50 or so of us showed up early this morning, paid our fee ($5 for muffins, transportation, guides, and lunch. You can't beat that!), and loaded on to school buses. The tour visits a different area each year and today's site was a beautiful area near the city lake. Once we were on lake grounds, we got off the buses and climbed on to flat bed trucks for a hay rack ride through the prairie. Our guides pointed out interesting plants as we rode and we stopped a few times so they could show us particularly nice stands of flowers or, in one case, an invasive plant that conservationists are working relentlessly to eradicate.
Eventually we made our way to the day's site, a field overlooking the lake.
We broke into small groups and moved from area to area over the field, learning about the vast variety of plants growing there. Our guides were employees of the county Conservation District, Farm Bureau, and local K-State extension agents, as well as college biology professors and a woman from the Native Plant Society and they incredibly knowledgeable and interesting.
We learned to identify all of the flowers blooming and many that have yet to bloom. We learned about some of the edible and medicinal uses of the plants we saw. We learned how some plants like very particular areas - shallow soils, the earth over limestone, north facing slopes, disturbed land. We learned about plant families and how many of the flowers we saw today have "cousins" in our flower beds at home. We learned to identify native grasses - big and little bluestem, two kinds of grama, side oats, Indian grass, buffalo grass. We learned how plants stagger their life cycles, with some blooming early and others late. We learned about the underground network of fungus that connects all the plants and allows them to share water and nutrients and even pheromones. We learned about the importance of fire and how periodic burning keeps the plants of the prairie healthy. We learned of the incredible diversity of the tall grass prairie and what an intricately connected place it is. It was all simply amazing.
My favorite part of the tour was learning the names of the flowers. I have long admired the wildflowers that grow in fields and pastures and along roadsides. I knew some of them and even grow domesticated versions in my garden, but I have always wished I knew more. And today I got my chance!
There was coneflower...
...and daisy fleabane. And yes, settlers used to stuff this in their sleeping ticks to ward off fleas!
There was spider antelopehorn, a type of milkweed...
...and its cousin, the vibrant orange butterfly milkweed.
These are my favorites, stunning against the surrounding green. I have small ones at home, but nothing at all as beautiful as these.
Milkweed is the only plant that the caterpillars of monarch butterflies can eat, so they are important not only for the prairie, but for the creatures that feed on it.
There was wild petunia...
...and beardtongue, whose flowers are marked with a "runway" to show bees the way to the nectar!
There were two different kinds of primrose in varying shades of yellow bloom...
...and a plant with tiny purple flowers that looked exactly like miniature morning glories, whose name I have already forgotten.
There were a few blooms of blue wild indigo, with many more buds yet to open...
...and fragile blossoms of cat-claw sensitive briar.
Don't the blooms look like something Dr. Seuss would have drawn?
There was wavy-leaf thistle, with it's interesting, slightly frightening bud...
...and prickly pear cactus, with strange spotted beetles feasting in its blooms.
My favorite new vocabulary word of the day was "forb". Forbs are plants that are a healthy part of the ecosystem, plants that are supposed to be there. Even things like thistles and cactus are a forb in this field, a part of the vast and intricate prairie.
I could have wandered around looking at flowers all day, but the sun was hot and we were hungry. After cycling through the different guides, we climbed back on the bus for a ride around the lake to a picnic shelter and a tasty lunch. Then it was time to ride back home, tired and satisfied.
I have always loved the prairies of my home land, and after today I love them even more. People think Kansas is flat and empty and full of nothing of interest, but they are wrong. A morning exploring the prairie makes you aware of how much is really going on in "empty" fields and how each and every thing in it plays an important role. Prairies are fascinating and beautiful and full of amazing things. I can't wait to go back and learn more.