Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prairie Walk

Native prairies are resilient, as my neighbors learned when they bought a small farm a few years ago. They discovered a treasure on their land: 15 acres of prairie, mowed in the past but never grazed or plowed. They burn it every year to keep it wild.

It's the summer solstice. Come for a walk.

This is Liatris, called Prairie Blazing Star, Button Snakeroot or Kansas Gayfeather, a hardy native perennial growing on upland prairies from Ontario to Texas. It's often planted as part of prairie restoration projects. My friend Quickbeam first introduced me to this flower. He considers it a symbol of tolerance, equality, diversity and recovery.

This is Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium, used against snakebite by indigenous peoples. The University of Kansas is studying its medicinal properties. Moccasins made from its tough fibers have been found. They're estimated to be something like 4,000 years old. The flowers house and nourish several species of butterflies, wasps, moths and bees. Rattlesnake Master stands for endurance.

Compass Plant blooms like a sunflower, but its leaves look more like dandelions on steroids. They align roughly north and south. It's a Silphium, related to an ancient species famed in North Africa long ago, a gift from Apollo, god of the sun, prophecy and healing. It represents the sense of place or belonging, of knowing where you need to be.

I still can't remember the names of all the grasses. They sing the wind's song and whisper memories of the ocean bed that once lay here. It was a privilege and a delight to visit this beautiful resource.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


On long evenings when the light lingers, I remember other summers. The courthouse square was the heart of the town where I grew up: a squat brick building surrounded by a fieldstone wall. Brick streets separated the square from rows of shops, the bank, tavern, drug store, Oddfellows hall, pool parlor and county jail.

There were concerts in the bandstand most Saturday evenings. The grown-ups sat on folding chairs or brought blankets to spread on the lawn. The kids ran around the square on top of the wall, some of them jumping off onto the grass verge from the highest spots. Going all the way around the square on the wall was a challenge. You had to jump over stairways on three sides. An access driveway too wide to jump cut through the east side, so the races usually began and finished there.

At the southwest corner, trumpet creeper vines overwhelmed the wall. I don’t know how old I was when my dad first helped me pluck the bright orange blossoms and put them on my fingers. Getting the fit just right was tricky, especially for little hands. They needed to be snug enough to wave in the air while cackling. One of the hazards of running the courthouse wall was the witchfinger kids lying in wait. If a witch tagged you with an orange claw, you had to start the wall run over.

I usually went home with pollen-stained fingertips. (I don’t recall any ill effects, although I understand that some people have allergic reactions to the plant.) There never seemed to be a lack of flowers, even with kids picking them by the handful. By the next Saturday, the vines were always loaded again.

In my yard, Campsis radicans swarms up an old swing set, waving fronds and fingers above the garden. Also called hummingbird vine, it provides shelter for a feeder. The hummers ignore my sugar water offering once the witchfingers begin to bloom. They buzz bomb the walk beside the vine to assert their territory, swooping down and up in the swift arc of skateboarders.

Friends have asked me why I intentionally planted an invasive vine. Some invasives are more easily controlled in low light. My woods do not allow much competition from cultivated species. The trumpet creeper climbs between a large cedar and a mature hedge tree, surrounded by native hackberry. In so much shade, it has to stretch for the light. The last rays of the midsummer sun illumine flaming bunches of witchfingers. It wouldn’t be summer without them.