Photo of the Week – April 20, 2017

I’ve been enjoying the early flush of wildflowers this spring, and have been trying to photograph them when I get time.  Because I already have quite a few close-up portraits of most of these species already, I’ve been trying to use a wide-angle lens to show the flowers in a broader context.  It means lying prone on the ground with the camera resting either on the ground or on my hand to get both the flowers and the landscape/sky behind them into the same frame.

Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta) at our family prairie near Stockham, Nebraska.

Pussytoes are an easy one to photograph because they are allelopathic and hinder the growth of neighboring plants.  That short vegetation helps pussytoes plants compete with others, but also makes it easier me to photograph them without stray leaves and other plant parts getting in the way.  For other species, I’ve been spending most of my time photographing the flowers growing in sites that were grazed hard last year.  The grazing makes photography easier, but the access to light and weakened grass competition also stimulates more of the plants to flower than in ungrazed sites.  I’ve been collecting data on flowering plant numbers over the last several days, and the data confirm my casual observations.  There are many more flowers in prairie patches recovering from grazing than in patches that haven’t been grazed much in the last year or two.

Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the area of our family prairie we grazed most intensively last year.

Carolina anemone (Anemone caroliniana) at Gjerloff Prairie, owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute.  They are having a great year in the part of the prairie that was burned and grazed in 2016.

Ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus) at the Helzer prairie.

More pussytoes at the Helzer prairie, with a little bit of dried manure for flavor.

For pollinator insects, this early spring period can be very challenging because flowering plants are in pretty short supply.  There aren’t many species blooming, and those that are tend to be spread sparsely across large areas.  At least in the prairies around here, last year’s grazing is increasing numbers of available resources for pollinators, including both short-lived and long-lived plant species.  That appears to be particularly valuable this year, given the number of butterfly and moth species taking advantage of strong south winds to make an early migration to Nebraska.  I can’t remember a year when we’ve seen so many of those insects in April, including monarchs (which we’re now seeing frequently), sulphurs, red admirals and many little moths.

Now, here’s a question I hope someone out there can help answer:  Pussytoes flowers are dioecius, meaning that some plants have male flowers and others have female flowers.  My understanding is that pussytoes is pollinated both by wind and by insects.  If the male flowers produce pollen but the females don’t, what attracts insects to move from male flowers to females and complete the pollination cycle?  Do the female flowers produce nectar?  I see mainly flies, and a few bees, landing on pussytoes.  I don’t think those flies could be accessing nectar from deep inside the flower, and I don’t see any evidence of nectar near the top (or in any part) of the flower.  Also, most of those flies and bees seem to be landing on male flowers, and I rarely see them on female blossoms.  Can anyone help me understand why/how this pollination process works?

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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.
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9 Responses to Photo of the Week – April 20, 2017

  1. Jane Papsdorf says:

    If you get an answer, please let all of us know. Thank you for asking.

  2. Linda Chafin says:

    Antennaria neglecta is a hemiparasite!?!? Could you please let me know a source for this? Do you know if any of the other Antennaria species are also? Thanks! Linda

    • Chris Helzer says:

      SORRY! Yes, they are allelopathic, not hemiparasitic. I’ve edited the post to reflect that. Thank you for catching it. I was thinking of the group of plants that influence nearby plant growth, some of which are allelopathic and some of which are parasitic/hemiparasitic, and grabbed the wrong term from my brain.

      • lindachafin says:

        Totally understandable! I didn’t know they were allelopathic either, so it’s all to the good. We sell them at our native plant sales so this is great info to pass on. Thanks.

  3. lindachafin says:

    Oh, I think Chris meant allelopathic not hemiparasitic, which makes more sense within that sentence.

  4. Dave Jungst says:

    I think some pollinators visit the flowers for pollen, some for nectar. But all the pollinators visit all the flowers in their search, thereby accomplishing pollination as they go.

  5. Teresa Lombard says:

    I love pussytoes and I have often wondered why they aren’t used more as a groundcover plant in traditional gardens, because preventing competition from other plants ought to make them a natural for using between stepping stones and so on. However, I’ve noticed that they don’t do a ‘perfect’ job at preventing other plants from mingling with them. I transplanted some from my little prairie into a couple of spots in my home perennial garden, and clover – I think trifolium repans – (grrrr) seems to be able to infiltrate it. I suspect it’s because the longer sprawling stems of clover can just ‘travel’ and root themselves first outside the influence of the pussytoes. So far with a little weeding help, the pussytoes seem to be holding their own, but it’s interesting the little battles played out every day in the plant landscape.

  6. Patrick says:

    Chris, have you seen the same effect on flowering in prairie that was mown or hayed the previous fall?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick, I do see that to some extent, but it seems like the size of the effect depends on when it was mown. Mowing while grasses are actively growing (July) sets grasses back more than after they (at least warm-season grasses) have finished flowering. That creates more root space for new germination/spread of plants, but if weather allows, sometimes the amount of regrowth can create enough shade to stifle spring flowers a little the next spring. Mowing later can leave shorter structure, which allows light in, but doesn’t reduce grass vigor as much. So the timing affects which spring flowers do better or not. I don’t know that I can be much more specific than that because I don’t work with many prairies that are hayed.

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