuffled along for a few more steps before stopping to photograph a yellow flower, partridge pea plant – dancing in the breeze so much, I had to try holding it in place. Hank passed by me. I continued walking, trailing Larry. We ambled up and down dunes – different from over by the windmill, not as tall but thicker vegetation. I came up behind Larry, we paused while he explained what we were seeing, “aspect…more moist, accumulates, it’s steep, in view of the sun. Starts to develop woody vegetation. Just tend to see more wood in those kinds of settings. Once we get the wood it’s tough to get rid of. Get some fire in here a bit more often.”

We brushed past milkweed plants,  threading our way through the vegetation. I stayed closer to Larry, until I once again became distracted by goldenrod and a dragonfly down on a blade of grass. It was not a darner, too small, most likely a common skimmer; iridescent blue abdomen, black/dark blue head and thorax, gorgeous wings – black and blue paint splotches, lined. A train rumbled in the distance. We trudged up and down, pushing past plants. A few steps further, I halted to photograph a bush-like plant, no flowers. The path onward was narrow. I tried to photograph the landscape interspersed with milkweed, dotted mint, grass, sedge, and a few trees. Cloud cover increased. Larry identified the plant but I couldn’t hear him.  

I walked closer to him, “What kind of cherries?” 

“Sand cherries.”  

“Oh, sand cherries.” It was a low lying bush, woody stem, leaves oblong. I continued walking for a few feet then stopped to photograph more partridge pea plants, they weren’t moving in the wind as much. Their golden blossoms are quite lovely. I looked into the blossom. Yellow heads brightening the prairie. We pressed onward, talking about an author Larry had been reading, and paused to take in the scenery – prairie, plants, green, encroaching trees, and oodles of dotted mint. A train whistle echoed across the prairie. I scrutinized the dotted mint up close, observed an aster of some sort, not yet blooming. Hank panted by our side. We continued walking a few feet, before I paused to photograph a flowering spurge, its white flower has several blossoms to a stem.  

Strolling a few feet more, I exlaimed,“Oh, that’s pretty,” wild bergamot, purple flowers – so much character, crazy hairstyle; and dotted mint, grasses, and milkweed. Further onward, waning sun striking dotted mint perfectly, nearby, grew horsetail. And a little beyond that, a larger cluster of bee balm, bergamot and an incredibly dense patch of dotted mint. They marched up the slopes. Some stiff sunflowers not yet blooming. I sauntered onward for a couple of minutes between photos. We came upon a more woody area with bigger trees. Birds sang far above us. I took in the dotted mint up close, glowing in the pre-dusk sun. The golden hour had arrived. We continued strolling, chatting all the while. Larry pointed out a blazing star, a woody plant with little rose-like flowers. I stopped to photograph it. We hiked on for several more minutes.  

Larry halted to pick more chokecherries. Cottonweed stood with dotted mint and lead plant, around a patch of bare sand. Cloud cover was increasing. We pressed onward, enjoying the prairie trek. After five minutes of walking, I paused to photograph the landscape again, grasses and sedges, some bushes, but blooming flowers were absent in this section. A windmill perched on top of the hill; I could hear it turning in the wind, creaking. Was it the same windmill we parked near on our other walk? – I should have asked. We’d stopped for Larry to pick more chokecherries. While he picked, “Woa, lots of ants. Very defensive.” He laughed, picking for a couple of minutes more.  

“I see them. What kind of ants are those?”  

“I don’t know but they don’t like me picking.” 

“I’m not sure I’ve seen ants that color.” They were black with very dark red heads and large for ants.  

“Ouaza.”  

“They’re good sized too.” 

“Ouch. I’m going to quit messing with them.” He gave up and we continued walking, chatting about nothing important, wading through the prairie plants. I was getting a little sweaty, and itchy from mosquito bites. I paused at another engaging flower – a tower of white flowers that looked somewhat like white orchids, most likely teucrium canadense. Small, though still taller than me, bushy trees dotted the prairie in this area, rising up out of interesting looking grasses or were they sedges? A tall goldenrod plant. The prairie was getting quite thick, crowded by forbes rather than grass, the path narrowed again. We passed by another evening primrose. “So is this what you want to see?” I asked. 

“No. Prefer to see more of the grasses. But on these rich sites, you’re just going to tend to see that [referring to the thick forbes]. Come off the sand on the silts. But it’s fine. We would like to relieve some of the tree pressure…” 

“Yeah. Is this goldenrod desirable?” 

“Some of it. The native plants.” 

It was very thick here. Hardly any grasses. I found little bluestem, and blue bell shaped flowers. 

“This is hazelnut?” I walked a few steps, “And this is cherry?” 

Larry walked back to me, “Aha, no, that’s a green ash. I’m sorry, that is a black cherry. You’re right.” 

“OK.” All of a sudden the forbes eased up a little allowing more grasses through. Milkweed, bee balm, some kind of mint, and something else were abundant. I kept walking. Felt like we were swimming through the prairie plants.  I paused to photograph some sedges; walked a little further and stopped to photograph beautiful orange flowers, butterfly weed. Large cluster of partridge pea plants with a few dotted mint plants. Sunflowers without petals, milkweed, and grasses and or sedges joined the mix. Several stiff sunflowers, what an unimaginative name. Larry stopped to pick more chokecherries, “Really pretty cluster. Can you get a good photo?” 

“I’ll try but it’s going to be backlit.” I couldn’t get close enough to the cluster from another angle. The walk was drawing to an end. We’d gone up and down, up and down many times and weaved our way around wooded areas, making some sort of loop through the prairie. Back down hill one more time. A fantastic, lone tree caught my attention. “That is a really awesome looking tree!” Then I asked, “So they just quit farming this?” 

“Yeah.” Black eyed Susan grew alongside the road. We had to walk down the road a bit to get back to the truck. The last stretch along the road seemed incredibly long, though it was about five minutes or a little less.  

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