Saturday, May 30, 2009
The thing that strikes me most each time I return to the prairie is the diversity of grass and forb species in any given section. Just looking out over the land and casually glancing, one might think, "Well, there is a grassy field", and not consider it anything special. But when you actually get out and walk around in a native prairie, when you look closely at the ground and the plants growing there, you find quite a selection. These pictures were taken right at the end of May, 2009. Many of the grasses were starting to put on seeds and most of the spring wildflowers had already bloomed, gone to seed, and died back for the summer. One thing I've learned about prairies from this year-long adventure is when one species puts on a display, the others retreat, but it's never overpowering. It seems to always be extremely subtle and blended. The plants take turns throughout the year, some species popping up and shining and the others resting until it is their season, and on and on, season by season.
On this particular day in May the early summer bloomers were showing their colors, like Texas Thistle (pictured above), Rudebeckia (Black-eyed Susans), the double-tiered Bee Balm (that bees seem to crave), some little white prairie flowers, lots of yellow sun flower-like plants, and a few more that not only could I not name, but I didn't recognize at all (!), like the fuzzy cream colored species with the fern-like leaves (pictured below) -what the heck is THAT?!! In addition to the flowering species and the plants with only dried seed heads left on shriveled stems, I must have counted at least 6 or 7 different species of grasses within my sight, all healthy and bunched up, ready to bloom soon and produce more seeds for the fall. I am sure I missed more than I counted in both grasses and forbs, but that's still a pretty good diversity in just a few short steps into a field. I contrasted that with the two fields of Johnson Grass that I passed on the way to get here today - which basically held 1 species of grass and no other plants.
That gentle blending that I've referred to in a native prairie is really a different sort of plant community experience than you get from other natural settings. From my experience observing this particular native Texas prairie over the past 8-10 months, the beauty isn't so obvious that it jumps out at you from a distance. It is so unlike a typical planned garden in a landscaped scenario, where you see large groupings of plant monocultures, all in bloom together at one time. Admittedly, that can be breathtaking, really getting your attention and making you say, "Wow!" But a native prairie is more like observing a whole, balanced, ecosystem, most of the time on a rather small scale, and you almost need to understand a little bit about what you are seeing to appreciate it. And you definately need to get CLOSE if you really want to observe and learn more about it. When you do that you can no longer ignore that what happens there is really is special, natural, and beautiful. And it doesn't happen in very many places anymore either.
So in a few more months this year's prairie adventure will have reached full cycle and my personal prairie observations of fall, winter, spring, and summer will have come to an end. Soon the fall maintenance cutting will take place again. I know without a shred of doubt, that I have only barely scraped the surface of 'prairie-ology' and that in turn has only fired up my desire to know more about these unique plant and wildlife communities. I hope by sharing my prairie adventure with you I have sparked your interest to explore some native prairies in your own section of the world and help to preserve them, wherever you may be!