Hubbard Fellowship Post – Sarah Ponders Plants

This post was written by Hubbard Fellow Sarah Lueder. Sarah doesn’t give herself full credit for all that she’s learned during her five months in the prairie so far, but it’s also a nice reminder that learning the names of species isn’t the ultimate goal. As naturalists and ecologists, the stories of those species lives are much more interesting and important. All Photos are by Sarah.

It’s not every day I face the fact that I know very little about the world around me. It’s easy to put a label on something and move on, not considering that what I am interacting with is a part of a vastly complex system. As I sit and type on this computer, I am not thinking about all the hardware, software, data, and clouds it takes to make the words appear on my screen and eventually, yours. Well, I am now, but 99% of the time it’s simply “computer” to me.

This is certainly useful for efficiency: label and move on! I can focus my time and not spend too much of it reveling in my ignorance.

However, if I don’t look behind the veil occasionally, I forget what lies beyond my view of the curtain. Unbeknownst to me, I had been getting a little too familiar with the label of “prairie” in the early days of the fellowship. For example, looking out the windows at the Derr house (where I am staying on the Platte River Prairies preserve) I found myself thinking something along the lines of, “wow, how nice, a prairie!” with the unconscious sentiment of “and I am familiar with the prairie!”

Luckily for me there are activities like searching for prairie plants that remind me about how much there is to learn.

Recently this became obvious when Kate and I were out looking for common and showy milkweed plants for a research project Chris is implementing. From beginning to end, I was met with opportunities to confront my prairie novice status. To start off, when deciding where to begin our search, I made the bold claim that we should look in an area that had not been recently burned. I thought the milkweed plants might be too small to identify in the recently burned area. However, after finding around 20 milkweed plants, only 3 were discovered in the unburned area. 17 were found in the area I had written off as unsearchable. This led to me to questions like ‘where in the world did that notion come from? And why did I feel such confidence in it?’

A milkweed plant firmly rooted in the burned area… could have been anywhere though, right? Photo by Sarah Lueder

During the search, I was surrounded by plants I could not confidently name. They outnumbered milkweed 100:1, and more questions arose at every turn. ‘Do I know enough to say that these two individuals are the same species? This one has slightly more serrated edges, but is also larger, maybe the edges become more serrated as it grows? This kind of looks like a plant we learned a few weeks ago, but did the leaves really change that much already?’

This about sums up how the milkweed search went initially

I found this a little discouraging at first, feeling like I had not learned enough, but as I started to think about what else I did not know about the prairie, this feeling evolved. If I had known the names of the plants, I might have just used them as more labels (‘Upright cone flower… bang! Next one!’). Instead, I was left with a sense of bafflement. This brought me to a halt and made me question ‘who are you, and how did you get here?’ I was wordless, smiling and shaking my head, thinking about the myriad reasons behind why every plant ended up where it did. Site history, soil conditions, climate, and the influence of other species all surely played their role. The realization that there was so much to learn transformed my discouragement into joy, provoking respect, curiosity, humility.

I still consider plant ID a vital skill in prairie stewardship, and I can happily say I have continued to improve in this. But I realized if I see a species and only want to name it, I might unintentionally keep myself from learning more about its life. It will be something I practice, approaching prairies with a continuous questioning. I will try to do this, understanding it’s possible to remain a perpetual student of theirs.

And so far, when I am able to remember, I can’t help but feel I am a part of a great and thrilling mystery.

Prairie in all her mystery, featuring shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), Photo by Sarah Lueder

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

5 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Post – Sarah Ponders Plants

  1. Sarah might be interested in this. I like to think of plants as caterpillar chow. From Prairie Moon seeds and plants… Large-flowered Beardtongue prefers full sun to partial shade, dry mesic to dry conditions, and poor soil containing rocky material or sand. When mature it can reach heights of 2′. Its stunning large, tubular pink to purple flowers bloom for just a few weeks in May or June.

    This plant is endangered in some states and is typically rare to see in the wild. Bumblebees like to visit the flowers for nectar and this plant is well liked by birds. In addition to the many pollinators it attracts, Penstemon grandiflorus is one of the host plants for the Chalcedon Checkerspot and Edith’s Checkerspot. Penstemon grandiflorus is one of the showiest of all Penstemons! In the past Native Americans treated toothaches by chewing the root pulp of this plant and then placing it in the cavity. Large-flowered Beardtongue is loved by bees and hummingbirds and is drought tolerant. Other common names include Showy Beardtongue, Pink Beardtongue, Shell-leaf Beardtongue, Canterbury Bells, and Wild Foxglove.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Yeah, there’s no substitute for experience and the only way to get it is by being observant over a period of many years. Unfortunately, most people just have no interest in it. Which is why this world now desperately need all the exceptions to the rule it can get.

  3. Such lovely insights, which can be applied to so many areas of my life! Thank you for this charming essay.

  4. Sarah, thanks for putting into words my experience. i spent many years wanting to know what the plants are called. Then I started to notice that they existed some places and not others.
    I internalized this all, and not till grad school did I learn that there are several plant community classification systems and theories on how communities come together or why a specific plant species is where it is. And I learned that there were/are a lot a very smart people thinking about and researching this.
    Now I bore people on botany walks by not only telling them the names of plants – but why they are there, or what feeds on them, or some other part of the plant’s story. For me a walk in the woods, grassland, wetland, is a always part of a huge, long, epic journey in time, space, and community which is endlessly fascinating!


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