Of course, there are evolutionary reasons for those diverse bright colors, and why we care. Subconsciously, we feel their meaningfulness.
I went to Somme Prairie Grove at 7:00 AM to scythe the trails. (If you want to know more about why, check Endnote 1.) The light was harsh. I did not expect to be taking photos.
Blue sky usually means glaring light. To the disappointment of some people, I rarely see or take a grassland photo that feels fully rich and also has blue sky. I clicked this one when a rare opportunity arose, as blessed clouds started moving in, while the sky in the other direction maintained that preferred-by-most-people blue. And the thin clouds kept coming!
Ha! "Photographers' light. "Now, for a brief period, cloud-filtered, rich light: and, for you, the 18 photos that demanded I take them - also some brief thoughts on what they might mean.
Here, butterfly-weed is especially dense along a brushy edge. It's out in the open grassland too, but it often establishes with extra density in places where brush has recently burned away.
Savanna differs from prairie in that way. It changes more, as shade alternately increases and burns off, and novel plant communities come and go.
Other species above: Big leaves - prairie dock. Lavender - wild bergamot. Yellow petals - black-eyed Susan. Yellow plumes - early goldenrod (a delicate treasure, unlike the thuggish tall goldenrod of roadsides).
To me, high summer truly starts only when lead plant and the prairie clovers start to bloom. This purple prairie clover springs out of a wreath of prairie dropseed grass. Dropseed is recognized by its fine leaves radiating out of big clumps. Leadplant is the dark purple.
In this case, it's the lead plant springing out of the dropseed. Big bluestem is the tall, thick grass stem reaching toward the top left corner. Some of the finest prairies are dominated by dropseed, with bluestem playing a minor role. The forbs (or "wildflowers") dominate both the diversity and the color in grasslands. But the grass is the bulk of the biomass in any fine prairie or savanna.
What's this? Blue sky again. Am I about out of photographers light? Time to get back to work? But also a pause to think. See those dead trees in the background? They're white oaks. When this much grass burns, the intensity of the fire is enough to kill white oaks. The natural oak here is the bur. Long ago a 'reforestation" project planted many species of trees here. But these days, with biodiversity conservation the goal, we need to bring back the natural bur oaks - the most fire-resistant oak - the one that dominated the tallgrass savanna - that community between the richest prairies and the woodlands. We've been planting and protecting bur oaks, so that they'll be able to replace the whites as they fade out over time.
Yecchh! Here's an ugly photo. As I pause, I spot this white sweet clover - a nasty threat to grassland biodiversity. I stop to pull it, as I do whenever I see any. Oops, now I see more to pull. Perhaps while I wrench them out, the cloud-filtered light will return?
Sure enough, it's back and beautiful. In this case it lures me to take a photo that shows more disturbance-dependent ecological process.
In all these photos, the species discussed so far are the ones planted for restoration, the prairie and savanna grasses and forbs rescued from railroad rights-of-way, obscure corners of this site, and other minuscule remnants - to restore bigger nature here. After we broadcast their painstakingly collected seeds, the job of those plants is, with the help of fire, to replace the weeds. Here again for a time, butterfly-plant is bigger and more common that it might have originally been - because it's good at replacing weeds. One weed that has been diminishing here is tall goldenrod (its rank leaves and tall stem are at the bottom left and fill parts of the foreground). Bit by bit the bergamot, butterfly-plant, prairie dock and leadplant ecologically elbow it out of the way. How will it all balance out in the long run? It's fun to watch the process, year by year.
I like this photo because it draws my eye off into the unknown distance. Today no tallgrass savanna wilderness exists. Remnants are pathetic at best, and all restorations are small. We need much bigger. Perhaps some day there will be thousands of acres, as far as a person could walk, surprises and mysteries. Perhaps some day.
Not just for us, many other animals need size too. I happened on these mating "Appalachian brown" butterflies a few days ago. They're doing their part for conservation. But rare animal populations on small sites have a high chance of extinction.
I didn't chance across any animals I could cell-phone photograph this morning. But animals need to be part of the picture, so I include these few recent butterfly shots.
A handsome, freshly-emerged "great spangled fritillary" nectared on a milkweed as I searched for one of the site's rare orchids. They need hand-pollination, because Somme is too small for the orchid's specialized pollinators - large hawk moths. At least we can say we have a restored habitat for a great many fritillaries.
