Since May, the seasonal crew has been working hard at killing and removing invasive plants from the prairie including white and yellow sweet clover, birdsfoot trefoil, king devil, bouncing bet, and reed canary grass. We started the year walking transects back and forth through the prairie plantings like a militant marching band, carefully spot-spraying each invasive species with a selective herbicide from backpack sprayers.
Eventually, the herbicide can no longer kill the targeted plants before they produce seed. Then we switch to hand pulling each plant and carrying them out of the prairie in barrels. This prevents the invasive seed from falling back into the soil, causing problems for future crews.
Once the plantings have been swept relatively clean, we slowly drive the trails in small groups, “weed cruising” for the few weeds that were missed during our regular, methodical sweeps. By August, the weed season on the prairie has ended. While it requires painstaking effort to manage hundreds of acres, our methods are working. The invasive populations that once riddled many of our older plantings have been greatly reduced.
Seed collecting, an important aspect of restoration, takes place throughout the year. This provides a species-rich, diverse ecosystem. Species diversity encourages a more stable food source for creatures such as insects, bugs, and birds.
Last year, the crew’s goal was to plant 103 acres of prairie, Nachusa’s largest planting to date. This year, our goal is to plant 83 acres of diverse habitat ranging from a woodland/savannah border to prairie to more mesic and wetland habitat. However, that doesn’t mean the crew is collecting in small quantities. Thus far we have broken the record for the amount of seed collected in a given year for 17 species!
To manage these large, high quality plantings, many days involve a grueling grind of trekking through dense vegetation in the blazing sun and humidity, our socks and pants soaked from the morning dew. For breaks, the crew take refuge at headquarters or in the airconditioned bunkhouse basement. Popsicles, sunflower seeds, and other salty snacks fuel us between meals. This year we were lucky enough to have some dedicated volunteers regularly joining the crew, giving our efforts a huge boost!
The expertise of the stewards’ immaculate plantings have fueled our motivation and their expertise exemplifies the knowledge the crew strive to attain. The stewards have been a huge help with plant identification and recommendations of seed species to collect, and they have fantastic seed sources.
In return, when the stewards have called for help, the crew has acted as reinforcements in the attack against weeds.
The crew also found time to work on side projects which promote better efficiency. We built two 3’ tall, 4’x20’ raised beds for prairie violets and other small species that are hard to collect in large quantities. The hope is that weed management in these beds will be easier than a ground weed mat. It also affords the plants protection from predating ground squirrels. Also, we have begun converting a shed into a seed milling shed, providing future crews more space in which to collect more seed, dry it more quickly, and mill it faster.
Phil and Kaleb have returned to NIU as full-time students, and Sandra became a part-timer; therefore we have brought on two new crew members. Daniel Crosby, from Rochelle, has been volunteering with us two days a week since July. Nate Scott, from New York, is experienced in a variety of restoration techniques.
The crew members that have been here longest — Avery, Cody, Nathaniel, and Sandra — will be taking turns as crew leader for the rest of the year. Next time you see one of these energetic young faces, be sure to give them a high five!
Written by Kaleb Baker, Nachusa's Crew Boss.
The above quote is from a short piece I wrote for Prairie Smoke, describing, somewhat humorously, the first year my wife and I acquired Photo Points (2008). It was a year of learning in so many ways. Photo Points assigns numbers to specific locations of Nachusa Grasslands, usually along property boundary lines. It's a way to monitor the prairie restoration process. The project began in 1999 with Bill Kleiman and Gerald McDermott, a volunteer.
The photographer identifies points that he wants to photograph during a season, based on various factors: how long it's been since a point was last done, how much change has occurred in an area, or how an area is likely to change in the near future. Once points are selected, they can be found on a detailed map.
Since boundary lines change, and/or fence lines disappear, we've been recording coordinates for each point, using the GPSTrack app in iPhone.
The point marker signs are not always where you expect to find them. Sometimes they're not there at all. GPS readings will get you very close to the original point.
One person takes a reading on a compass while the other person places a range pole with a marked sign at the exact compass direction. The sign contains the point number, the date and direction being shot. The sign pole is placed twenty feet away from the point.
A photo is then taken, fully automatic, with the sign framed in the middle of the shot. This process is repeated for each of the cardinal directions.
Sometimes there is too much growth to get a clear shot. Vegetation has to be cut down or thinned. If there's too much heavy vegetation, a thick briar patch for example, or the encumbrance is on a neighbor's property, the photographer has to step out away from the point, noting how far and in what direction, and take the photo.
