Thursday, August 27, 2015

Plant of the Week - Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Sneezeweed (Helenium autmnale)
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

Sneezeweed - bless you!  Well, not really!  There's no pollen in the breeze and sneezing affected as such with this prairie forb...I always wondered why it got this name and the one place I found with a "story" behind the name was in the book "Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie" by Shirley Shirley, a University of Iowa Press publication...a book with some good info on germination and seed I might add.  Shirley Shirley mentions the use of this plant's leaves - dried and made into snuff "cause sneezing and supposedly ridding the body of evil spirits or clearing congestion.  Considered a good tonic by the pioneers."  So there ya go!

Sneezeweed (Helenium autmnale) with Monarch
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

This forb is listed as most commonly found on moist prairies and sites...on our property it exists on a hillside slope that isn't too terribly moist so it may be found in a variety of conditions.  It is one that needs full sun for the most part so ours fits that condition.

 Sneezeweed (Helenium autmnale) with native flies and bees
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

Sneezeweed is a late summer/early fall forb here, usually showing up with the flush of goldenrods and the beginning of asters.  And it is a great pollinator plant - attracting bees, wasps, butterflies and flies of all kinds!  It is said to cause "issues" with livestock grazing so that is something to be aware of if it occurs in grazed pastures - this would also make it a dominant forb in such a situation as livestock would tend to avoid it.

Catch the August bloomers while they're still with us - Sneezeweed, the goldenrods and the asters will be with us well into September though!


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Prairie Plant of the Week - Siphium laciniatum (Compass Plant)

Siphium laciniatum (Compass Plant)
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

This week's prairie plant features the Compass Plant; this plant is fairly iconic on the tallgrass prairie - a large plant, usually towering above me as I walk through the mid to late summer prairie.  The birds love their seeds and this plant provides a solid platform for many bird nests as well.

I first spread seed for this plant in our first year here at the acreage and five years later we had flowering stalks 5-8 feet high!  It was well worth the wait I'd say, but I'd recommend only seeding for 2-3 years (maybe less) and then wait for the plants to establish, otherwise you'll have stands too thick to navigate!

Siphium laciniatum (Compass Plant)
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)
The leaves on Compass Plants are very distinct and quite large and handsome.  The plant gets it's common name from the leaves tending to orient themselves in a general north-south direction...they are very large, a foot or more in length and half a foot or more wide...very thick and substantial to say the least!

The yellow flowers are 3-4 inches wide and are alternate up the plant's heavy/thick stem.  They attract a great variety of pollinators too!

The Compass Plant's leaves and roots was used by several first nation tribes for many different the book "Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie" by Roosa and Runkel, it is even mentioned that burning a dried root during a lightning storm acted as a charm to ward off lightning strikes...or hopefully so!
It was also said that when in bloom, a gummy material forms along the upper 3rd of the main stem.  This resinous material was used by Native Americans as a chewing gum.

Siphium laciniatum (Compass Plant)
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)
This is one plant that deer really seem to like in the early summer stage of growth but avoid later on when it gains height...I don't know how good of a forage it may have been to pioneers first settling the prairies but the Roosa/Runkel book says it was liked by cattle as well; likely being a reason it was pretty much eliminated wherever cattle were grazed year after year...I personally have found that cattle are very hard on native forbs, many will not sustain heavy grazing pressure like that year after year.

Next time you're out on the prairie, walk up next to a Compass plant and see how it measures up!  They're pretty cool in my book!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Prairie Plant of the Week - "Evening Primrose"!

"Evening Primrose - Oenothera biennis 
Photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

This week's prairie plant is another forb (herbacious flowering plant) that most of us see in proliferation each season; though locally it does seem to have its boom and bust years.  The Evening Primrose, or Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) is a biennial (note the "biennis" in the latin name), so it takes 2 years to flower.

