Life on a Weedy Plant

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) is considered by many people to be a weed.  It’s a biennial with very pretty, albeit small, daisy-like flowers that flourishes when the dominant plants around it have been weakened.  As a prairie manager, I’ve always appreciated daisy fleabane as an indicator that we’ve created conditions for new wildflowers (short- and long-lived) to insert themselves between the grasses in our sites.

Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

Daisy fleabane reaches toward the sky. Lincoln Creek Prairie. Aurora, Nebraska.

Last Friday evening, I took my camera for a walk in a small prairie here in town and found quite a few daisy fleabane plants growing along the trail.  I wasn’t the only one enjoying them – I saw numerous small bees and flies feeding on the pollen, and a few crab spiders hoping one of those pollinators waiting to ambush those same small pollinators.

Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

Daisy fleabane flowers and small fly.

Fly on Daisy fleabane (erigeron strigosus).  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

A closer look at the fly.

The first crab spider I noticed slipped over the edge of the flower to hide when it spotted me coming toward it.  I turned away to photograph something else nearby.  When I looked back, the spider was back on the flower.  I adjusted my position very slightly and the spider slipped back to its hiding place.  Argh.  Stubbornly, I decided I was going to photograph that spider if I had to wait all evening to do so.  I didn’t have to wait quite that long, but it felt like it.  I got my tripod positioned so that I could take the photo when/if the spider reappeared.  Holding perfectly still, (with sweat running down my nose and mosquitoes feeding on my neck) I stayed in position for at least 5-10 minutes until the spider finally showed itself again.  Got it!

Crab spider on daisy fleabane.  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

This spider photo is nice enough, but will always be memorable to me because of the effort it took to get it.  I hate to think how many mosquitoes got a free meal while I sat still waiting for my little spider buddy to make itself available for a photo…

A little further up the trail, I saw another crab spider that had caught a fly.  I figured it too would make a run for cover when I got close, so I came in low and slow.  I’m not sure it would have mattered – this spider showed none of the anxiety of the first one, and sat very still while I set up the tripod and waited for the breeze to pause long enough to get a good shot.  Maybe this spider was too distracted by its meal to care about me (though that’s not been my experience in the past).   I wasn’t sure whether to be grateful to the second spider for its cooperation or mad at the first one for all the mosquito bites on my neck.

Crab spider on daisy fleabane.  Lincoln Creek Prairie.  Aurora, Nebraska.

This crab spider seemed happy to have its photo taken with its hunting trophy.

I can understand why people might think of daisy fleabane as a weedy little plant, but its just filling an important role.  When the grasses are weak, something has to take advantage of the temporarily available resources around and between them.  There are numerous species that can do that, including a few that can cause real problems if they become established.  Given the choices, I’m always happy to see the pretty little daisy flowers and the diverse tiny creatures they attract.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Life on a Weedy Plant

  1. Judy Deaton says:

    I had a similar experience with a crab spider on a cone flower eating a moth. It ignored me when I came close to snap the photo.
    I also am fascinated by the complexity of the flea bane flower – delicate. Thanks.

  2. Great photos. Makes me want to get my macro out again.

  3. Jean C Smith says:

    Recently I noticed that the salsify was blooming all over my little prairie strip. I thought about pulling it until I discovered that almost every plant had 2-3 ladybird beetles. When they finish with the salsify I hope they fly over to the vege and herb garden.

  4. Mike Suiter says:

    A week ago while cutting down 100-200 young trees (didn’t mow this spring) in my little 1 acre prairie I noticed a few areas where partridge pea is still coming back strong. I wonder if those areas would be good for trying to get new species established – or is partridge pea an annual that is good at coming back each year?

    You must be good at getting calm conditions to use your macro. A week ago I was shooting 17-year cicadas and even a sneeze will knock them out of focus which of course you can’t fully tell into you load into Lightroom.

  5. mamings says:

    Thank you for the wonderful narrative with your photos and the science lessons from the prairie. All of nature is truly holy!

  6. This is a very timely post to me! Just this weekend I was complaining about this flower in my meager little native garden. We seem to grow weeds better than anything else and the daisy fleabane is doing fine. That afternoon I was hiking in a fairly healthy set of restored prairies and noticed daisy fleabane in many areas. I did some research and now I am glad to have the daisy fleabane! Thanks for another great post!

  7. btremback says:

    Any idea what’s causing weakening of the dominant plants?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      In the prairies we manage, we use fire and grazing to weaken the dominant plants. In the prairie I photographed fleabane in, the grass was weak because of mowing along the trail.

  8. Karen H says:

    Looks like we need to have a photographing crab spider intervention!!!!:)

  9. lancemfoster says:

    I saw daisy fleabane up at Good Earth State Park (SD) and Blood Run National Historic Landmark (IA) along the Big Sioux River yesterday, in grassy areas, along with Tragopogon and Penstemon grandiflorus.

  10. Kathy Ralston says:

    I also enjoy the daisy fleabane and it has a wonderful, though subtle, sweet fragrance. Thanks for highlighting this gentle wild flower.

  11. Adam Thada says:

    But… but… it has a low C-value!! It’s going to lower the Mean C (quality!) of the prairie… how can you let that happen on your watch?! ;)

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