And then there are the challenges. Teams sometimes have to wade a creek or walk through a wetland to find a point. Many points are deep in wilder areas where vehicle passage isn't possible, in which case the team has to walk cross country through thick and uneven terrain.
After the two week period and the team has taken all the photos for that year, the images must be processed. This sometimes means slight adjustments, such as making the photo lighter or darker. Usually it just means changing the file name from the number assigned by the camera to the point number, direction shot and date. These are saved onto a flash drive and given to Bill Kleiman, who copies them into a folder onto his computer.
The data is also carefully recorded on a spread sheet, point numbers and date shot. This Excel file is included on the flash drive with the Photo Points.
The Photo Points project began before digital photography was very prevalent, so there is a backlog of Photo Point photos in slide or print format. These are in the process of being converted to digital format.
The following image shows in a dramatic way how valuable the Photo Point project is. The photo on the left is point #1 taken in 2008, during our first year with the project. The photo on the right is point #1 today.
Photo Points is a sometimes challenging, sometimes frustrating endeavor but always interesting and rewarding. My initial quote made the project sound adventurous. After almost ten years of doing it I still find it so.
This blog is by Charles Larry. For more of his images see: charleslarryphotography.zenfolio.com
Decades ago, across a patch of land where cattle grazed, two students of Aldo Leopold recognized the call of the upland sandpiper. That eerie sound helped Doug and Dot Wade to recognize a highly degraded remnant prairie. Against all odds, a process started that would save this piece of ground for nature. Over the next few years a small group of people would demonstrate that given the right conditions, mainly the exclusion of cattle and return of fire, that rare prairie plants would once again thrive. In One Man’s Endeavor to Save the Prairie Kim W. Johnsen writes . . .
This group of listeners, thinkers, and activists led The Nature Conservancy to purchase the land that would become Nachusa Grasslands. On August 26, 1986 the first 130 acres were purchased. (Prairie Smoke 2016 Annual Stewardship Report; p. 4-5) Over time, more and more land containing degraded remnants was purchased, followed by farm fields of row crops that connected the remnants. These farm fields would need to be planted with native plant seeds and nurtured to bring back a prairie with a diversity of grasses and flowers.
Some area ecologist observed the restoration work in progress at Nachusa, and in small areas within the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and labeled it gardening. After all, he thought, the succession of plants and trees from an area, to be followed by others, is a normal ecologic function. When weather conditions change, or fire is absent, or a river changes course, or a natural barrier creating a dam breaks to expose the lake bottom to sunshine and air, plants and animals that are better suited to the changed conditions move into those areas and nature heals itself. Normally this happens over very long periods of time, but it happens. So, when groups of people began to step in and remove some plants in favor of others and began harvesting nearby seeds and planting them, it appeared to that ecological purist, to be gardening.
People doing ecological restoration start with the premise that the natural environment has been altered by humans to a degree that normal processes of succession no longer work. A restoration starts by researching the plants and animals that have historically been present. This is done by studying old diaries, maps, land surveys and any other document that can be obtained. Museum collections are reviewed to see what was collected or recorded in the area. An effort is made to return the land to pre-settlement conditions. When seeds are selected, with a few exceptions, great effort is made that they are locally sourced and the species are historically part of the landscape. Once the plant community is restored, it is hoped that the insects, birds, and mammals will return.
The gardener and the person doing ecosystem healing share many common procedures that some think have similar results. Both sow seed into the ground, use cuttings and plants grown in containers, pollinate plants by hand, and use herbicides to eliminate unwanted plants. Each prepare the ground to maximize chances for success. Many of the tools and methods used in the healing process were first used by gardeners. The result of all the effort in both cases, is a landscape beautified with flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. So why is ecological restoration not gardening?
The gardener is looking for maximum visual impact and will select plants originating from distant lands to accent a garden. A gardener will place plants to offer coordinating and contrasting, colors, heights, shapes, and varied bloom times. A gardener may crossbreed plants, often pollinating plants by hand to maximize and enhance desired qualities, allowing only the plants with those qualities to propagate. A neighbor, who loved to garden, would hand pollinate his snapdragons and then isolate the flower so only the pollen he provided could become seed. Every year, his snapdragons had robust and colorful blooms. The efforts of the gardener are directed to provide a display pleasing to the human eye.
