Drought Flowers

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.

Dotted gayfeather seems to do very well in droughty prairies. Note how brown and dry most of the surrounding vegetation is.

Yesterday, while scouting for plants to harvest seed from next week (sorry, I should sayfrom 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.

This brown-belted bumble bee and lots of its kin and colleagues were easy to find on dotted gayfeather plants this week. I just picked out a flower I liked and waited a few minutes for a bee to stop by.
This grasshopper was hanging out (and maybe feeding?) on dotted gayfeather at our family prairie earlier this month.

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,

This plant is growing in a site that was grazed intensively last year. In previous years I’ve noted that dotted gayfeather shoots up extra flowering stems during years when the prairie is recovering from grazing. This year, the plants seemed to do that even under drought conditions.

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.

Stiff goldenrod doesn’t look phased by the drought at all.
Pitcher sage is a really important drought-tolerant plant in our prairies. It’s a favorite of bumble bees and monarchs, along with lots of other pollinators. During the 2012 drought, it still grew tall and bloomed prolifically when everything around it was really crispy. This year hardly seems like a challenge in comparison.
This compass plant didn’t bloom this year but I don’t think that was necessarily drought-related since a lot of its relatives nearby did bloom and have produced seed.
Maximilian sunflower (pictured here) is less abundant and showy than usual this year in our drier prairie sites, but is still managing to flower. Stiff sunflower, which is better adapted to dry soils, is doing better, but is shorter and producing fewer flowering heads than it often does.
Curly cup gumweed and other annuals tend to still flower in droughts. Once they start growing, they pretty much have to flower because it’s their one shot.

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.

We visited The Nature Conservancy’s Ordway Prairie Preserve in Minnesota last week, which is also thriving under drought conditions. In that prairie, one of the obvious species doing well was showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). (And of course smooth sumac – Rhus glabra and other deciduous trees and shrubs.)
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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.

5 thoughts on “Drought Flowers

  1. South central Nebraska, including PPR, received around 1 inch of rain last Saturday. I noticed a real difference from the previous week of seed collection in these prairies when I was out last Tuesday. Believe that is what triggered the gay feather to really start blooming.

  2. We are experiencing the same here in NW Iowa – 3rd “severe” category drought year in a row now in our county/township. Our Liatris punctata and L. aspera are still blooming along – just not quite as showy nor as long-lived blooms as normal precip years. And the Soligado species are all still blooming – like yours, not as tall in stature…and this is the shortest I’ve seen the Maximilian Sunflower here as well…many forbs have gone dormant and not bloomed. Do hope the rain swings back in the future – I really miss some things that haven’t shown for a while!

  3. Pingback: Photos of the Week – September 16, 2022 | The Prairie Ecologist


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