This is the season of flying fluffy seeds. Asters, thistles, blazing stars, milkweeds, and other late season flowers are sending their seeds into the air, a few of which might actually land in a place where they can germinate. Each of those seeds is attached to a filamentous structure, variously called a pappus or coma, depending upon the species of plant. Those fluffy structures catch the wind and allow the seed to travel many miles, in some cases – though most land within a few meters of their origin.
Seeds that can float on the air are a nice adaptation for plants, but they are also attractive photographic subjects. Over the last week, I’ve photographed the seeds of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) in some local prairies. Here are a few of those photos for your Friday enjoyment.
One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time. For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot. The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped. Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants. Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…
This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot. As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly. Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.
While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them. Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.
It’s hard to describe the varied emotions involved in cleaning and mixing big piles of prairie seed. There is incredible optimism embedded in those tiny packages. After all, each seed has the potential to become a plant; maybe even the first of an entire colony of plants. On the other hand, most of them will fail to produce anything other than a little food for some animal or microbe.
Yesterday was seed mixing day at our Platte River Prairies. We dumped bags and buckets of harvested seed into piles to be mixed and taken out to planting sites. In recent years, we’ve shifted our seed harvest focus; instead of aiming for the highest possible diversity of prairie species (150-200) to convert crop fields into prairie habitat, we’re now focusing on 30-40 wildflower species that are largely missing from some of our more degraded native prairies. Those degraded prairies had years of of chronic overgrazing and/or broadcast herbicide use before we obtained them, and haven’t really increased much in plant diversity, despite over 20 years of the best management we could give them. By increasing the number of plant species in those prairies via overseeding, we hope to increase the quality of pollinator and wildlife habitat, as well as the overall ecological resilience of the prairie community.
To be clear, when I say “we”, I’m mostly talking about the Platte River Prairies staff and volunteers who are actually doing the work these days. For many happy years harvesting seed, but that torch has now been largely passed to others. I still harvest a modest amount of seed on my own time, mostly during evenings and weekends, for use at our family prairie, but I’m just an advisor for the bulk of the restoration work going on at the Platte River Prairies. Regardless, it was immensely gratifying to help out yesterday. It felt great to run those seeds through my fingers and inhale a little seed dust into my lungs (though we wear masks to minimize the dust inhalation).
While I like thinking about each seed as a potential plant, I also recognize how few of them will actually make it that far. Even in cropfield restoration work, when we’re broadcasting seeds onto bare soil with no preestablished competition from other plants, only a small percentage of seeds really end up as plants. Some are eaten by animals before they get a chance to germinate. Others don’t land in a place where they get the light and moisture they need. Still others germinate, but are then outcompeted by neighboring plants, eaten by something, or don’t get rain at the right time to sustain them.
When we’re overseeding an existing prairie, the number of planted seeds that turn into plants is far lower still. We burn ahead of time to create bare soil, and graze to reduce competition, but there are still very few spots where a seed can land and have a good chance to thrive. That means that the vast majority of those wonderful little seeds of promise just die. Though, as we discussed yesterday while we worked, even the ones that die are feeding something – birds, mammals, insects, fungi, etc. – so it’s not that they’re really wasted. It’s just that we didn’t really spend all that time harvesting seeds just to feed fungi.
Instead of focusing on how many of those seeds will become fungus fodder, though, I’d prefer to think about the good that will come from those that survive. By harvesting and broadcasting those seeds, we’re transforming prairies with very few summer wildflowers into prairies with enough floristic diversity that they will support a more robust pollinator population and provide better habitat structure to a number of wildlife species. Even if one tenth of one percent of the seeds we plant germinate, we’ll be making a big difference.
Soon, we’ll be releasing those seeds into the wild to take their chances in the world. Most of our planting these days is done by machine, which helps us cover a lot of ground quickly, with fairly even distribution of seeds. That’s all well and good, but I sure get a lot of joy from hand-tossing seeds at our family prairie. Not only can I aim the seeds for areas I think (though I’m totally guessing) they might survive best, I can also give them a little good luck wish as they leave my hand. Later in the season, when I return to look for seedlings, I can congratulate both the seed and myself on our success whenever I find a new plant. With enough of those successes, we’ll slowly rebuild the diversity and resilience that will carry these prairies well into the future.
I haven’t done much photography lately, and that always makes me cranky. I spent a couple days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, but between the short day length right now, a busy meeting schedule, and cloudy/windy conditions, I didn’t even get my camera out of the bag. This morning, I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so my camera and I took a short walk in one of the small prairies here in town. I needed to be on a conference call, but I managed to multi-task fairly effectively – participating in the call with my cell phone and earbuds while photographing dead flowers. My colleagues are pretty understanding…
By the time my conference call ended and I headed back to the office, my hands were cold, my knees were wet, and I felt better about the world. Even in the winter, prairies can provide inspiration and solace to those who go looking for it, including photographers with cabin (office?) fever.
To this prairie photographer, milkweed seeds are like candy – I just can’t get enough. As I’ve walked around this fall, I’ve had a very difficult time walking past any milkweed plant without stopping to photograph the silky seeds shimmering in the light. They’re just so FLUFFY!
(And yes, botanist friends, I know the fluffy part isn’t actually the seed, but is an ‘appendage’ called the coma – or less accurately, the pappus – that aids in wind transport of the seed. And the brown parts are actually the follicles that CONTAIN the seed. Yes, yes, and yes. Allow me this vulgarization for the sake of simplicity, ok?)
It’s getting a little harder to find milkweed seeds that haven’t yet blown away, but they’re out there. I keep seeing them as I walk through prairie and drive down the highway. I can hide the Halloween candy so I don’t snack on it all day, but who’s going to hide all those milkweed seeds?
Our friends at Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) created a very nice radio piece about our restoration work that aired on NET Radio (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications) today. The link below includes that audio, along with a transcript and short video of our staff harvesting, mixing, and planting seed. You can also see video of me describing what we’re doing and why.
It’s always difficult to distill the complexities of land management and restoration into sound bites and video clips, but this was a very good description of our work. I really appreciate the time and consideration that Ariana Brocious, Peter Stegen, and others at PBT put into this project.
If you’re interested, you can see and hear the story HERE.
For no particular reason, here are two unrelated photos from the same day. Both photographs were taken on September 28, 2014 at our family prairie south of Aurora, Nebraska. I wish I could come up with a pithy and informative way to link the two together, or to a larger theme or lesson. I can’t. I just like the photos. I hope you do too.
In my last post, I mentioned that I didn’t mind having dandelions in my prairies. Here is a further celebration of this beautiful, tough little plant.
While dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are kind of weedy, they are not invasive – at least not in our prairies. They essentially fill spaces left when perennial plants are either absent or weakened. Typically, they come and go from the plant community pretty quickly, except in places (like around our shop) where frequent mowing and/or poor soil conditions prevent more competitive plants from establishing.
The dandelion’s status as a non-native plant doesn’t bother me in the least. It is an attractive species and is great for pollinators – especially in the early part of the season when few other plants are blooming in our prairies. Until relatively recent history, dandelions were seen as a useful and attractive garden plant around the world. We’ve made the social decision to call it a weed, but that doesn’t change it’s ecological value. You can read more about the history and uses of dandelions here.
If you can get past the social aesthetic of dandelions as weeds and look at them as just a flower, they’re really very pretty. Kids, who haven’t yet been pressured to label dandelions as a nuisance, can see that beauty – why can’t we?
For a nature photographer like me, Nebraska winters can get pretty long. Especially winters like this one with very little snow. How many photos of brown grass and dried flowers can I take, after all? I don’t have the equipment or patience to photograph wildlife very well, so I’m kind of stuck with landscapes and close-up photos.
Well, a guy’s gotta photograph something… While I was visiting my in-laws in Sarpy County, Nebraska (south of Omaha) last weekend, I decided to challenge myself to find something interesting to photograph within the small restored prairies on their property. I guess you’ll have to judge whether or not I was successful.
So, there you go. Now, how about a little snow? Or some nice hoar frost? Ice storm??
I usually feel pretty good about being a prairie ecologist and the contributions I make to the world. But, to be completely honest – and you’ll probably find this surprising – I don’t often find opportunities to use my professional skills to help people around town. For example, you almost never hear people shout “Is there a prairie ecologist in the house??” or “My house is on fire! Call a prairie ecologist!”
As a result, I was thrilled to be able to apply my expertise right here in my home town the other day. I was standing in line at the doctor’s office (nothing serious, thanks for asking) when a woman across the waiting room turned to the woman next to her and asked, “Do you know what ‘buffalo pea’ is?”
“Um, no,” the second woman replied. (I’m not sure the second woman realized it was a plant question…)
With no regard for my busy schedule or of losing my place in line (ok, I was the only one in line – it’s a small town) I strode over to the woman and said, “Excuse me, I know what buffalo pea is!”
And thus started a very pleasant conversation about prairie wildflowers, the Willa Cather novel she was reading, and her recollection of finding buffalo pea as a young girl – though she didn’t know the name of it then –and peeling one of the pods apart to see what was inside. I told her a little about the plant’s flowers and edible fruits, and we talked briefly about how accurately and vividly Willa Cather described the prairie in her books. The woman was clearly delighted that I’d been able to answer her question and provide even more context on the topic. Prairie botany saves the day!
Ok, I know what you’re thinking, but I really don’t need any accolades other than the satisfaction of knowing I helped someone in need. In fact, I’m sure the woman would have eventually learned about buffalo pea without my help – though she might have had to wait until her grandson’s next visit so he could look it up on his smartphone. And sure, the woman probably enjoyed her novel much more knowing that she and Willa Cather shared an appreciation for buffalo pea, but, really, I just did what anyone would have done. Anyone with expertise in prairie ecology, that is.
When we finished our conversation, I excused myself and made my way back over to the receptionist’s desk (there was still no line). I realized later that I’d forgotten to introduce myself to the woman, or to find out her name. I can, however, imagine the conversation that must have taken place after I walked away. The woman surely turned to her neighbor and asked, “Who was that nice man?”
And her companion replied, “Oh, didn’t you recognize him? Why that’s…The Prairie Ecologist!”
In case you’re not familiar with Willa Cather’s writing, here are three brief excerpts that mention buffalo pea…
Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve. Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring, “What a pity!”
O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
One Sunday I rode over there with Jake to get a horse-collar which Ambrosch had borrowed from him and had not returned. It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year’s dried sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence.
My Antonia – Willa Cather
He struck off by the road,—it could scarcely be called a street, since it ran across raw prairie land where the buffalo-peas were in blossom. Claude walked slower than was his custom, his straw hat pushed back on his head and the blaze of the sun full in his face. His body felt light in the scented wind, and he listened drowsily to the larks, singing on dried weeds and sunflower stalks. At this season their song is almost painful to hear, it is so sweet. He sometimes thought of this walk long afterward; it was memorable to him, though he could not say why.