This plant tends to be grazed on by everything hungry though, and can tend to have some rather ratty looking stands in some years.  We have a large stand of volunteers along side the corn crib that have been skeletonized by this year's crop of grasshoppers!  There are also insects that tend to be found or associated with different plants.  The vertical image below has a couple insects on the top of the plant that can be seen with the Evening Primrose every season.  I'll plead ignorant of the insect's identity and it's association with this plant - something to look into for future reference!
"Evening Primrose - Oenothera biennis 
Photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

We have this plant on our prairie pasture frequently; most commonly along the gravel hillside and the gravel road going past our place.  It volunteers quite easily and needs no seeding or help from us.  It is really quite striking in large stands...I once found a stand along a railroad bed that was at least a hundred feet long and 12 feet wide - it was amazing!

Some Native American tribes collected it's seed for food and most first nation people used the "first season" roots - gathereed and dried for food.  They were also adopted for food by the Europeans when they arrived.

They are great food plants for the birds and our pollinators  - very important for all of us!

Thanks for stopping by - next time you're out along a gravel road or prairie remnant - look for this beautiful native prairie plant!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Prairie Plant of the Week - "Ratibida pinnata"!

"Ratibida pinnata - Yellow Coneflower"
photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 
I made this prairie forb the "print of the week" because it was peaking nicely here at the studio prairie pastures - so why not "plant of the week" too!?

As I mentioned before, this is a very common native prairie flower or forb (flowering herbacious plant).  Most will recognize it a first glance but maybe by different names.  I like to state the scientific name for a plant if I can - that way there is no argument what plant is being discussed!  This plant (Ratibida pinnata) is commonly referred to as a "Gray-headed Coneflower" or a "Yellow Coneflower", and even some times a "Prairie Coneflower"

"Gray-headed Coneflower" refers to the light green or gray flowering head when it first appears - before filling out with small florets and turning brown.

This prairie flower will adapt readily in a flower garden but tends to be pretty tall at times (4-5 feet here in the pasture) so it needs support from other plants or will lie down from being top heavy.

There is not any odor or smell that I can detect from the flowers, but the bees and butterflies are non-the-less attracted to them...the bees can often be seen pollinating by going round and round the rim of florets.  The smell of this plant's seed heads when they are dry and ready to pick - is "amazing"!  Its a wonderful smell that has come to mean "prairie" in the autumn to me.

Thanks for stopping by - hope to see you on the Tallgrass!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Prairie Plant of the Week - Monarda fistulosa!

This week we have Monarda fistulosa - know by some folks as Bee Balm or Horse Mint. Most prairie folk know it as Wild Bergamot. Its a member of the mint family and is a common native over most of the North American prairie region. This is one plant that pollinators love - "Bee Balm" aptly describes how much bees like it...Bumble Bees in particular! 

One thing I notice about Wild Bergamot is the heat of the summer matures the flowers very quickly and they just do not last long enough for me - if I don't get out there when they "peak", its too late for good pictures!  We've had a couple days (today is one) with temps in the mid nineties and a heat index into the 105 and higher range...that's moving these flowers right along!  I made a point of getting out the the past couple days and this morning to catch them before they wane.

Thanks again for stopping by - we'll see ya on the Tallgrass!

Plant of the week - Echinacea angustifolia

Thought I'd post a prairie flower from the pastures here once a week.  I started this on my Face Book page and thought why not on the "A Tallgrass Journal" blog?!- Last week was Echinacea - most people recognize purple coneflowers, well this one is native to our county and some surrounding counties in NW Iowa - this one is Echinacea angustifolia - Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower - not to be mistaken as Pale Purple Coneflower or Echinacea pallida (which we also have here). Your common garden variety - Echinacea purpurea is not native here - don't plant it in native settings, keep it in your yard.

Most sources do attribute the Echinacea pallida to being native in NW Iowa, so there's sometimes a question as to what you are seeing.  The easiest visible difference is the longer/narrow "rays" (some folks think of them as petals) on the E. pallida...these rays also droop much more.  Also the E. pallida is much taller - I've seen it regularly at 3-4 feet or slightly taller, whereas the E. angustifolia is much shorter (2-2.5 feet) with short rays.

