Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: tallgrass prairie

The Bees Know

I know I’ve said it before, but white heath is my favorite late-season native wildflower. When all the other flowers have spent themselves, white heath is just getting started. White heath keeps going till the last minute, when the themometer hits 32 on some early morning in October. White heath is always the last flower to leave the party of the tallgrass prairie summer.

Everybody hates white heath, except me. I have finally convinced the people who wield the weed whackers around here not to whack it, but I keep a few in out-of-the-way places, just in case. There’s a big patch this year by the compost, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it, after all. The honey bees appreciate it. There aren’t a lot of flowers left, and most of the others peaked a week ago, or more. It’s a glorious, sunny, warm day today, but there won’t be many more of these, and the bees know to make the most of every bit of pollen they can gather before the cold sets in.

I am not so industrious. I struggle to match my energy to the time available. I have gotten some good work done on my studio renovation this week, but it’s far from ready, and I didn’t really get anything done today.

Tomorrow I’ll take a lesson from the bees, I promise. The bees know.

Autumn Hiking In the Flint Hills

We’re having an unusually early and very deep cold snap, but last week capped a lovely autumn. At the end of the kids’ Thanksgiving vacation, we went for a prairie walk with their grandma (“Baba”) at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Right away Kiran insisted she’d had enough of being with me and her sister over the previous five days, so I was free to walk ahead, listen to the quiet, and take photographic advantage of the prairie and the angle of the sun to the hills. The writer in me thinks I should tell a story, but all I seem to find are expansive horizons, light on grasses, dormant prairie flora in intimate contrast to distant, vibrant children. Reflections on a creek, more vivid than the tiny living fish hiding below the surface. It’s a story for pictures, not words.

Spring Prairie Walk

They say spring comes earlier than it did in your time, though, being Kansas, there is no guarantee of anything when it comes to weather. We could have a perfectly peaceful, warm March, but there could be a late frost in April, or even May. The deities of weather care not that the butterflies are already on the wing, the trees have awakened with blooms and even leaves. Nonetheless, the plants feel the irresistible urge to green and grow when the days warm and lengthen; and so it comes to be that Marlo and I find ourselves equally unable to resist a walk in the prairie to find the tender greens and medicinal plants of spring.

Our first cry of delight came when we saw this sweet flower, the ground-plum milk-vetch, Astragalus crassicarpus. We only enjoyed the beauty of the flowers, however, as spring is not the time for this plant to give itself to the aid of humans. We’ll come back when the flowers have gone, and the fruit is ripe. We’ll come again in the fall, the time for harvesting roots. Daniel Moerman reports that this one was used for bleeding wounds and for convulsions. We don’t see convulsions often, but the herbs will be gathered in their time, so that they might be with us when we need them. If someone is convulsing, we’d prefer to have the treatment on hand already. (Please note, numerous authors warn that this species is easily mistaken for other Astragalus species, which are considered poisonous, and we do not wish to be your personal medical advisors!)

I almost overlooked this sweet little bloom, pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta. It could easily be mistaken for some kind of grass seed, being small and fuzzy and low to the ground. This unassuming little flower is said to be good for coughs, bruises, inflammation, and hepatitis. I think the most significant claim is that Native Americans used it with confidence for rattlesnake bites. We haven’t had to test it, but we do share our habitat with rattlesnakes, and so we are grateful that, as usual, Mother Nature has placed the antidote near the poison.

We saw lots of wild parsley, Lomatium foeniculaceum, along our walk. This is another plant which gives us its roots in the fall, which can be eaten dried and powdered and blended with other flours.

My favorite of the day was the lovely white fawn lily, Erythronium albidum. Also called dogtooth violet, this one is edible, though so lovely that I can scarcely bring myself to uproot it. I noted its location, though, and in summer when it has died back, I’ll take a few bulbs to plant in the flower beds. The flowers, leaves, and bulb are all edible, and perhaps some year when we are more hungry for food than beauty, we’ll be twice grateful to have them.

Thus Marlo and I came home from our prairie walk with color in our cheeks and joy in our hearts, but little in our baskets, but as we approached the common areas of our compound, we found in abundance one of the best healing foods around, of the genus Taraxacum. For our purposes, we don’t need to identify species; they are all edible and wildly nutritious. We collected big roots in the fall as a tonic for mild illnesses, and today we gathered the tender young leaves for a salad, and flowers for May-honey. This tenacious perennial originated in Eurasia, but is found throughout North America, especially in places where the ecosystem has been disturbed, unlike the pristine prairie where we found our native friends. In the days when people had lawns, Taraxacum was unwelcome, even reviled; but it remained unfailingly cheerful nonetheless, and was often a favorite of young children. The common name of this flower is, of course, dandelion. We filled our baskets.

And so, for sustenance for our bodies, we needn’t have gone out on a walk at all; and yet the greater sustenance was received by our souls from our morning walk in the prairie.

