Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Cool Hike on a Hot Day

This blog tells
what a steward notices
in the balmy cool of 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM
on a later-to-be 95-degree day.

My basic mission is to look for purple loosestrife and white sweet clover, malignant invasives that, thanks to hard work, are now uncommon at Somme.

But in the first wetland, 
rather than any loosestrife, 
I find the very rare American slough grass. 

(There’s extra info on this endangered-in-Illinois plant at the end of this blog.) 

Here I’ll merely cite the thrilling fact that you can recognize it 
by its unusual seeds, flat and round, and arranged on the stalk like stacks of coins.

I found this handsome grass 
in six spots, 
but the counts per patch were low: 1, 1, 4, 1, 3, 1. 
Some years we find hundreds. Other years we find none. 
It was good to see some. 
The classy scientific name of American slough grass is Beckmannia syzigachne.

As I head up a wet swale, I find no evil invasives but do see signs of restoring biodiversity.

Where an ash died from the emerald ash borer, the flush of light enables a riot of now-uncommon plants. Starry campion, Joe-Pye-weed, tall coreopsis, ox-eye sunflower.

Another good sign 
is many "new" populations 
of Michigan lily – 
a species that didn't bloom 
at Somme 
for many years 
when the deer population 
was disastrously high.

Right by the lily, 
what to my wondering eyes should appear, 
but three blooming plants of the rare 
glade mallow, 
Napaea dioica
The ones at Somme 
may be the only glade mallows in Cook County. 

We’ve never found 
even one large, healthy, 
blooming plant at Somme before now. 
But more and more 
in recent years 
we’ve found bigger and bigger specimens. 
The problem for many years is that overpopulated deer 
had been too hard on them. 
This morning I find two patches – the first with three plants and the second with two. 

Five happiness.

Of course, 
if I look down 
below the flowers, 
I find that many 
of the leaves 
have been grazed off. 
But just finding 
five glade mallows 
big enough to bloom 
is a great step 
in the right direction. 

And it’s a beautiful day.

As I walk, 
I’m conflicted 
about my 
big human feet 
treading on 
the richness. 

Always I keep 
to the trails 
in the growing season, except when 
I’m stalking weeds 
or doing seeds. 
Being empowered 
as a steward 
gives me an odd privilege. 
When hunting 
sweet clover, 
I see beauty 
and surprises 
I wouldn’t otherwise allow myself.

Plants here:
Culver's root.
Early goldenrod. 
Mountain mint.
Dropseed grass. 

What are these golden threads 
creeping through the vegetation? 
Numerous times we’ve gotten warnings 
from well-meaning people that a sinister demon plant 
was devastating the vegetation. 
But it’s just our friend dodder, Cuscuta glomerata
a weird but natural parasitic morning glory. 

Strange plant: it has no leaves or roots. 
When the seeds germinate, the shoot immediately attaches to nearby vegetation and sucks out nutrients. 
Soon its waxy white flowers 
will bedeck the graceful flaxen stems. 
For a while the whole plant will be just stems 
and flowers. Later it will be stems and seed.

Does it do harm? No.  It creates a disturbance. 
A beautiful disturbance, if you look close. 
The ecosystem is adapted to it. 
Other plants will take the places of the ones 
it sets back, and a diverse cycle will proceed.

Next I do 
finally find 
the evil sweet clover. 

See the white sprays 
of pea flowers? 
Does it look threatening here? 

If not, know that 
twenty years ago, 
acres here were blighted and degraded 
by solid waist or chest-high stands of it.

Now I pull out 
the 48 plants 
in this first patch. 
A large plant can make 60,000 seeds. 

Good riddance.

The soil is damp, 
and the roots 
come out easily. 

Seeds haven’t formed yet, 
so I don’t need to haul plants 
out of the preserve.  

I toss piles 
where they'll do the least harm - 
in this case 
into a patch of 
the somewhat aggressive 
saw-tooth sunflower. 