I moved slow, clicked quietly, and a second fritillary arrived. Twice the blessing.
Purple prairie clover - from more of a "pollinator's-eye-view." This species seems visited mostly by tiny, unusual bees. Are there rare species on this site? Does anyone know about their needs? So much more research and collaboration would help us restore, especially for invertebrates.
Then, as if to contradict me, a bumblebee bombs in and goes to work passionately. Bless you, bumblebee. (More about this, technically, in Endnote 2.)
It's tempting to take "artistic" close-ups - especially with big prairie dock leaves.
But is this a better photo? It shows the fire-killed brush (in front of the dock leaf - and filling the top right part of the frame) that perhaps made way for the butterfly-plant and others. Perhaps I'll have use for both of these photos.
Or perhaps this photo covers all the bases. Pleasing dome of orange. Larger burned brush patches. Ugly tall goldenrod in foreground. Nice long view for size and mystery. Click.
Does this post have too many flowers and not enough birds to capture the feel of the July savanna? Part of the magic is certainly its unusually colorful birds. Not much chance to capture that with my cell phone. So two of Lisa Musgrave's handsome shots deserve a place here. Bluebirds sang their delicate calls and fed fledglings as I got back to scything. I listen, and they're colorful in my mind's eye as I work.
With its rich chestnut red, the orchard oriole is a prized savanna community member. They showed up only after many hard-worked years of restoration. They too sang as I scythed.
Today, the open savanna habitat of bluebird and orchard oriole is bright with flowers. But as I approach the oak woodland, flowers thin out until only some dramatic Michigan lilies remain.
Inside the woodland, no flowers entertained my mind. Is the woodland less diverse or inspiring than the savanna? Certainly not. The April and June floras here were rich indeed. Buds now top thousands of stems and tell a tale of floral and butterfly richness to come. But today it's in between. I'll chose the thinly-treed savanna today ...
... and get back to work ... after leaving you with this one last photo. Here, far in the distance, if you zoom in, you can see the wires and railroad tracks that divide Somme Prairie Grove from Somme Prairie. Cutting just a few more invader trees will join together the grasslands on both sides - for a great boon to animals and plants of both ecosystems. But that's winter work. Today it will be hot. I scythed from 7:00 a.m. to 9:15. It was such a pleasure. Sorry to be having more than my share of the fun. But thanks for joining me on this little photo tour.
Bonus Plant Identification
If you want to zoom in on the photo above, plants not mentioned earlier include: Yellow, in patches: prairie coreopsis. White spiky globes: rattlesnake master. Flat-topped white: wild quinine.
Most of us, this time of year, gather rare seeds. Some of us cut excess vegetation away from our trails. We want to keep the trails functional and pleasant for two reasons. First, so that people will be happy to visit - and, for that matter, to fall in love. Biodiversity conservation needs more volunteers and rarely, help from time to time when threats emerge and officials need to hear from people who care. Second, good trails will help people stay on them and not trample off all over everything. Many of our rare communities and rare species populations could be wiped out or badly damaged by trampling. It may be easy for thoughtful people not to step on a special plant while it's in bloom. But that's only a little part of the growing season.
Actually, come to think of it, we need more volunteer help for trail care, if you might be interested. We train.
Most purple prairie clover flowers don't make seeds. Why not?
The new Flora of the Chicago Region: a Floristic and Ecological Synthesis by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha lists 64 species of bees that visit its flowers so intensely that all the day's pollen is gone by mid-morning. As the authors put it:
"Just before dawn, the anthers synchronously dehisce inside of each partially open corolla, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the anthers burst forth from their corollas, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, the anther-denuded filaments being common after that time."
Just before dawn, the pollen-bearing structures synchronously open inside of each partially open set of petals, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the pollen structures burst forth from their petals, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, naked stalks that once bore the pollen being common after that time.
It would be fun to know. But we don't need to for now, as this plant reproduces by the thousands at Somme. We use its predominantly empty seed coverings as the major carrier that improves our seed broadcast.
One last, thrillingly nerdy note on the bees of purple prairie clover: Most of them (well, 44%), according to Rericha, are from the genus Lasioglossum, “small to tiny” bees, often called sweat bees because, in addition to pollen, they like to land on us and lap our sweat. Just for the fun of it, here’s a handsome photo of one of those friendly little sweat bees on milkweed, from Robert A. Behrstock through Bug Guide.
To Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima for proofing, edits, and suggestions.