Timothy Barksdale, Birdman

One of the pleasures of operating a lodging is that occasionally we get to meet inspiring people, people who are living into their lives without hesitation or doubt, who aren’t just on this planet to enjoy the ride, but who choose to make their time here something worthwhile.

Timothy Barksdale stayed here several times while shooting for a film about greater prairie chickens. He is a wildlife filmmaker who has had a number of films shown on PBS. He always has time to talk about birds, and I didn’t hesitate to pick his brain about any bird question that popped into my head when he was here. I think I actually saved some questions for him, when I knew he would be coming soon. We loved having him here, and told him everything we could think of that might possibly be helpful, like what ranchers had prairie chickens on their land, or where to get a hot-air balloon ride in the Flint Hills, but he’s the kind of guy who finds what he’s looking for with or without anybody else, so I doubt I ever did anything useful for him, except perhaps making a bed or taking his reservation. We did let him leave a piece of equipment once, I don’t remember why or exactly what it was, but it was a long metal thing that set beside the building for months, or was it over a year? I would occasionally walk by it and wonder how Tim was doing.

This week he finally stopped in to pick it up. I was pleased to see him, but saddened when he told me how difficult it’s been for him to raise the funds to complete his film. The greater prairie chicken is a unique and amazing bird, which numbered in the millions when Europeans arrived upon this continent. Now a few hundred survive in isolated, undisturbed patches of the most remote prairies of the midwest. The beauty of the prairie is not like that of mountains or oceans, the kind that whacks you over the head and leaves you for dead. The prairie’s beauty waits for you to come to it. You have to want to see it, and look for it. Timothy Barksdale is on a mission to expose people to this beauty, and to the urgency of the need to save the prairie and prairie chickens. Not surprisingly, these days are not easy times for wildlife filmmakers. Tim has been partially saved by having sold some stock footage to appear in The Big Year, an upcoming film about birdwatching, with a fabulous cast. But he still doesn’t have the funds to complete his film about prairie chickens. He’s got some trailers on vimeo.com, so watch them, go see The Big Year, and if you can possibly make a donation, please do.

Flowers of the Summer Prairie: Western Ironweed

Spring is often thought of as the time for flowers, and the tallgrass prairie has her share of lovely spring wildflowers: beardtongue, spiderwort, milkweed, evening primrose, and many others. But now it is August, and the delicate beauty of the spring-bloomers has long faded; under the brutal summer sun, many of the spring plants have wilted and disappeared altogether, not to be seen again until the gentle spring rains awaken their winter-dormant seeds. But some plants thrive in the heat and glare of high summer on the open prairie. This is their heyday. Sunflower, compass plant, daisy fleabane, and our flower du jour, western ironweed, Vernonia baldwinii.

In 1900, Neltje Blanchan wrote of ironweed, “Emerson says a weed is a plant whose virtues we have not yet discovered; but surely it is no small virtue in the iron-weed to brighten the roadsides and low meadows throughout the summer with bright clusters of bloom.” She also notes that the tiger swallowtail butterfly seems to have a particular affinity for ironweed. I myself have seen upon this plant a lovely, white-furred caterpillar from a different feline lepidopteran; that is, the tiger moth.

In 1941, a Dr. Frank Gates had apparently read neither Emerson nor Blanchard, for he wrote only about ironweed’s undesirable traits, particularly when in pastures where cattle graze. He describes the plant in fine detail, without wasting paper dwelling on its beauty; then proceeds on to how to eradicate it. I wouldn’t give space on my shelf to his book, Weeds in Kansas, but for the unequalled quality of his drawings and descriptions, which have been consistently my best resource for identification of our native flora. Indeed, where many experts on native plants give their attention only to the natives, Dr. Gates doesn’t neglect to tell us about the immigrants as well; and his book was where I finally found the names of henbit, shepherd’s purse, purslane, and prickly lettuce.

In 1992, Kelly Kindscher lamented that so little attention had been paid to the medicinal virtues of prairie plants; of ironweed, he said only that it was used by the Cherokee in combination with sneezeweed to prevent menstruation in the months after childbirth.

Of the numerous species of ironweed native to North America, others have been been used to support feminine wellness and comfort. The midwives of our community are currently exploring the possibilities for what help it may have to offer us.

I sat by a patch of ironweed, to ask if there was anything it wanted me to tell you. I felt the soft fuzz of its underleaves, and I admired the plant’s habit of growing straight up as one stem, then branching at the top into pairs, each pair reaching out from the stem one-third of a rotation from the previous pair, with leaves showing beneath the stalks in the same pattern when viewed from above. It’s a neat and effective design for maximizing the plant’s exposure to the energizing light of the sun, from which ironweed never shrinks. I did not discern a message for me. Perhaps my friend was just enjoying the weather, a typically hot, bright August day in Kansas. Perhaps the message was, “Plant your roots deep, grow wholeheartedly toward the sun, your source; but don’t forget the soft, delicate underside of things.”

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