I feel like I need to apologize to long-time readers of this blog. This is the seventh spring season I’ve photographed and shared via this blog, and each of those spring seasons starts with essentially the same wildflower species. Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), ground plum (Astragalus crassicarpus), and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – in no particular order – are the first three wildflowers I find and photograph almost every single year. I’m always excited to find them because they are an important signal of a new growing season, but also because I’m desperate for something vibrant and colorful to photograph after a long winter.
Sharing those spring flower photos with you each year feels to me like a shared celebration of the annual prairie rebirth, but I also imagine some of you checking in on the blog, seeing the photos, sighing deeply, and checking right back out again. If that’s you, I really do apologize, and you’re free to go. I’ll try to do better next week. For the rest of you, guess what! It’s spring! Look at these gorgeous flowers!!
Over the last five years or so, I’ve been learning a lot more about pollinators, and that has changed the way I look at prairies. As I walk around our prairies, I often think about how I would see the site if I was a bee trying to find enough nectar and pollen to both survive and provision my eggs. Often, our prairies are full of flowers, but April and May can be pretty tough months. The flowers that are blooming tend to be small and scattered, and I can walk a lot of steps without finding anything.
The lack of available flowers in the spring is not necessarily a new thing. Spring weather is unpredictable, and investing resources in blooming early means risking a late freeze or (in some cases) flooding rains that can scuttle the whole process. However, many prairies today have fewer spring flowers than they used to, and restored prairies (crop fields converted back to prairie vegetation) are often low on spring flowers because finding seed for those species is difficult. Flowering shrubs can help make up for a scarcity of spring wildflowers, but they are also less common these days than they used to be.
Prairie managers and gardeners can both play important roles in helping to provide spring flowers for pollinators. In prairies, allowing shrubs to grow in some areas of the landscape can benefit pollinators in the spring, but also help out increasingly rare shrub-nesting birds during the summer. Thinking about spring flower availability might also help inform prairie management plans, and enhancing restored, or even remnant prairies, to add missing spring wildflowers might be beneficial as well. For gardeners, adding native spring wildflowers can be both aesthetically pleasing and extremely important for the bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood.
As I’ve said many times, the prairie is an ecosystem best seen up close. You have to look carefully to see much of the beauty. Dillon (one of our Hubbard Fellows) and I were poking around today and found this yellow wood sorrel flower. It looked as if an artistic child had been playing with a hole punch. There were a few scattered holes in nearby blossoms but this was the only one that looked as if it had been purposefully accented. Any insect smarties out there know what might have made the holes?
This is the season of small statured wildflowers. Puccoon, ragwort, locoweed, wood sorrel and many others are just starting to bloom. Perhaps the most ostentatiously-colored of our spring flowers, however, is purple poppy mallow. This one was just getting ready to open today.
We’ve been getting a lot of rain lately, which bodes well for a good wildflower season, at least for the next month or so. We’ll see what kind of weather the El Nino brings after that. We might get really wet or really dry. For now, I’ll enjoy the colors.
At times, prairies in east-central Nebraska can have such an abundance of large wildflowers, they resemble flower gardens. Early spring is not one of those times. There are plenty of prairie flowers blooming this spring, but you wouldn’t know it from a distance. In fact, it often seems as if you have to nearly step on a spring wildflower before you see it.
In the coming weeks, things will change. Late spring and early summer flowers such as ragwort (Senecio plattensis), shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) and spiderworts (Tradescantia spp) will be displayed at the top of stems that rise a foot or two from the ground. Clusters of those flowers can easily be seen from hundreds of yards away. For now, however, wildflowers are keeping a low profile.
Of course, short stature and small flowers make perfect sense in the early spring. Flowers that bloom at the beginning of the growing season don’t have much time between winter’s thaw and blooming time (especially this year!) The small plants are in a race to bloom before neighbors – especially grasses – overtop them, making it difficult for both pollinators and light to find them. For the most part, spring-flowering plants grow just long enough stems to get their flowers off the ground and make those flowers just big enough to attract pollinating insects.
