Prairies Have Fall Color, Too

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a class with the UW Extension. This course happens to be hosted by The Prairie Enthusiasts at their beautiful Schurch-Thomson prairie. Over the past few weeks I have noticed a shift in the coloring of the plants their, with the grasses and forbs alike become a bit more fall-like. Below is a photo from the 11th of September.


Still fairly summery for sure. The next photo is from the same location on September 24th.


Okay, so I don’t like to compare pictures that were taken is very different lighting conditions, but the prairie is redder in the second one. The grasses in particular stand out. Who says fall color is just for trees? Prairies change throughout the year too and they are a delight to watch.

bergamot turns from green to a deep red
as does this showy goldenrod
as does this showy goldenrod


this milkweed leaf doesn't look that different than an autumnal tree leaf
this milkweed leaf doesn’t look that different than an autumnal tree leaf
compass plants and their relatives turn yellow and then a rich brown fit for the season
a closer view of a particularly red clump of big blue stem
a closer view of a particularly red clump of big blue stem, one of the grasses adding to the warm tone of the prairie

This is just the beginning. I consider mid to late fall to be even prettier in terms of autumn prairies. By then there is very little green left. The color is not as brilliant as a forest in peak color, but it is a nice brown with a hint of warmth. It is hard to compete with. Expect more prairie posts in the coming month.



Seed Collecting and Walking the Pheasant Branch Conservancy

On Saturday I invited my roommate to volunteer with me at the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, a large tract of prairie, marshland, and other natural communities on the north side of Middleton. We ended up doing seed collecting in the prairie. First we collected sideoats grama seeds. This is a grass that is much shorter than the big bluestem that towers over prairies and the seed heads were below my waist. They were very easy to pick. Instead of using trimmers we just ran our fingers along the stalks and collected the seeds as they fell into our palms.

Sideoats grama (with roommate in the background)
Sideoats grama (with roommate in the background getting his own picture)

It took a long time for us to fill our seed bags even partway. After about two hours’ work each of us had only collected about 5 cups.

After a short break we switched over to collecting penstemon seed heads. Considering penstemon is the genus name and not the species, I’m not entirely sure the exact identity of what we collected. My best guess is penstemon digitalis. I still have a long ways to go on my plant IDs. We filled up our bags faster on this because we clipped off the stem right below the seeds.


After a few hours of work I took my roommate on a brief tour of the conservancy because he had never been there. First we went up Frederick’s Hill and saw a multitude of plant and insect species on our way.

black swallowtail
black swallowtail

The top of Frederick’s Hill is one of the best views in town. I can’t resist the urge to take a new picture every time I am up there.

the immediate view looking south
the immediate view looking south-pardon the city in the background

The conservancy is so gorgeous! The creek in the picture is a fork of the Pheasant Branch Creek, which winds through much of Middleton. After getting down the hill we went to the springs that feed into the creek.

The springs have a boardwalk that goes right down to the water. The water felt cold to the touch, but it wouldn’t feel that bad in winter. The ground keeps it at a moderate temperature and in the winter it remains unfrozen. At that point the springs are a good place to find birds looking for warm water and all that comes with it.

An indigenous belief is that the springs lead to the spirit realm. While I do not believe that, there is something spiritual about being in a place where water begins its journey on the surface of the land. The water we saw bubbling up will flow to Lake Mendota, travel farther down the Yahara River to the Rock River, then on to the Mississippi and eventually the ocean. Like everything else, the springs are part of something large and intricate once you take a deeper look.

the springs
the springs

Wisconsin River Valley, 9-10-16

Moving takes more time than I’d like. Not only did my roommate and I have to move all our stuff but we had to unpack it too. I still have some stuff left at my parents’ house (sorry guys). I didn’t have much time to write. I have been out in nature though. My roommate, who majored in forestry, and I went to the University of Wisconsin (UW) Arboretum and walked through their prairie parcel a few days after moving in. My biggest exposure to nature though is through a course I’ve been taking through the UW extension.

On Saturday the class took an amazing field trip through the valley of the Wisconsin River. Growing up only about half an hour from the river, it is my river. Or maybe I’m its human. Either way, it feels like home. The first place we stopped, the Avoca Prairie and Savanna State Natural Area (SNA) was new to me. Our plan was to drive across a low channel to access the prairie, but the water was high due to the large amount of rain we’ve had this summer.

pretty though
pretty though

But hey, at least we got to view the river bottom forest a little. The predominant trees were silver maple and river birch. They are both adapted to frequent flooding. Unfortunately the understory was dominated by invasive reed canary grass, but there were some bright red cardinal flowers blooming through the cover.

cardinal flower surrounded by reed canary grass
cardinal flower surrounded by reed canary grass
silver maples and high water
silver maples and high water

On our way out, we spotted a first year common snapping turtle. It’s amazing that these small things grow into such a tough animal.

Someday it will be big- their shell can be over a foot long at adulthood

Next we headed to the Spring Green Preserve, a Nature Conservancy land. This is a place I’ve been since childhood, but every time I go it’s different. Prairies are in a constant state of flux throughout the year, with different plants blooming at different times. The Spring Green prairie is a dry one with sandy soil and has earned the nickname “the Wisconsin Desert.” It even has prickly pear cactus, which shocks a lot of my friends when they find out it is native. Dry prairie was once the dominant vegetation type along parts of the river valley but plowing and lack of fires led to corn fields replacing it on flat areas and woods replacing it on hillsides. It is only because of hard work by restoration teams that what remains of the prairie exists today.

the view upon entering
prickly pear cactus with fruit
prickly pear cactus with fruit
bird’s foot violet
Little blue stem, one of teh most common grasses at the preserve, is the reddish-purple one in front of the trees.
Little blue stem, one of the most common grasses at the preserve, is the reddish-purple one in front of the trees.