Restoration efforts promote plants that are native to the area — plants that need special habitat to thrive and that are now rare. Habitat, once abundant, has been converted to roads, parking lots, buildings, and farms. Neglect has degraded other natural areas where native plants find it difficult to survive and reproduce. The suppression of fire has allowed honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, and other invasive species to crowd out fire adapted plants. A friend, who loved native plants, would hand pollinate an endangered plant whose population was no longer large enough to reproduce; the insect most likely to pollinate the plant was no longer present or the plants too far apart for insect pollination to be effective. This plant, the federally endangered eastern prairie fringed orchid, painstakingly hand pollinated, and caged to prevent deer browse, began to thrive on a few new sites where seeds were scattered. In time, seeds of this orchid from a population in Lake County were spread in many places at Nachusa. For years no orchids were found, but in one wetland, it now thrives at Nachusa, uncaged and once again pollinated by insects. Nachusa’s population is now one of the largest in the state and among the largest in the world. (Prairie Smoke 2015 Stewardship Report; p. 6) To a person doing ecosystem healing, placement of a plant in conditions it will thrive is important, thus matching the seeds or young plants to the environment best suited to its needs. Conditions such as whether an area is naturally wet or dry, sunny or shaded by trees, or even a north facing or south facing slope may determine a native plants success in growing and reproducing. Ultimately it will be nature that decides whether a plant succeeds or fails in any given location, just as it did before Europeans arrived.
When gardening, the gene pool for the next generation is selected by the gardener for qualities that please people. It might be size, color, shape or some other unique feature that people choose to pass forward to the next generation. In ecosystem healing, the goal is to let nature do the work of selecting the next generation. A diverse plant mix, matched to the right ecological conditions will self-assemble over time, to fit back into its native environment. As the insects, birds, and mammals return, they select the gene pool for the next generation; thus, providing an opportunity for the normal processes of change and succession to be restored.
The greatest compliment for the work done at Nachusa won’t come from people visiting to admire the view, although the views at Nachusa are spectacular. Every visit offers something different in bloom, often changing the color and look of the landscape from one week to the next. Many of the flowers and plants were once abundant and covered vast tracks of land as far as the eye could see, but now they only survive in small isolated patches and have become rare. Many require special conditions of associate plants or companion soil microbes to thrive, conditions that are slowly being restored at Nachusa. The greatest compliment comes from the variety of insects, birds, and mammals that find their way to Nachusa and begin to thrive. Recently the upland sandpiper not seen in the area since 1988, returned to Nachusa to add its voice to the prairie remnants; when it nests and raises it's young this will be viewed as the greatest compliment of all.
Written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa.
The Silphium sisters are all bright, cheerful and incredibly tall. They clearly stand above all others around them and people take notice. The four Silphium sisters at Nachusa Grasslands have similarities because they are part of the same plant family, Asteraceae, but each one has unique differences. Let me introduce them to you . . .
These perennial plants in the Silphium genus are all known for their great heights. Just how tall is the Compass plant? In my research I found different height reports, so I decided to measure them myself. I located the tallest plants I could find in Nachusa's prairie and discovered the plants ranged in height from about 8 feet to 9 feet tall. Wow! Even more amazing is how deep the root descends into the ground. Are you ready for it? The Illinois Natural History Survey reports a depth of 10-15 feet!!! Amazing!
Commonly know as the Cup Plant. Notice how the leaves of this second Silphium sister are opposite each other and join together at the stem to form a ‘cup–like’ shape.
Commonly know as Rosinweed. Standing around 6 feet tall, Rosinweed is the shortest in height of the four Silphium sisters at Nachusa. The leaves are rough and the stems have a lot of bristly hair. Rosinweed gets its name from the resin that oozes from its cut stems. The resin is rather gummy, and as a matter of fact, American Indians used to chew it.
Like the other Silphium sisters, the Rosinweed has a taproot that descends 10-15 feet deep. The plant spreads by short rhizomes, so you often see the Rosinweed forming a clump, as seen in the above picture.
Where to see the Silphiums
Once the Prairie Dock, Compass Plant, Cup Plant and Rosinweed were numerous across the prairies in Illinois, but as the prairies were removed, these plants declined in number. Conservationist, Aldo Leopold watched the last Silphium disappear from what was once a vast expanse of prairie, and he wrote this familiar quote:
What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
Thanks to the restoration efforts of staff and volunteers at Nachusa, you may actually be able to see a few Silphiums tickle some bison bellies again! From July to September, one or more of the Silphiums will be in bloom. They are so easy to spot in the prairie because of their incredible heights. Look into the prairie fields and road ditches along Lowden Road, between Flagg Road and Naylor Road. The Silphiums are quite a treat to see, so let's see if you can meet all four sisters!
