Indiana Nature Notes for September
Just like Kankakee Sands, You'll Be Golden!
It's all too easy to overlook things, isn't it? As we move so quickly from place to place, from task to task, we often miss the nuances and details that make life so interesting. In the fall, with goldenrods painting our Kankakee Sands prairies an amazing palette of sunshine, buttery yellow, and gold, it's tempting just to say, "yep, that is pretty" and move on to other things, focusing our attention elsewhere.
But out there right now, from Early September to mid-October, are 15 different species of goldenrods in bloom, and one of the prettiest is aptly named showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa).
Most other goldenrods—stiff goldenrod, tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod—have the benefit of being four to five feet tall and grabbing our attention. But none has the same charm as the short, showy goldenrod. Growing only two to three feet tall, this squat little goldenrod has six-inch long, strap-like leaves which alternate up the stem and feel rubbery to the touch. The showy part is at the very top of each of the stalks sits a large, bulbous panicle of many small golden flowers—hundreds in fact! These nectar-filled flowers are visited by a myriad of butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles.
Goldenrods are indeed worth their weight in gold, as they are an important nectar source for the late fall insects. Adult monarch butterflies, in particular, find goldenrods of immense value.
The gorgeous, showy goldenrod is a wonderful choice for a landscaping plant—it is stiff and sturdy, allowing it to stand upright and not flop over. And lucky for us in the Kankakee Sands area with our sandy soils, showy goldenrod does well on sand and in full sun, like many of our prairie plants do.
If you slow down to admire showy goldenrod, you just might find that hidden among the flowers is a perfectly camouflaged, yellow-colored, goldenrod crab spider. There it sits intensely awaiting the opportunity to literally grab its next meal of the aforementioned butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and beetles which are coming in for nectar.
This is a well-named spider—it holds its front legs back just as a crab would do, and it can walk sideways in crab-like fashion. As its name implies, it is often found on goldenrod plants, but is also regularly found on milkweeds. The goldenrod crab spider has a bit of a secret weapon—it has the ability to change color based on its surroundings; it can become yellow, or green, or white or even pink by shedding its old exoskeleton for a new one!
Want to admire goldenrods up close and personal and try to find a crab spider on the prowl? Wonderful! Please join us on Saturday, September 24 to celebrate Kankakee Sands’ 25th anniversary. It’s a full day of family-friendly, fun activities – from a morning yoga session and a photography workshop to bison corral tours and hikes at Conrad Station Savanna.
There will also be free food, arts and crafts, and informational displays, as well as staff and volunteers on hand to chat about all things bison, prairie and goldenrod. We’ll be offering prairie walks through the south bison pasture in which you will be able to see a variety of goldenrods in bloom, and together we can hunt for crab spiders!
For more information visit the celebration webpage and just like Kankakee Sands in September, you’ll be golden!
Nature Notes for August
Pretty in Pink
I feel so lucky to live where there are lots of flowers—in Newton County with all its natural areas and close to Kankakee Sands, where I can enjoy 20,000 acres of native flowers brimming with color from April through September.
There are pretty flowers, and there are really pretty flowers, and then there are jaw-dropping, hold-the-phone pretty flowers. The swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus palustris) is definitely one of those jaw droppers.
This four to six-foot tall shrub-like plant has flowers with five bright pink overlapping petals. From the center of the flower arise a brilliant yellow cluster of pollen-holding stamens. What a contrast! Each individual flower lasts only last a few days, but new flowers open each day, so that there can be more than two dozen flowers blooming on one plant at a time! Jaw-dropping!
Swamp rose mallow begins blooming in late July, and it continues its display through early September, so there is plenty of time yet to be wowed. A great location from which to view them is along the Wet Prairie Trail in the north bison pasture – a 0.3-mile trail that begins at the Kankakee Sands office on US 41.
As its name suggests, swamp rose mallow grows in such wet places as wetlands, marshes, open swamps and along rivers and ponds in full sun or partial shade. It also grows very well in landscape settings should you want to grow this beauty on your own property.
