As a native of Utah, I never gave much thought to tall grass prairies. I was always obsessed with the mountains, assuming I would work in that ecosystem. Yet, here I am in Illinois, working in a tall grass prairie for my thesis. Although I never anticipated ending up here, I am so glad that I did.
My advisor, Dr. Holly Jones, introduced Nachusa to me as the perfect place to conduct research. It has a chronosequence of sites, a bison unit, a non-bison unit and units with different burn intervals. I understood what she meant by the perfect place, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it until I became immersed in the potential of Nachusa. I am continually finding myself inspired with new research questions and ideas, to the point where I swear I could stay here forever.
My research interests revolve around predators. Predators have fascinated me since I was a kid pretending to be a lion. There is a beauty and grace about predators. They are fierce, powerful, and incredibly influential in an ecosystem. Predators can shape an entire ecosystem through hunting, creating fear that results in behavioral changes in their prey. These effects can ripple down the food web all the way to impact decomposition.
Nachusa is unique place to study predators. Historically, wolves were the top predators here. Since they were driven to local extinction in the 1800s, coyotes have taken over that role. This change in “top dog” has major implications for the way an ecosystem functions and which prey species are most abundant. That in itself is interesting. However, in addition, Nachusa is a rich and diverse landscape surrounded by agricultural fields. These conditions can be very supportive of coyote and fox predators. Furthermore, I discovered that the coyotes at Nachusa are depredating a state-listed turtle species many of us know and love: ornate box turtles. This makes understanding the role coyotes play at Nachusa even that much more important.
My research focuses on how coyote removal impacts small mammal prey species. Using stable isotope analysis, I investigated the diet of coyotes at Nachusa. The first step in the process was getting tissue samples from consumers (i.e. coyotes) and all the prey sources they ate. I tried countless times to entice coyotes to non-invasively “donate” their fur, but they just wouldn’t cooperate. In the end, the supportive community at Nachusa graciously collected nasty hair samples from road kill for me. (Thank you all so much!)
I’m currently looking at seasonal effects on coyote diet; the coyote hair is cut into segments and examined. Food availability in the prairie shifts over the seasons, so this method could provide some interesting insights as to what coyotes are eating when. Potentially, this could tell us more about when ornate box turtles are at highest risk for coyote depredation!
We now know that the Nachusa coyotes are opportunistic, generalist feeders. They hunt and eat small mammals in the greatest proportion collectively, but have a wide variety of dietary items. This is hardly surprising considering the menu of small mammals that are out there!
I have come to love Nachusa and each and all of its ticks. I can’t believe my time as a researcher here is coming to an end. Not only have I fallen in love, but my family has too. We will miss and cherish our time spent at Nachusa.
Kirstie Savage is a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University. To read more about her work, visit the Jones Lab webpage.
Autumn has always been my favorite season. Oaks are my favorite trees. So, it seems fitting in "Oaktober" to write about oaks and oak woodlands
At Nachusa Grasslands and other places in the Midwest, we are trying to restore the health of our oak woodlands. And really, our region is defined by the oaks. The Nature Conservancy calls our eco-region “The Prairie-Forest Border” between the grand prairie to the south and the mixed woodlands in neighboring states to the north. The area was historically maintained as prairie intermixed with oak savanna and woodlands by Native American nations.
Natural plant and animal communities of the region were a direct result of Native Peoples’ use of fire on the land. Without fire, in “The Prairie-Forest Border,” the amount of rain we receive would have yielded dense forests.
Many botanists have defined the various intergrades between savanna, open woodland, and closed woodland by the level of sunlight and density and species of trees. (See https://oaksavannas.org/)
Today, much of our Illinois woodlands have become too shady to allow sun-loving oaks to grow. Shade is the enemy of oaks. Acorns in shade will not thrive after germination and the limbs of oaks will also die if shaded.
How can we tell if the “woods” we are looking at was historically savanna or naturally shady? The presence of large, old oaks with limbs that stick straight out (or used to, but are dead now) indicate the area was likely savanna. An oak growing in full sun without other trees close by will grow limbs horizontally. Oaks that grow close together grow their limbs vertically to reach the sun.
To give the oaks a fighting chance modern prairie restorers make use of controlled burns, as well as actual removal of invasive trees growing under and up into the limbs of the old sentinel oaks. We also remove the non-native bush honeysuckle (and other non-native shrubs) from the understory.
Our region’s historic mixture of prairie interspersed with woodland types — from dry to wet, from open to somewhat shady — had an enormous species diversity of understory flowers, grasses, and native shrubs.
If action is not taken by restorers, the result is a mud forest floor, impenetrable understory with honeysuckle bushes, and an overstory of dead oaks. Elms, maples, and other shade-loving fire intolerant trees move in to take the place of oaks and hickories.
This combination of a solid thicket of invasive honeysuckle and loss of oaks gives hardly any habitat for animals. For example, deer and turkey dislike maple and elm, but they love acorns!
Native oak-hickory savannas and woodlands in the region are disappearing along with bird species that depend on the open structure: red-headed woodpeckers, great crested flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds. Native wildflowers such as kitten tails, wild hyacinth, prairie lily, and starry campion along with grasses such as bottle brush rye, woodland brome, and long-awned wood grass will not grow in heavy shade. And there are the native shrubs: hazelnut, American plum, hawthorn, and Iowa crabapple! None of these tolerate shade either.
I encourage you to read up on oak woodlands, then take a hike. Explore the Stone Barn Savanna and see how we are doing. It’s a work in progress and sometimes messy, but we see the native oak savanna dependent plants and animals are thriving.
Here are some great websites that discuss oak savannas:
Pleasant Valley Conservancy—Oak Savannas
Last of the Oak Savannas Survive in Minnesota
What is an Oak Savanna?
Written by Susan Kleiman, a Nachusa volunteer.
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.
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.
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.