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Bay Area Blooms: Prairie flowers put on show

By Charlie Frisk

By mid-June, all but a few of the woodland spring ephemeral plants are done blooming.

As the canopy fills in there just isn’t enough sunlight to fuel their growth.

But, as the days become longer and the sunlight more intense, the prairie and savanna plants start their show.

The flower show on the prairie is just beginning, and it runs into October.

As soon as one group of flowers is done blooming, another group steps up to the plate.

Many think Wisconsin was almost totally forested in the pre-settlement days, but that is only true of the northernmost third of the state.

Much of the southern two-thirds was tallgrass prairie or oak savanna.

Savannas are a community with an understory, but with widely scattered trees.

Native Americans used fire to expand the range of prairie and savanna.

Prairie and savanna supported elk and bison, which were much larger than whitetail deer and had hides that were more useful for making shelter, clothing and baskets.

Because bison meat is less fatty than venison it was easier to preserve through drying.

Being able to preserve meat for lengthy periods of time was essential for surviving Wisconsin’s long, tough winters.

Wisconsin’s Native Americans were also farmers; producing corn, beans and squash.

Prairie and savanna lands were more suitable for farming.

Today, tallgrass prairie and oak savanna are both highly endangered ecological communities.

It is estimated that less than 1% of the original tallgrass prairie still remains and that only about .01% of Wisconsin’s oak savanna still remains.

Ironically, the tallgrass prairie was one of the last environments to be farmed.

Initially, farmers thought prairie soils must be infertile because they didn’t support trees.

Even when they learned prairies actually have the most fertile soils they had a difficult time farming.

The cast-iron plows of that time had a hard time breaking the tough roots of prairie grasses and the sticky soil required a farmer to stop frequently to scrape the gumbo off the plow blade.

John Deere changed all of that when he began production of the steel, self-cleaning moldboard plow in 1837.

Once farmers could efficiently break the prairie sod, most of the tallgrass prairie was doomed.

Ecologists have come to realize how important savannas are to so many species of plants and wildlife.

They are working to save what little we have left and restore other areas to their original habitat.

The Baird Creek Preservation Foundation is working in the Baird Creek watershed to restore both prairie and savanna.

Brown County Parks has prairie plots at Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has established some prairie along the arboretum trails.

Two attractive, showy plants blooming right now are white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), a legume that is a member of the pea family, and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

Spiderwort is not for late sleepers; the flower opens in the early morning and closes up before the heat of the day.

The beauty of the flower is well summed up in this quote from “Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region.”

“When a young Dakota brave is in love and when walking alone in the prairie and finding this flower in bloom, he sings a song to in which he endows it with his sweetheart’s characteristics and beauty it needs.”

The best locations to see remnant and restored prairies in the Green Bay area are:

• The Arboretum on the UWGB campus.
• Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve. To get to Barkhausen take 41 North to Lineville Road (east), then Lakeview Drive (north).
• Baird Creek Greenway. Take the trail going north out of Christa McAuliffe Park to a small prairie opening.
• Also, the large open field on McKenzie Lane, the Hartman Prairie on County JJ just across from a farmhouse at 4677 JJ, and just east of the Triangle Hill tubing hill is a restored oak savanna.

Along with the flower show, you have the bonus of seeing bird species such as meadowlarks, dickcissels, bobolinks, sandhill cranes and many others.

Editor’s note: To read another Bay Area Blooms article by Charlie Frisk, CLICK HERE.

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