Today’s author is Dee Hudson, a photographer for Nachusa Grasslands. To see more prairie images, visit her website at www.deehudsonphotography.com.
Nachusa’s small creatures help citizen scientists monitor stream quality. Collection, identification, and a tally of macro-invertebrates from the local streams are used as an indicator of stream health. The monitoring is done through a statewide program called Illinois RiverWatch, established to help determine stream water quality throughout the state and provide a warning of potential problems. At Nachusa, the program was started in the spring of 2014 before the bison arrived, so RiverWatch is not only used to monitor stream health, but also to help identify changes due to their introduction. This is the fourth year collecting RiverWatch data in three Nachusa streams: Wade Creek, Clear Creek, and Johnny’s Creek.
Illinois RiverWatch trains citizen scientist volunteers to collect, identify, and preserve important indicator species of macro-invertebrates found in streams throughout Illinois. Macro-invertebrates are invertebrates large enough to see with the naked eye. Examples include insect larva, snails, and aquatic worms. One person in the stream monitoring group is required to have the eight-hour RiverWatch training class; four hours in the classroom and four hours hands on in a stream. At Nachusa, we are fortunate to have several trained monitors and interested volunteers lead by Mary Vieregg. Others that often join in the fun are Cindy Buchholz, Mary Meier, Jan Grainger, Matt Friberg, Tim Ngo and myself. Interested people who have not been trained by RiverWatch can participate in the stream monitor with a trained lead.
A site is selected and the locations are documented and approved by RiverWatch. The same site and locations are used each year, so changes from year to year and over time can be observed. At the site, the first step is to mark off the sampling area with flags 50 feet and 100 feet upstream and downstream from the selected site. Then, a map is sketched marking stream contours, significant features, and the day's sample locations. In addition, water depths, stream velocity, stream color, and temperature are recorded. Lastly, the vegetation around the stream is noted, along with the amount of shade cover; the stream bottom substrate is observed and recorded. Pictures can be taken and included with the sample data. Much of this data is recorded after the dip net hits the water in order to minimize any disturbances to the stream and the macros living in it before the collection.
The preferred collecting tool is the dip net. Designed with a sturdy cloth sleeve and mesh bottom, water can easily pass through and allow macros to collect in the bottom. There are five stream habitat types that RiverWatch samples, using the dip net collecting techniques. In order of preferred use:
Once the samples are collected and placed in buckets, the challenge is to pull the fast-moving macros from their watery homes. This is done using a shallow white pan, forceps, eye droppers, and carbonated water to help slow the critters down. Once captured, the macro makes the ultimate sacrifice, as it is deposited in a vial of pure alcohol for later identification and recording. All the macros taken can be combined into one sample. Once all the macros are pulled from the shallow white pan and put in vials, the gear is packed up and the crew returns to the barn for lunch. After lunch the work of sorting, identifying and counting begins.
Macro invertebrates can be seen with the naked eye, but for identification some of the key differences only become clear under a microscope. For example, mayflies fall into seven categories and key features on the gills, legs, and antennae are more easily seen through a microscope. Damsel fly larva, whether broad-winged or narrow-winged will determine their indicator number. Dragonfly larva are large and don’t need to be identified down to species, only that they are present and the number found. The process of identifying, sorting, counting is continued until the specimens are determined and recorded. The vial containing all the day's collection is labeled and sent to the RiverWatch administrator, who then forwards it on to professionals who double-check identification and the count. Feedback is then provided to the citizen scientist to help improve identification in the future.
Each macro used as an indicator species is assigned a number. The lower the number, the more conservative the species and the less tolerant of pollution and other disturbances. A formula, based on the assigned number of each species, the total count of each species, and the number of organisms found, is used to determine the Macro-Invertebrate Biotic Index (MBI). The lower the MBI number, the higher the stream quality.
Nachusa stream quality is good in Clear Creek and fair in Wade and Johnny’s Creek. It is too early to see a trend in improvement or degradation of water quality. An effort is made to sample the streams close to the same date each year, but an annual variance in weather conditions can account for some difference in the MBI. Only after many years of monitoring are trends likely to be seen. Following the introduction of bison, changes to the stream banks have been observed. In the sample area around Johnny's Creek, the vegetation has been eaten or trampled. Stream banks that were heavily vegetated are now bare. Near Wade Creek bison hair was found on the plants, but no disturbance was noted in the Wade Creek sample area. The changes in streams being made as a result of restoration efforts and the introduction of bison won't be measured in months or even years, but in decades and centuries. Careful observation, good science, sometimes unnerving patience, and prudent management will help restore the portions of these streams that run through Nachusa back to a functioning and evolving ecosystem.
Note: Clear Creek is outside of the bison enclosure.
To volunteer for the RiverWatch program at Nachusa, contact Mary Vieregg. For more information about citizen scientist training, visit the website for Illinois RiverWatch .
The blog today was written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer citizen scientist for Nachusa.
Summer is the busiest time of year on the prairie with seeds ready to harvest and invasive weeds sprouting up. So every May Nachusa hires half a dozen seasonal staff to keep up with the workload. Typically the staff hired are in their twenties and going into careers in ecological restoration/conservation. The crew will spend most of the first half of the summer spraying and spading weeds in the hot sun, and then seeds will be collected throughout the summer and fall as they ripen. In the late summer and fall the crew will plant the seed they collected in a brand new planting that has not seen prairie in recent years. This year's planting is 84 acres! The crew of 2017 has jumped into the summer with great enthusiasm and the prairie is already much improved because of their labors.
Meet this year's seasonal staff:
Kaleb Baker — Crew Leader, on his third season he has been an incredible resource helping with many things, including the new Arc Collector Map service. Kaleb will be with us for a couple more months this summer before he attends NIU this fall to start his Masters’ Degree.
Phil Nagorny — on his second season, he started with Kaleb back in March as our Lead Restoration Technician. He brings a deep skill set and experience operating equipment that we will take advantage of while he is here. He will also be attending NIU this fall to finish his undergraduate degree.
Sebastian Schafer — who came all the way from Germany, has been interning with us since March. He is years ahead of most at his age. He is now heading back home to start his Master’s Degree.
Nathaniel Weickert — from Rockford and recently graduated from NIU. Some of you will recognize him, since he has spent many Saturdays volunteering at Nachusa.
Cody Cassidy — is from Rochelle and recently graduated from University of WI Whitewater. Cody is good with his hands, having grown up working with his dad’s heating and cooling business.
Avery Parmiter — From Connecticut and a recent graduate from Clemson University. She brings an array of recent field experiences to Nachusa.
Sandra Vaughn-Pottorff — Originally from Rockford, she recently returned from Hawaii where she studied environmental sciences. She will be enrolling in NIU to finish her undergraduate degree this upcoming school year.
Leah Kleiman — who we all have seen grow and blossom into a mature young independent woman. She recently completed the second year of her Associate’s Degree at Sauk and is eager to gain more experience working on the crew.
(Bios written by Cody Considine)
Today's blog was brought to you by Leah Kleiman
I have had the opportunity to lead several adult groups on tours of Nachusa and the Tellabs Unit. There is always an abundance of questions and some of the questions asked are the same on each trip. "How many bison are there?", "How big is Nachusa Grasslands", "What is the name of that plant?", "What does 'Nachusa' mean?" On a warm, Sunday evening I accompanied two guests on a romp around the grasslands and the forest. There were no questions, just adventure and play; I even learned a little bit.
A child born near the coast in Washington and a child born in Colorado enjoy the grassland together.
Among the tall oaks and the green herbs broken sticks and sand in the two-track are brushes and easels for young imaginations.
"As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees." —Valerie Andrews
What I thought could be a lesson on nutrient recycling and fertilization was interrupted so I could be informed that an apatosaurus had accidentally stomped on the egg of a T. Rex.
"We must remain as close to the flowers, the grass, and the butterflies as the child is who is not yet so much taller than they are. We adults, on the other hand, have outgrown them and have to lower ourselves to stoop down to them. It seems to me that the grass hates us when we confess our love for it. Whoever would partake of all good things must understand how to be small at times." —Friedrich Nietzsche
It was a great tour. No scientific names were uttered. No numbers were shared. No ecological concepts were described. Sticks became swords, rocks were thrown, the grass cushioned multiple falls, laughter muted the birds, and a bull bison grazed unconcerned. I encourage you to visit Nachusa and perhaps bring a child instead of a field guide.
"We could have never loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it."
Text and photography by Tellabs Steward, Mark Jordan.
We all know Nachusa Grasslands as a place of space. Rolling hills of grasses, seemingly endless skies, and even in the woods or savannas you can see great depths—all tell the spacious story of Nachusa. Looking at things up close tells a very different story. Up close, you see patterns, textures, rhythms that are more abstract. Up close, you see a world more intimate and, conversely, more alien.