I come across a pile we made
a few days ago, drying on a log. 

The Somme Team rousted them 
one cool morning. 
I love to do this work with friends, trading thoughts. I also love to follow up for later bloomers, alone in wilderness reverie. It’s all good.

This dead pile, near the trail, 
could be ugly to passers-by. I hope many will see it as an indication of the commitment that results in the whole being so increasingly beautiful, year after year.

In fact, 
I find five 
clover patches.

I map them 
and file it, 
so we can 
remember to 
check these spots 
on some beautiful 
July morning 
next year.

This one is 
great St. John’s wort, taller than I. 

Fat ovaries 
with five sticky stigmas on top of each... 
hiding under 
a tangle 
of pollen-y stamens.

I find bugs too. 
But I don’t try 
to photograph them 
with my little cell phone. 

To represent them, 
this is one of Lisa Culp’s 
recent daily masterpieces. 

What kind of strange flies 
are these? 
What’s their role in the ecosystem? 

I pass a skunk, 
a crayfish, 
a plains garter snake, 
and countless 
engaging bugs. 

But now it’s getting hot, 
so off I go to other work.

But hey! If you get cabin fever from air-conditioning, try mornings in nature. They’re pretty nice.
Post Script
Here are promised tidbits 
on American slough grass, Beckmannia syzigachne.  
The light-shaded counties show where it’s known from. 
Not many places in Illinois. 
Most populations are now gone. 
The grass is an annual. 
It’s adapted to something. Fire? 
Most marshes don’t get burned much. These at Somme do. 
We’ll see if it can survive here.

Illinois is far from the main populations of this grass. Our plants may have genetic adaptations that don’t exist elsewhere. At some point in history, human culture may need something from this plant that could save some other grass (for example corn, wheat, rice, or oats) from a devastating disease or pest. Or these plants may have some nutrient that could be bred into grains to help our food make us healthier – or smarter for that matter. 

So we’d be smart 
not to just let it 
go extinct.

The thoughts of a steward on a cool walk at the start of a hot day. Peace. 


Cynthia Gehrie said...

It is wonderful to walk along with you as you pass through and comment. Your photos and thoughts together create an intimate atmosphere of being there. It is always a gift to see through your eyes.

carol freeman said...

I just love hearing your thoughts about nature. It inspires me! :) Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen, I have noticed that Prairie Dodder (Cuscuta pentagona) is parasitic on Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima). I have been thinking in might be wise to collect seed of Prairie Dodder and sow it into patches of Tall Goldenrod. This might save you from needing to mow Tall Goldenrod which would allow you to concentrate on other priorites.



Stephen Packard said...

Cynthia and Carol,

Thanks for the good insights. I feel some reciprocal thoughts. It's a pleasure to feel in touch with people who might read the blog as I walk, see, search.

The modern Community of the Lovers of Nature is indebted to the Internet. One hundred years ago, this kind of sharing could go on only through letters, conversations, and books. Today we have the potential for this community of sharing to engage larger numbers of far-flung people. I hope we develop abilities to make the best uses of these pro-community tools.

Stephen Packard said...


Very interesting idea. A good experiment for someone. Sadly that species doesn't seem to live (or have lived) in my area.

On the other hand, it seems to me that I've seen our local dodder also living on the pestiferous tall goldenrod. Perhaps we should try seeding dense patches of it with "gronovii" - our most common local dodder. Swink and Wilhelm list tall goldenrod as one of its host plants too.

Thanks for the creative idea.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephen, The plant I saw parasitizing Tall Goldenrod was probably Common Dodder (Cuscuta gronovii). I honestly have not keyed out the species. The other plant that was being used as a host is Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum). This observation was just in from the trail head at Bluff Spring Fen when you are heading toward the smaller kame. It seems Rope Dodder (Cuscuta glomerata) might also be useful for reducing other plants you find aggressive like Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus).