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.

Grasses Have Flowers Too

According to my itchy eyes, we are in peak blooming season for warm-season grasses. The subtle beauty of grass flowers mirrors that of the prairies they inhabit. Since their pollen is carried by the wind, grasses don’t have to spend energy creating fancy petals and sepals to attract pollinator insects. Regardless, the flowers of grasses are both pretty and functional, especially if you take the time to examine them closely.

This big bluestem plant (Andropogon gerardii) was blooming yesterday at our Platte River Prairies, along with many of its cousins. Some warm-season grasses are nearly done flowering, but others, like Indiangrass, are just getting started.

Pollen is encased within (usually) colorful anthers, attached to long filaments. Feathery stigmas catch wind-borne pollen from other plants. The combination is effective, without being extravagant. While grasses don’t rely on insects to carry pollen from plant to plant, some insects do feed on the pollen of grasses, including bees and flies, but also beetles, grasshoppers, tree crickets, and others. As far as I know, those insects are mostly just stealing pollen without providing any benefit back to the grass plant, but grasses seem to produce enough to share.

Here is a selection of grass flower photos, taken over the last couple of years. I hope you enjoy them, especially if you’ve never looked closely at these common species and their flowers.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
Tree crickets are big consumers of pollen, both on grasses and insect pollinated plants. This one is feeding on the pollen of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata).
This tree cricket is pretty well matched with the colors of these prairie sand reed (Calamovilfa longifolia) flowers.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) produces a beautiful combination of golds and yellows.
A hover fly feeding on Indiangrass pollen.
Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides)
Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) blooms during the month it’s named for.
I think this is western wheatgrass (Paspopyrum smithii).
Big bluestem.

Photos of the Week – August 9, 2019

This is a great time of year for foggy mornings with (fairly) calm winds. Those mornings offer some pretty fantastic opportunities for photographers, especially as the sun just begins to break through the fog. I do, however, recommend good rain pants and waterproof boots, though even that often doesn’t keep my pants and socks from becoming completely saturated. Ah, the suffering I go through for my art…

A couple weeks ago, I shared some photos from a foggy morning up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Last weekend, I spent a really nice morning at our family prairie. Here are some of the images from that trip.

I took this photo of our wetland, featuring false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), while the fog was still really dense. My legs were still safe and dry inside my rain pants at this point.
While photographing these velvety gaura flowers (Gaura parviflora), I was still comfortably dry.
When I found this bee perched atop a silver leaf scurfpea plant (Pediomelum argophyllum), its legs were wetter than mine, though I could start feeling some dampness creeping in. The sun was also becoming more visible through the fog at this point.
Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) is always a wonderful photographic subject, though even the slightest breeze creates a real challenge for focusing. (I could definitely feel moisture inside my boots by this point).
This painted lady (Vanessa cardui) was soaking up the sun’s rays, trying to warm up and burn off the last of the dew from its body (you can still see some on its antennae). Speaking of soaking, the humidity was getting really uncomfortable as the same sun warming the butterfly was also creating a sauna effect inside my rain pants.
This smartweed plant (Polygonum bicorne?) was just starting to open its flowers and my legs were getting pretty wet – it was hard to say how much was humidity and how much was sweat induced by the rain pants sauna.
This wild lettuce leaf (Lactuca sp) was beautifully backlit by the sun and I was able to isolate it against some dark shadows. My socks were making a little squishy sound now.
By the time I took this, I might as well have been standing in 4 feet of water, as wet as I was. It took me about 10 minutes to get a few sharp images of this sideoats grama flowering stalk because the breeze was just strong enough to sway it agonizingly back and forth. The spider webbing and dew drops were too good to pass up, though, so I stuck around until I got the shot. I’m 85% confident none of the droplets were from the sweat dripping off of my nose.
This bush cicada (Megatibicen dorsatus) sat complacently while I snuck up closely enough for some good photos. I can’t believe it didn’t hear the sloshing of water in my boots or the torrents of sweat running down my legs and forehead as the sunlight continued to intensify. I peeled off my rain pants, which were keeping more moisture in than out by now, and headed for home.

Special Note: This Sunday, August 11, I’ll be appearing on “Digging Deeper”, a Facebook Live broadcast by “Backyard Farmer”, with Nebraska Educational Television. Tune in to Facebook Live at 6:30pm if you want to watch the program, or you’ll be able to find it on YouTube, starting Monday. Jim Locklear, of Lauritzen Gardens, and I talk about prairie conservation and the use of native prairie plants. It was a lot of fun – I hope you enjoy it.