The photos below show what I looked at and thought about as I mapped where this year's various seed mixes should be broadcast.
SPECIES IN TRANSITION
The subdued rainbow leaves are wild quinine. The sapling in the middle (gray bark, small yellow leaflets) is a shagbark hickory. I wonder how long that hickory will be here. It represents a possibly-natural disturbance. Its trunk burns off and re-sprouts after every fire. This little trunk is two years old. It will probably burn off again this fall.
The tall plant with the bright green leaves is tall goldenrod. It’s a weed, not a bad plant, but one that, being common, indicates that top quality species haven’t yet reached an advanced stage of succession here. More conservative associates of wild quinine will replace this weed, if we seed them in.
MANY YEARS INTO THE RESTORATION PROCESS
These dropseed grass clumps are probably twenty years old. We also planted forty or sixty wildflower species in this same mix, most of which are now present in small numbers. The other main color today (dark red-purplish) belongs to gray dogwood, a shrub. In prairie restoration, many people try to eradicate it. But in this savanna, it’s natural as dirt. If we stopped burning for ten years, dogwood would probably be six to ten feet tall and start shading out the species that need full sun. If we burned every year, the dogwood itself would probably be choked out in time. Savanna is always flowing in the tides of change.
THE COLOR OF EVIL.
In this case, deep green marks the evil one. The shrub on the left is common buckthorn. Green late in the season, it works overtime to shade out every other species in this photo.
Buckthorn we don’t mess with; we herbicide it. People used to think it would burn out in time. Frequent fire can keep it low like this, but it persists and degrades (and forces us to burn more often than perhaps is good for some animal species, given how small our preserves are).
There are at least a dozen species visible here that buckthorn would shade out and kill. Most obvious are compass plant (deeply cut leaves) and cream false indigo (vaguely bluish gray). We won't sow more seed here until the buckthorn is gone.
It’s so cute. The bright green grass here will fill this frame when it matures, but that process will take some years. The seed this youngster grew from probably flew from our broadcasting hands about four years ago. As it grows, the wild quinine (gray seed heads to the left and multi-colored leaves) will still be here, but smaller and fewer.
Other species in this photo: little bluestem (curly reddish leaves), golden Alexanders, prairie rose and early goldenrod will also still be here. The latter was a dominant. It’s often dominant early in the process of restoring an old pasture, like this was. But it is very generous about mostly giving way to more conservative species in time. As this dropseed grows and the community re-adjusts, this will be a good time to seed in some of the rarer spring species like prairie betony, violet wood sorrel, shooting star and prairie violet.
I admit that the prairie dock leaves here steal the show. But what I see most are the columns of gray seed on the leadplant in the background. They scold me with reminders that we need to finish the harvest – so that the conservative plants of this rich patch can be broadcast in the many, larger patches that are still begging for restoration.
(Plants in bloom here: heath aster and azure aster.)
The bright orange here is hawthorn. Dogwood and hawthorn are now the commonest native shrubs at Somme. Hazelnut and wild plum were probably more common in original tallgrass nature. Heavy grazing helped the hawthorns. It will be fun to watch how the various shrubs increase, decrease and move around the site under the influence of restored frequent fire.
Stiff gentian is now the commonest gentian on the site, by the thousands. We never found much seed of this rare plant, but from the little we did it reproduced “like crazy.” The crazy part probably has something to do with the still transitional nature of the restoring ecosystem here. In time, stiff gentian will probably retreat from areas of the most conservative full-sun species – and will thrive where the shrubs keep things stirred with all their growing-up and shading-out and burning-back and starting-over.
Some oaks escape the fire by hiding in shrub patches. At least fifty nearby bur and scarlet oaks are equally old, but three feet tall. Their tops burn off, and they have to start growing new trunks every time the savanna burns. Brush patches suppress the grassy fuel. So the fire usually skips the oaks in shrub patches. By the time this shrub patch does burn, this oak may have developed enough thick corky bark to protect it. Then we’d have a mature old oak in the making.
PROBABLY NOT A WINNER
This ash tree got its top burned off (see all that black at the bottom). It’s putting up re-sprouts (and holding up a grape vine). Oaks, hazels and plums are masters at re-sprouting. Ash is not. Over the years, with burning, we expect ash to fade out (along with maple, like that orange tree in the background). As they decrease, classic savanna trees and shrubs will increase.
UNINTENTIONAL SELF PORTRAIT – with big bluestem and dropseed.
I don’t know why my phone/camera did this weird thing. But I kind of like it. If you’re still here, thanks for taking this walk with me. And do comment to let me know if you found this helpful, or interesting, or had questions. Thanks.