While not universally true, many early flowering plants seem to thrive best when a prairie isn’t loaded with thatch and tall dead vegetation from previous seasons. Prairies burned during the dormant season or were grazed or hayed the previous summer/fall seem to have the greatest abundance of spring flowers. Of course, there is some observer bias involved in measuring that since spring flowers are much easier to see in short vegetation…
This spring, I’ve been paying particular attention to prairies that we burned and grazed during drought of 2012. Most were awfully short, brown, and barren-looking by late last summer and stayed that way through the winter. It’s been nice to see them greening up this spring and supporting good numbers of wildflowers. Interestingly, I’ve seen more wind flowers (Anemone caroliniana) this year than I can remember from previous springs. The two sites in which I’ve seen big patches of wind flowers were both burned and grazed pretty hard last year, making the flowers easy to see, but probably also allowing the plants to grow with little competition for light or other resources.
While spring flowers are short in stature, they seem to be able to attract pollinators. Of course, many of those pollinators are good at finding hidden plants by following their scent. In addition, when the number of flowering species is limited, pollinators do what it takes to find whatever flowers are available!
What’s more interesting to me is that as I’ve been seeing and photographing wind flowers over the last week or so, I’ve seen a surprising number of tiny crab spiders on them. I would guess that there’s a crab spider on one out of every 10-15 flowers, and they all appear (to me) to be of the same species. I wish I knew how those crab spiders found the flowers.
I’ve been seeing a lot of trailing silks in the air lately, so I know some spiders are on the move (by ballooning), and I assume young crab spiders disperse that way. But if they do, landing on or near a flowering plant at this time of year seems awfully unlikely. Are the crab spiders I’m seeing on wind flowers the lucky few that landed near a good hunting place? Or are most crab spiders able to find a flower to hunt on, even in the spring when flowers are scattered around in low numbers? If so, how?
Maybe one of you will be able to answer those questions for me. For now, I’ll just add them to my long list of other questions – a list that will surely grow considerably during this coming field season.
I drove out to our family prairie yesterday to look for some early spring activity. I scared up a couple of turkeys and a big owl, watched a red-tailed hawk soar for a while, and listened to the western meadowlarks tuning up for the breeding season. No snakes were to be found, but there were plenty of leopard frogs along the edge of the pond. I’d hoped to see some wildflowers, but there weren’t many blooming yet. Apart from abundant sun sedge (Carex heliophila) plants on the steeper slopes, the only blooms to be found were patches of pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta). Not that there’s anything wrong with pussytoes!
Our prairie sits right on the transition between tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie in Nebraska. As such, it can be dominated by big bluestem and indiangrass, or by western wheatgrass, side-oats grama, tall dropseed, and other shorter grass species – depending upon recent weather and management. Part of the property is unplowed prairie, but much of it was seeded in the early 1960’s by my grandpa soon after he bought the property. The formerly cropped areas were seeded with grasses, but have also been colonized over time by many of the forb species from the hillier unplowed prairie on the site.
Pussytoes grows well in both the unplowed and seeded portions of the prairie. It can be found in small patches consisting of a few individuals, but also in living room-sized populations. The plant is considered to be allelopathic and reduces the height of surrounding plants, which makes large patches fairly easy to see. It also seems to do well in the areas of the prairie favored by grazing cattle. (Whether this is because the cattle are drawn to the shorter grass or because the pussytoes do well in heavily grazed areas I can’t tell – it’s likely both!)
Regardless, the pussytoes had the wildflower blooming stage to themselves on this early April day. I needed to scratch my itch for wildflower photography after a long winter, so I laid down with my tripod and focused in on a few plants. As often happens when I take the time to sit down in a prairie, I noticed other things around me. This time it was the buzzing of pollinators who had also noticed that pusseytoes were blooming. As I watched, I counted at least 8 species of pollinating insects bouncing from flower to flower, looking for those with pollen-laden anthers. Most of the insects were flies, but a few bees and a moth were among the visitors as well. Elsewhere on the prairie I saw some orange sulphur butterflies too, but never actually saw one land on a pussytoes flower.
Since our prairie is a 106 island of prairie in a landscape consisting mostly of cropland, these pussytoes were not only the sole source of pollen in our prairie – they were just about the only thing to pollinators to eat for miles. Not even the dandelions in the neighbor’s creek bottom had started to bloom yet. I’d never thought of pussytoes as a critical plant for pollinators, but apparently I underestimated this low-stature plant. I’m guessing it’s not the first time its been overlooked…