A pheasant feather. Though not a bird native to North America, the pheasant is a common sight here. Look at the patterns of lines—lines arrayed as if in motion, branching in multiple directions. The white line down the center, the shaft, like a lightning bolt, gives energy to the feathery lines radiating from it.
The current of Clear Creek molds the sand along the bottom into irregular linear shapes. On the surface, the gold, sinewy lines of sunlight dance across and intersect the darker bottom shapes, forming the warp and woof of a living tapestry.
Focussing now on a feathery image of a different kind, the heads and flowers of Big Bluestem. The photo is framed to capture the more delicate abstract of positive and negative space. The three spikes of the grass, with its dangling yellow flowers form the positive space, while the white, cloudy sky in the background forms the negative.
Even in the most commonplace of subjects, beautiful patterns can be found. This rusted gate at the bison corral may almost seem like an underwater scene, with a school of goldfish swimming in the current. Admittedly, the contrast was pushed a little higher than usual in post-processing this photo to emphasize these patterns, which are really there, but not as visible to the human eye.
A partially burned tree is framed to suggest a kind of rectangular yin/yang symbol. The linear structure, color elements, and burned wood textures all add to the quiet beauty of this rather familiar sight at Nachusa.
To me, ice is endlessly fascinating and I always look for patterns in ice whenever I'm out in winter. The bold abstractions, lines, and movement caused by the ice crystallization has a mesmerizing effect on me. I poetically call this photo: The Heart of Winter. The red "heart" is formed by a fallen oak leaf buried under the ice.
Another undersea view where a goldfish swims over coral and seaweed? No, mosses and lichens exist together in a community on a rock outcrop at Nachusa. This image presents an almost bewildering swirl of color and texture, seemingly in motion, even though every element is securely attached to the underlying rock.
Next time you're visiting Nachusa Grasslands, take a break from bison-watching or cloud gazing and look closely. Look and see. As William Blake said, you can see a world in a grain of sand or heaven in a wildflower.
This blog was written by Charles Larry, volunteer and photographer at Nachusa Grasslands. For more of his images see: charleslarryphotography.zenfolio.com
Milkweeds are a subfamily of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae). Most of us are familiar with the extreme dependency of the Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on milkweed plants. These native perennials are the only plants that Monarch larvae (caterpillars) will eat. If there were no milkweeds, there would be no Monarchs.
The Monarch butterfly is Illinois’ State Insect. In April and May, Monarchs begin arriving back in Illinois from their winter migration to Mexico. So, this is a good time to take a quick look at a few of the twenty-three species of milkweeds that are known to be native to Illinois. They are a critical part of the habitat needed by Monarchs.
Milkweed is named for its white milky-looking sap, although at least one milkweed species, Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) has a clear, rather than milky, sap. At one time, various species of milkweeds could be seen growing in most any ditch, vacant lot or fence line; hence the unfortunate “weed” in its name, even though this plant genus has some of the world’s most unique flowers. The botanic name for the milkweed genus is Asclepias. The name was chosen for Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, although some milkweed species are toxic. So much for naming . . .
Let’s look at milkweeds as a group to see what the various Asclepias species have in common. As we proceed, I will begin pointing out some of the characteristics that distinguish one milkweed species from another.
Milkweeds are perennials, generally with leaves in pairs along the stem, or in whorls. The flowers develop in umbels (flower clusters in which all the branches come from a single point).
I’ve chosen to illustrate a couple of milkweed species that have fewer flowers per umbel so that it is easier to really see the typical milkweed umbel structure, as well as the paired leaves on these particular milkweed species.
Once you are aware of the umbel structure, it is much easier to look for and to recognize it, even on the milkweed species that have 25 to 40 or many more flowers per umbel, or that have multiple umbels. See samples in photos below.
Note the slender leaves (about 1 inch wide) of the Swamp Milkweed, as compared to both the Common and the Purple Milkweeds above. The even more slender leaves of the Tall Green Milkweed (slightly over ½ inch wide) are whorled around the stem or alternate, rather than being paired opposites, as is the case with most of our local native milkweed species.
Milkweed flowers are one of the most complex flowers in the plant world, probably second only to orchids. This discussion is limited to the most visible flower parts that are useful in identifying these amazing plants and to see how pollen is transferred.
The flower structure varies somewhat by species, but they all have a vaguely hourglass shape, with each flower having five sepals (that fall back and become hidden by the petals as the bud opens) and five petals that reflex downward when the bud opens (see sketch above).
