The Autumnal Prairie Dons Her Yellow Dress

by Rachel Creager Ireland

It was an exceptionally dry, hot summer. Weeks without rain, coupled with record-breaking heat, dessicated the earth. Gardens failed to produce food. The deer were getting skinny. Everything seemed to be dying.

Finally, late in the summer, we had a couple rains. We’re still well below the “normal” amount of rainfall for the year, but that boost seems to have redeemed the prairie. Somehow, when everything appeared dead, some plants must have been living and growing, preparing to take advantage of whatever water might find its way to their roots. When it came, they burst into flower.

First it was the compass plants, Silphium laciniatum. From the bloom, they could easily be mistaken for a sunflower, but if you look at the foliage, you can see a base of large leaves, while the sunflowers have leaves up the stem. This is one of my favorite native wildflowers, and one day I’ll dedicate a post just to this awesome perennial with a taproot which is often said to reach fifteen feet.

Next come the sunflowers, Helianthus annuus. There is no more cheerful face to be seen on the prairie, and once again this year she has proven herself able to “keep a good face” in spite of the most fearsome drought. The hills burst into brilliant yellow bloom. If you don’t know this flower, she is the same species as the iconic giant greystripe sunflower, but the greystripe was developed in Russia from annuus stock. If you see a greystripe, it is one which has traveled the world and come home. The homebodies exhibit a habit more like a bush, with many blooms reaching out in all directions from the stem.

Annuus has peaked, but her day isn’t done yet. She’s just making room for her sister, the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani. She comes a bit later than annuus, and a little smaller, but just as cheerful.

You’ll notice that all our friends du jour are yellow. Other colors are present, but yellow predominates at this time of the year. Who pollinates yellow flowers? It turns out, according to the Xerces Society, that bees are the primary pollinator. They also tell us that the European honeybee is not the best pollinator of sunflowers. The honeybees tend to specialize in either nectar or pollen gathering, which leads to little crossing from male to female plants. The native leafcutter bees, bumblebees, and sweat bees not only cross from male to female plants, but it appears that they harass the honeybees into doing the same, thereby increasing pollination on both counts.

Let me not neglect the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus. They have been scanty in number this year. The lepidopterists’ grapevine has indicated that they were farther north, in places they don’t normally go, even into Canada. I wonder what force told them to go where there might be more hope of finding the nectar which sustains them? Here in Kansas, I’m not sure I saw a single one, until the last week or so. I saw three in one tree one day, and a few singles on other days since, but not enough to establish a pattern of migration. Today a neighbor reported a tree in the area which was filled with them, perhaps a thousand. It is a relief to me, that even after such a dry and desolate season, the migration continues. I wish them godspeed on their long journey to Mexico, and hope that their mountain habitat has not come to a worse fate than their prairie home.

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