Photo of the Week – June 7, 2013

Prairies demonstrate their resilience regularly, but usually in a fairly subtle way.  They tend to adjust their plant composition after fire, grazing, or drought in ways you might not notice unless you were a botanist.  Once in while, however, prairies take it to the next level and really show off.

A profusion of penstemon in restored sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

A profusion of penstemon in restored sandhill prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Last year was the driest year on record for this area.  We had less than half of our average annual rainfall, and most of that came early.  By late August, very little green was left in most of our sites.  The prairie shown above had been burned in the spring and grazed most of the season.  Many people seeing it for the first time would have assumed it was dead and gone (see photo below).

This is the same portion of prairie shown in the first photo, but this images was taken August 24, 2012 after a year of fire, grazing, and severe drought.  Most of the green in the photo is western ragweed and a little goldenrod.

This is the same portion of prairie shown in the first photo, but this images was taken August 24, 2012 after a year of fire, grazing, and severe drought. Most of the green in the photo is western ragweed and a little goldenrod.

I’ve written about the ecological resilience of prairies before, and have presented long-term data showing how our prairies fluctuate in plant composition over time in response to drought, grazing, fire, and various combinations of those factors.  Many plant species rise and fall in abundance as conditions change (opportunistic species) and others tend to maintain a steady population size, though they may be more or less visible in particular years.  It’s one thing to see that in graphs and tables, but it’s also fun to see a spectacular green-up and explosion of wildflowers in person, especially after a long dry (brown) year.

In the sandhill prairie shown above, last year’s drought caused most of the perennial plant species to enter dormancy by July - effectively giving up on that season’s growth and reproduction potential and saving their remaining energy for the next year.  Before they went into dormancy, however, the perennial grasses had already been weakened by relatively intense grazing, reducing the size of their root masses and opening up space for opportunistic species to take advantage of.  One of those opportunistic species is the short-lived perennial shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) which is obviously thriving this season.  Shell-leaf penstemon has been generally increasing in abundance since this prairie was seeded in 2002, but it took a gigantic leap forward this year.  Based on what I’ve seen in other prairies, I expect it to decline in abundance over the next couple of years as the dominant grasses and other long-lived perennials recover from last year’s stress.  In the meantime, we’re happy to enjoy the prairie’s flamboyant demonstration of resilience.

Junegrass (Koeeria macrantha) is also having a great year, and provides a beautiful counterpoint to the penstemon in this photo.

Junegrass (Koeeria macrantha) is also having a great year, and provides a beautiful counterpoint to the penstemon in this photo.

If you’re in the area, now is a great time to come hike our trails.  Both the upland and lowland trails through the Platte River Prairies cut right through huge patches of penstemon.  If you’ve never been to our trails, you can find directions and more information here.

The mowed hiking trail through sandhills provides excellent exposure to the penstemon profusion this season.

The mowed hiking trail through the sandhills takes you right through penstemon profusion this season.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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10 Responses to Photo of the Week – June 7, 2013

  1. georgia gillespie says:

    thank you for a really interesting post…your accompanying detailed description greatly heightens interest in your excellent photos. your photographic use of perspective makes a special difference. i really look forward to reading your posts, not just “looking at the pictures”.

  2. bvanderweide says:

    Nice pictures! Penstemon has also been having a good year at Konza Prairie, though it’s been a burst of P. cobaea, not P. grandiflorus, and in a variety of burning and grazing regimes. Any idea if Penstemon generally does well after drought?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Ben, I do think P grandiflorus does well after drought, but I don’t know P. cobaea very well. P. grandiflorus also handles intensive grazing really well.

  3. I have been excited about the few Shell leaf penstemons I have blooming, but the display pales in comparison to what’s on the prairie! I love it!

  4. timupham says:

    Plains Native Americans used penstemon root as a pain reliever.

  5. Very nice show going on! There are some penstemons blooming out of a rocky wall along the Platte just south of Schramm Park and I’m guessing are these. I hope to grab my camera and take a closer look this weekend.

  6. Ed May says:

    Hi Chris, Wow, that penstemon is amazing! What a contrast in pictures. The resilience of prairies is impressive. I was down at my place this past week and not much in bloom yet. Some yellow sweetclover again but not like the outbreak that caused my panicked email to you a couple of years ago. Plus there were some bees enjoying it so what the heck. Have a wonderful week. Ed

  7. Patrick Swanson says:

    Hi Chris. I noticed a really nice display of these flowers on a west facing slope on the monadamin unit of the loess hills state forest. Burned in the late spring two years ago and drought last year…fits your findings it seems. However, I’ve been following a single penstemon plant under partial shade of a cedar for about four growing seasons…hasn’t bloomed yet. Your comments/observations made me wonder how long it can persist in a vegetative state.

  8. Mark D says:

    Nice piece on the shell-leaf I just got in from taking photos of them on Girl Scout Island at Maha.
    Keep up the good work.
    Mark

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