Most flowers have petals and sepals, but milkweeds are unique in also having a third set of structures just above the petals: five pairs of hoods (where the nectar is) and horns surround the flower column (where the pollen is found in vertical slits there). These hoods and horns are actually modified stamen structures. See the sketches above. The sketch of the Whorled Milkweed shows the flower column that the hoods encircle, the spaces between the hoods and the slits in the flower column. Within the slits, pollinators can encounter the sticky pollen packets through which pollen is delivered to the eggs in the ovary at the base of flower column. In the video below, you can see the orange pollen baskets attached to the bumblebee's back legs; pollen was transferred to these baskets when his legs slipped into those slits in the flower column. Those leg baskets now spread pollen to the subsequent flowers this bee visits.
Fertilized milkweed flowers develop seeds in follicles (pods), with each seed having a coma (cluster of silky hairs) which easily carries the seed on the wind. You are likely familiar with the Common Milkweed pods, which are warty with soft spines, and wider at one end than the other, splitting open when the seeds are ready for the wind to work its magic dispersing them. Showy Milkweed has very similar pods as Common. Other species, such as Purple Milkweed, have pods that are similarly shaped, but downy rather than spiny, or, in the case of Sullivant’s Milkweed, are smoother, with projections only on the upper half. Many milkweed species have slender, smooth pods. All have many seeds packed inside, each with its coma.
As you can see in the previous and following photos, milkweed flower size, color and precise shape all vary by species. These various species also differ in their habitat preferences, from very dry to very wet, from full sun to wooded areas, from sand to heavy clay, from a preference for disturbed soil to an intolerance for it.
The following four species are local native milkweeds that are relatively easy to find if you are interested in seeing them firsthand, and photographing or drawing them (no collecting please). See Recommended Hikes for maps to the search areas I’ve mentioned for each of the species highlighted below.
Many milkweed species are now readily available for purchase at gardening stores or online. If you would like to help to save Monarchs and other pollinators by planting milkweed species in your yard, or at your school, park or business, be sure to purchase species suited to your growing conditions, that are not hybrids,* and that are native to the area where you plan to plant them, ideally within fifty miles. By choosing plants that have co-evolved with pollinators and other insects native to this area, you can be sure you are supporting their life cycles with needed resources.
*In hybrids (and “cultivars”), instead of the simple nectar guides like those of native plants, that can be accessed with a butterfly’s long tongue, “. . . a bloom can be changed enough in scent or shape that butterflies can’t recognize them or access the nectar.” This is just one example of why using native plants is so important. From www.prairienursery.com.
Scientific Name: Asclepias incarnata
General Characteristics & Habitat: typically grows to 3 to 5 feet tall; has deep underground stems; spreads via rhizomes; prefers wet soils (marshes, bogs, ditches). In proper locations, self-seeds prolifically.
Flowers: multiple somewhat flat-topped clusters of flowers at tops of stems and branches; flower petals tend to be pale rose to rose-purple, with whitish hoods.
Bloom time: mid-June to early September
Stem, Leaves, Pods: stems are smooth and branched at the top; leaves are opposite, narrow (about 1 inch wide), oblong or lance-shaped, narrow at the base, and have short stalks. Pods are slender and papery, wrinkled, usually in pairs, terminal on stem.
Finding them to view: along ditches and creeks and other sunny wet areas. At Nachusa Grasslands, areas outside the bison enclosures to look include Meiners Wetlands and Clear Creek Knolls.
See the sketchbook page above for details on habitat, flowers, stems, leaves and pods. How to find them to view? Look in mostly sunny, undisturbed areas, along railroad right-of-ways, typically in drier soils. At Nachusa Grasslands, areas outside the bison enclosures to look include Clear Creek Knolls and Thelma Carpenter Prairie.
If you like a challenge, here are several milkweed species that are much more rare than the above species, that you may be able to locate for viewing and/or decide to purchase to grow yourself. Each is unique, even among milkweed species, in their own way.
The sketchbook page shows details on habitat, flowers, stems, leaves and pods. Where to find the poke milkweed to view? Look in dappled woods or other semi-shaded areas, in rich, moist soil. Don’t give up if you see them one year and not the next — they are known to disappear for years at a time and then reappear in abundance. At Nachusa Grasslands, areas outside the bison enclosures to look include Stone Barn Savanna and Big Jump.
Currently at Nachusa Grasslands, both Sand (above) and Tall Green (below) milkweeds are only known to be within the bison units. Take this as a challenge to find them elsewhere! Sand milkweed is about 2 feet tall, with the flower cluster well above its leaves, in dry, sandy soil where there is sparse vegetation. Tall Green is easy to identify (see below), and seems to like partial shade and soil with good drainage.