Curiously, I have never seen E. pallida on a native prairie here in NW Iowa - just on reconstructed prairie or roadside plantings.  The native pasture here had E. angustifolia originally as did the native prairies in the county's SE corner.

I actually think that our Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower would make a great graden plant too!

Thanks for stopping by - see you on the Tallgrass!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Prairie Monarch

"Prairie Monarch - Bison Bull"
color pencil drawing - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

I've been working on a prairie monarch since March - not the insect kind, but rather the "regal" mammal kind - the American Bison.  I've never really drawn or painted a bison, except for a logo I did several years ago for the area's Prairie Heritage Center.  I have taken a few photographs over the years, but came across one in my file that I thought I could isolate and set into a scene fitting for him.  I had to do a bull - up close these guys are quite intimidating!
2 1/2 months on one drawing has been a little much for me, I need to get loose now - both figuratively and outdoors.  The prairie pasture has thrown several surprises at us this year...we're seeing many plants we haven't seen in the places they're showing their heads.  Some of our hillside pasture's original native seed bank is coming back, its pretty exciting to see!  I need to take advantage of what's out there and free myself from the lap board (drawing board) so much.
I've often wondered what it would have been like to see Bison here, in our local habitat a couple hundred years back.  I purposely set the bull bison in the drawing, on the side of a hillside slope; its how I see our pasture much of the time and adds a bit more drama as far as the image is concerned.  The sky is also quite dramatic out here in the open prairie, and by placing it back behind the hill top, it adds some tension and drama as it a breaking sky or a developing storm over the horizon?
I hope you are able to get out there this summer and see what develops...what's over that horizon for you?!  
See you on the Tallgrass!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Cycles Behind...Cycles Ahead

Blue-eyed Grass with native Bee
- photography © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view) 

I've written about Phenology before; if you keep any kind of record of events or relating to events (like writing down rain amounts on your wall calendar) - then you're practicing Phenology.  The Aldo Leopold Foundation states that Phenology is " a segment of ecology focusing on the study of periodic plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment."

For instance, we keep records each year as to when certain birds first appear in the spring or fall during migration, when the Great Blue Herons in the Waterman Creek rookery across the road first return, when the native plants in the prairie pasture here begin blooming, and so on.

We don't specifically do this because we're doing scientific research or something of that nature, we also do it because we're just plain interested and its fun!  It also can help with just plain curiosity.

We've all heard someone exclaim that "things are sure early this year"!  Well, are they really?  Or are they just early compared to "last year", or are they running at an average?  Phenology can answer a lot of those questions.  But one reason I like keeping records like this are to "be prepared"!

If I know that the hummingbirds usually show up at such and such a time (on the average), and we put the feeders out a couple days ahead of time - we're ready for 'em!

I also know that certain other events like bloom time can be prepared on our prairie pasture one example is the Blue-eyed Grasses (Sisyrinchium campestre).  It is such a small flowering native forb that it can be easily missed if you're not out and looking in the right places.  But I know (from past years) that it usually shows up on May 15th.  But some years it may be early or late, so I'll start looking during the first week of May just in case.  This year it was fortunate I did - it showed up here on our pasture on May 7! 

The blossoms of this tiny member of the Iris family measure around 1/2" or slightly less across; so you can get an idea of how small the little native bee (specific species unidentified) actually is!  Iowa has maybe around 35-40 types of native Bees and some, like this one are quite small.  When does this bee usually show up here on our pastures?  Well - when their forage does, so each year I see this bee its on the day I find the first Blue-eyed Grasses in bloom!

Just because one plant bloomed early, does that mean everything is?  Not necessarily but sometimes other things show the same pattern as well...this year the American Toads here began singing the 3rd week of April - that is early for them also...about 2 weeks early!  

Ya, some years those cycles we all pay attention to are behind, and some years ahead - its fun keeping track and looking forward to the next arrival or departure...that's life ya know!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015

(color pencil drawings  © Bruce A. Morrison)
The Chipping Sparrows are back; their pitched staccato song is once again in the door yard.  The American Goldfinch males are bold and Yellow once again, and the first White-throated Sparrow male of spring showed up yesterday morning as the frost left the waterleaf outside the kitchen door - It's spring!  And it's Earth Day once again - it should be every day; we live here and wouldn't exist without it!

