The drought affecting most of Nebraska has been a little less severe at our Platte River Prairies than in much of the rest of the state. Nevertheless, especially during the last month, it has put its stamp on our grasslands. Many parts of the prairies are visually-dominated by plants that have gone dormant, leaving the landscape full of dried and brown plants. That’s especially true in our restored (former cropland) prairies, where soil organic matter and water holding capacity tends to be much lower than that of remnant (unplowed) sites.
Yesterday, while scouting for plants to harvest seed from next week (sorry, I should say ‘from which to harvest seeds‘), I paid attention to what wildflowers were still green and blooming, despite the drought. You might remember that I did something similar up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve back in August and included some photos of those in my post about clonal shrub invasion. One species that was particularly notable along the Platte was dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata), which was fairly abundant in a couple restored prairies I visited.
Dotted gayfeather blooming prolifically at our family prairie, as well as in the Platte River Prairies. In both cases, it appears to be providing some really important resources for pollinators and other insects. It’s not the only blooming wildflower species right now, but it’s one that seems particularly attractive to bumble bees and other pollinators,
Other plants that were still pretty green in the dry soils of our restored prairies included goldenrods (Solidago spp.), pitcher sage (Salvia azurea), Silphiums, sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), and others. I’d love to know more about the strategies employed by these plants to keep themselves going during droughts, especially given the recent info I shared about prairie plants apparently not utilizing their deep roots for obtaining water during droughts. Some prairie plants seem to respond to drought by going dormant and saving their efforts for better days, but others find a way to keep on trucking.
Despite not understanding how these plants are doing it, it’s fantastic to see them continuing to grow and bloom during dry periods. From a resilience standpoint, of course, this is crucial. One of the most important pillars of ecological resilience in prairies is the diversity of species (plants, animals, and other) and this is a terrific example of why it matters so much. High numbers of species means a lot of overlap in the roles being filled by each species and the strategies used to do so. In times of stress, some species will respond better than others and can help ensure that resources are provided to the community and that reasonable productivity is maintained.
Looking at current maps, most of North America’s grassland regions are currently in some stage of drought. If your favorite prairie is drier than average right now, it might not have the same color you’re used to in mid-September. Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting! This is the time when you get to see which prairie community members can be relied upon when the rain stops falling for a while. It’s a great chance to admire the resilience and adaptability that makes prairies what they are.
If you’re an ecologist or land manager, don’t forget to record what you’re seeing if your site is in drought. It’s an opportunity I’ve missed multiple times in the past and am trying not to miss this time. Just taking a few notes of observations might be really appreciated by you or others down the road. In addition, drought-stricken (if that’s the right word) prairies might not seem as photogenic as regular ol’ rain-fed prairies, but I’m trying to do a better job of photographing them anyway. It’s a fun challenge, but I also know I’ll be glad to have the documentation in future years.