Wishing you some happy milkweed exploring!
All photos and video were taken by Betty Higby at Nachusa Grasslands, except the Short Green Milkweed pod, which was taken at Midewin. Text and sketches by Betty Higby, who is a volunteer at Nachusa.
Ephemeral ponds are temporary ponds of springtime, sometimes called vernal pools.
Springtime, melting snow, and spring rains bring water and life to the ephemeral ponds and vernal pools at Nachusa Grasslands. Amphibians and macro invertebrates use these ponds as a nursery for their young. These small bodies of water flourish in the spring and then quietly, without notice, disappear into the heat of the summer. While they exist, they offer special advantages and challenges for the life that inhabits them.
Plants and animals in ephemeral pools must be adapted to wet conditions in spring and dry conditions by early summer. Plants that thrive in vernal ponds are very often the same plants that one would find on the edge of permanent ponds. Permanent ponds overflow their banks in spring and a shoreline of sedges, grasses, and forbs begin to emerge in the cold water. These same types of plants emerge in the cold water of vernal pools. These plants will continue to thrive on the shores of a permanent pond as the water recedes and in vernal pools as the water fades and the pond dries.
Frogs and salamanders seek out ephemeral ponds as safe breeding pools and nurseries for their young. A pond that dries out part of the year, or freezes entirely, prevents fish from establishing. Fish would eat amphibian eggs, small tadpoles, or small sallywogs*; they would also compete for the macro invertebrates that provide a rich source of food for the adult and juvenile amphibians. The trade-off is the young must grow fast enough to leave the pool before it dries in the summer heat.
Nachusa’s ephemeral ponds have the advantage of being surrounded by a rich and diverse grassland. As the ponds dry, the young that managed to mature enough to leave the watery place of their youth, can venture forward into a land of plenty. Appetite-satisfying insects are plentiful. The tall grasses and abundant flowering plants provide camouflage and shelter. This is a sharp contrast to ponds among row crops, where the plants are a monoculture and are frequently sprayed with pesticide. Or, in the suburbs, where lawns are mowed right up to the waters edge, leaving no place to hide; tasty insects are sparse. Many times ephemeral ponds are filled, drained, or dug deeper to create a permanent pond, ruining the qualities that support unique macro-invertebrate and amphibian life. At Nachusa the challenges of survival in the natural world exist for amphibians, but without many of the artificial challenges that the modern world brings.
Nachusa has many of these wonderful ephemeral ponds. They can often be located this time of year by the sounds of calling frogs. Western chorus frogs and spring peepers are the first to begin calling in late March or early April and are later joined by northern leopard frogs and American toads. Readers of the blog are likely familiar with the sound of the western chorus frog, often described as the sound of a fingernail being dragged across the teeth of a plastic comb; or its contemporary the spring peeper whose call begins with peep, peep, peep. The trill of the American toad is long and carries in the night air. The northern leopard frog with its low rumble, is followed by a bit of chuckle. The copes gray treefrog begins calling around early May; its call is a similar trill to the American toad, but instead of a long steady call, the copes trill comes in quick, short bursts often two or three at a time. Listen for calling frogs after the sun sets, when the winds are calm.
One resident of Nachusa is never heard and seldom seen. The silent, but intriguing tiger salamander with its marbled skin, likely visits these ponds as a refuge and breeding site. Presently the pond waters are filled with eggs of frogs and salamanders. Soon these vernal pools will be filled with tadpoles and sallywogs* competing to be the next generation of amphibian life at Nachusa.
As volunteers and staff at Nachusa restore the native landscape, ephemeral-pond-dependent species grow in population and diversity. Drain tiles throughout the preserve have been broken or removed, and low spots have been enhanced to return the natural hydrology to the land and allow spring wet areas to return; this increases the areas for amphibian populations to expand. It has been reported that the call of the plains leopard frog has recently been heard near the Tellabs ponds. If confirmed, another species can be added to the list of animals that call Nachusa home. The ephemeral ponds surrounded by plentiful grasslands preserves the ecological diversity that is the living tapestry of Nachusa Grasslands.
Text and Photos by Paul Swanson
*Sallywogs used to denote salamander larvae vs. frog larvae.
Eugene Jones Baldwin
He is a journalist, fiction writer and blogger. He writes history pieces for the Alton Telegraph and is the author of "The Genehouse Chronicles," a collection of essays on nature, people and places along the Mississippi River.