In North America, the swamp rose mallow’s historical range extends from Ontario through much of the eastern half of the United States including the mid-Atlantic states and the Great Lake States down to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
The swamp rose mallow supports a wide variety of insects, including bumble bees and long-tongued bees (such as the rose mallow bee) that take both nectar and pollen from the flowers and pollinate them. Japanese beetles, aphids, caterpillars of the painted lady butterfly, gray hairstreak butterfly, Io moth, and bird dropping moth all feed on leaves, petals or seeds of the swamp rose mallow.
And there is one insect in particular that calls the swamp rose mallow home—the velvet leaf seed beetle. In contrast to other insects which visit the flower or leaves and then fly or scurry along, the velvet leaf beetle spends most of its time on the rose mallow plant—its larvae feed on the seeds, and the adults are either drinking nectar or mating in the pink protection of the plant’s petals. As its name suggests, the velvet leaf seed beetle can also be found on velvet leaf—another of host plant of this beetle and a common weed in our Midwest agricultural fields and gardens.
At just 2 millimeters in size—roughly the thickness of a nickel—the velvet leaf seed beetle (Althaeus folkertsi) might easily be overlooked. I admit to not noticing the beetle in the swamp rose mallow that grow at the Kankakee Sands nursery, but I do notice the insect-nibbled seeds and the insect frass left behind—true evidence of presence.
The velvet leaf beetle and I both have a pretty sweet place to live. Love where you live, we say! Whether it be in Newton County surrounded by acres and acres of flowers or inside one of the prettiest flowers of the wet prairie—the swamp rose mallow.
Nature Notes for July
Old Plainsman: Hurdling the Drought and Drench
Old plainsman played its cards well this year.
Early spring in Newton County was quite pleasant, with regular rains and warm temperatures. Old plainsman (Hymenopappus scabioseaus) was able to send up its two-foot tall flowering stalk in time to get pollinated by short tongued bees, beetles, flies and butterflies and set seed before the unexpected harsh dry days of late June arrived.
It had made it. It had completed its life cycle, and just in time!
Also called Carolina wooly-white, old plainsman is a pretty plant of the Kankakee Sands dry sand prairies and sand dunes. At its base is a rosette of finely divided feathery grey leaves. When it flowers, it sends up a solitary, red-tinged stalk beset with wooly tufts and long hairs. Atop the stalk sites a cluster of 20 – 100 white flowers.
Old plainsman is a biennial—a flowering plant that takes two or more years to complete its life cycle of flowering, pollination and setting seed. Biennials can hold out until the conditions are favorable—a year or two if needed—before sending up a flowering stalk, which takes a lot of energy and resources for a plant to do. After flowering, the plant will die back. It has done its job.
Some prairie plants are annuals, living only one year. In that short time, they must flower and set seed, in order to ensure that their genetics will remain a part of the prairie’s diversity. They are the prairie’s sprinters.
Perennials are plants which can return from their rootstock for three or more years, weathering the dry spells and the wet spells, and taking advantage of favorable conditions to flower and set seed. They are the marathoners.
I like to think of the biennials as the runners who do hurdles. They are designed to last only a few years, so they must run relatively fast like the sprinters, but can jump the hurdles of drought or drench, and wait for the following year if conditions aren’t right for flowering and successful seed set. Opportunists they are!
Old plainsman is another one of our ‘fancy plants’—plant that would have historically grown in high quality, diverse remnant prairies—those prairies that have existed since the retreat of the glaciers and have never been plowed for agriculture. Old plainsman is quite rare in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois; in fact it is found in just two Indiana counties: Newton and Starke. Throughout the U.S. it is found in the southeastern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia Mississippi and South Carolina, as well as the central states of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Illinois.
Walk (or sprint or jog or dash) through Kankakee Sands this July and you’ll find most of the old plainsman successfully pollinated and producing seed, surrounded by the lance-leaved coreopsis, butterfly weed, june grass, round headed bush clover, hoary puccoon, little bluestem, and spiderwort.
Come on out for a sprint, jog or stroll through the Kankakee Sands this summer and enjoy all the annual, perennial and biennial flowers of the prairie!