My feelings about our planet and what we are doing to it have not changed since last Earth Day, nor the Earth Days before.  But I won't get too verbose this year...I don't want to wear you out with what you should already know and hold dear.  If you want to hear it again, you can revisit Earth Day here at the Prairie Hill Farm Blog from April 2013 - Earth Day...It "IS" Important!

I will celebrate Earth Day on this blog a little differently this year, going back to the rebel roots of my youth I guess.  I protested all that was wrong with our treatment of the Earth back then too.  Please take a moment and listen and reflect; after all "Who is Gonna Stand Up and Save the Earth?"

Keep on Rock'n for a Free World Neil...

The Earth is our bed, our nursery and our life - do not spoil it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How It Needs To Be - For Our Sake

 "Monarch on New England Aster" 
color pencil drawing - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

I've always had a soft spot for Monarch butterflies, but then who hasn't enjoyed these big beauties each summer?  They have always put on a great show here on our acreage and the prairie pastures.  But like many other people - some years ago I began to notice something just wasn't right.  My observations weren't exactly scientific; I was only observing a change, but it was certainly becoming clearer and clearer as I read more of what was going on in their winter sanctuaries, and how our newer agricultural pesticides were affecting them in their breeding grounds of the central U.S.

In the mid 1990's their numbers were estimated at 1 Billion.  In 2014 their numbers were estimated at 35 million.  The drop is so precipitous that status for protection under the Endangered Species Act was sought. In December of 2014 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that Endangered Species Act protection may be warranted for Monarchs, and announced the agency will now conduct a one-year status review.

This and the Presidential Memorandum last June (2014) is highlighting a real need to investigate and act upon the plight all of our pollinators are now facing; not just honeybees, but our native bees, and butterflies and the many other insects that pollinate our crops and the flora of this planet.

It is my sincere hope that we will all consider the findings and research from the independent science sector - those with no "skin" in the game.  For too long we have seen Big Ag research and studies showing a virtual "no effect" in results pertaining to environmental damage to flora and fauna.  And the "revolving" door of political appointments and corporate interests are blocking true independent research as well. I personally do not feel a need or "pull" to put all the "eggs" of our natural heritage into the basket of corporations that only profit with status quo or increases of millions of tons of pesticides each year.  But maybe that's just "me"? 

I will admit that I draw, paint and photograph things that strike me as beautiful, but I do not want to be categorized as simply a "decorative" artist.  I do work of what is personally important to me - the land, the flora and fauna of the tallgrass prairie...these are all important to me physically and emotionally, they are something I dearly want my great grand children and theirs to inherit and experience.  I don't just draw something because its "pretty", but to me its all beautiful, regardless.

The top image, the color pencil drawing of the "Monarch on New England Aster" is of beautiful subject matter, and it strikes me as something precious...I'm drawn to it by my interests in the Monarch butterfly, it's conflicts, it's future and it's habitat needs.  I'm drawn to do this piece because of my concern and my admiration for this species here in North America.  Aside from that, the drawing was also a challenge to do and I am happy with the outcome - it wasn't easy for me!

 "Monarch on Heliopsis helianthoides"
(front side of "Prairie Cantabile" two sided violin painting)
casein painting - © Bruce A. Morrison
(click on image for a larger view)

The only other time I can really think of doing artwork of a Monarch was on the front of a painted violin done years back for a NW Iowa Symphony Orchestra fund raiser.  It wasn't the main subject or focal point but a supporting character.  I liked the way this casein painting depicted a jungle of seeming chaos...the prairie and all its complexities can appear as chaos to the casual glance!

I hope a "pretty" picture can raise awareness of a precious piece of the prairie's puzzle. I'll continue portraying the landscape that I love and the natural heritage I feel passionately about...I'd hate to think of doing so as just "documenting" what "once was".  I'd rather think of it as how it needs to be...for our sake.