The Ever-Changing Prairie

By Garrett Genereux, Intern Naturalist

One part of River Bend that I feel is sometimes overlooked is the prairie. The prairie here, although small compared to the forest, has a great diversity of plant species. Not only does the prairie have a variety of plants but it also contains an assortment of animals.

Swallowtail Butterfly on Wild Bergamot

This includes many kinds of insects, deer, 13-lined ground squirrels, several other mammals, and quite a selection of birds. Despite all of that perhaps my favorite part of the prairie is that it is always changing. One week you may take a walk  on the Prairie Loop and notice several beautiful species of grasses and flowers blooming, then two weeks later see a whole new set of plants in bloom.

White-tailed Deer

Showy Goldenrod in bloom

Already this year we have seen lupine, butterfly weed, penstemon, wild parsnip (definitely not my favorite plant), purple coneflower, yarrow, golden alexander, and wild bergamot come and go. Right now we are perhaps in the “peak” blooming season. Currently big bluestem, daisy fleabane, snakeroot, tall bellflower, yellow sweet clover, Indian grass, purple prairie clover, bird’s foot trefoil, prairie coneflower, sage, side oats gamma, white prairie clover, thistle, showy goldenrod, black eyed susan, and rattlesnake master are all in bloom! If you are too busy or would prefer cooler weather to go for a hike do not worry! There are still more blooms to come. In the coming weeks several species of aster, gentian, goldenrod, and round headed bush clover will all come into bloom.

Later in the fall, prairie plants will get ready to scatter their seeds. This is summed up beautifully by American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale:  “For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.”

Another way that the prairie changes is through controlled burns that mimic the fires from pre-settlement times.  These fires burn the grasses and plants to the soil, but do not damage the extensive perennial root systems that native prairie plants have. This has many benefits. For one, it returns essential nutrients to the soil. Another is that the fire removes invasive species who often do not have as deep of a root system compared to the native plants. Lastly, the fire also keeps trees in check in the continuous battle between the forest and the prairie. Here at River Bend we typically burn sections of our prairie every other year. It is likely that we will be burning this upcoming spring!

Purple Prairie Clover blooming

Please come out for a visit and see the prairie! Walking from the Interpretive Center up and around the Prairie Loop will allow you to see most of the prairie that we have here at River Bend Nature Center. Also please check out the informational brochure on prairie plants, so you have a guide for your walk. There is also a display of current blooms with names and color pictures on the backside of a divider just beside our kitchenette in the Interpretive Center. If you wish to learn more about prairie burns, come to our public program on September 15th, from 9:30-10:30 am, aptly titled “Fires on the Prairie.”

Garrett Genereux is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

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