Blue blossoms were displayed by only one plant that I saw: Pitcher's Sage, whose scientific name, Salvia azurea, nails it; "azure," the "color of the clear sky."
White was represented by the low-growing, dainty-flowered Heath Aster (Aster ericoides); the erect, brushy-blossomed Fragrant Cudweed, (Gnaphalium obtusifolium)aka Sweet Balsam, Rabbit Tobacco or Poverty Weed (this last perhaps referring to its affinity for disturbed settings); and the cotton-topped White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)aka Deerwort Boneset and White Saniclea plant that struck back against the agricultural colonization of its home. To wit (as related by Farrar):
The herbage contains the toxin trematol. Snakeroot flourished, and was apparently more frequently eaten by cattle, when woods were cleared by pioneers and more attractive forage was unavailable. When passed on to humans in cow's milk, trematol causes milk sickness, the disease from which Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln's mother, died.
Yellow was by far the most widespread color. Nebraska's state flower, the Goldenrod (genus Solidago, many species), was in full summery bloom. I was quite taken by the Showy Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), whose brightly colored flowers climbed its spindly branches between splays of feathery compound leaves and slender green seed pods, still flat in their fresh immaturity. I was delighted to meet Curly Cup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), whose genus I had come to appreciate in the Westfrom the Smith River Delta to the Olympic Peninsulafor its intense flavor and medicinal potency. Like its relatives out there, this one was also used by Native Americans to treat various conditions: "colic, kidney problems, bronchitis, skin rashes, smallpox, pneumonia, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and saddle galls on horses." Further, "powdered flower heads were used as asthma cigarettes by early settlers." Intriguing! Smoking has largely fallen out of favor as a delivery method for medicinal herbs (with the exception of Cannabis) but I presume the mode has declined due to an unfair association with commercial tobacco products rather than a lack of efficacy.
The yellow flowers that attracted me most were the wild sunflowers. My surname, Sonnenblume is the German word for "sunflower" so I consider them siblings. There were many kinds there,but lacking a field guide, I couldn't identify them. I knew the genus Helianthus but what species was I seeing? Grosseserratus (Sawtooth), petiolaris (Plains or Prairie), maximiliani (Maximilian's), tuberosus (Jerusalem Artichoke, Canada Potato or Sunchoke), or the plain old garden variety annuus? Were there also False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide)? Maybe!
All these flowering plants were mixed in with grasses. Some held their heads above, some filled the spaces between the clumps, and still others found a niche close to the ground. The tallest grasses were over five feet high, and it was a joy to stand in the middle of a patch like that. I tried to imagine what it was like when this was all you could see.
But when I raised my eyes from my immediate surroundings, I saw the fencing around the preserve and beyond that fields, roads, and buildings. In the distance was the state capitol building in downtown Lincoln (about a nine mile drive away).
Unlike most state capitols, which are modeled on the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Nebraska's is centered around a tower. It was designed in 1920 and the architectural style is deemed to be "classical" but I would describe it as "proto-Deco" due to its sleek lines. Wikipedia notes that the 400 foot structure is sometimes referred to as, the "Tower on the Plains," and I'm sure that's true, but the nickname that I heard was "Penis on the Plains." Not for nothing does that moniker fit. The undeniably phallic tower is capped with a dome that is in turn topped with a statue ofI'm not making this upa man sowing seed out of a bag. Surely if archaeologists dug up such a structure they would describe it as a temple to fertility worship, wouldn't they? And the difference here is" what, exactly?
Be that as it may, active processes of fertility and reproduction were going on at Nine Mile Prairie that day. Flowers contain the sex organs of plants and they are delivering an explicit "come hither" message to pollinators with their colors and shapes. That day I saw hundreds of insects: bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and more. Specifically, I identified three butterflies: the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Sulfur (family Pieridae, subfamily Coliadinae) and Pecks Skipper (Polites peckius); a Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus); a Broad-headed Bug (genus Alydus); a male Golden or Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus); and a Crab Spider (family Thomisidae). This is in addition to a multitude of pollinators including Bumble Bees. Where insects fly, web-spinning arachnids set up shop, and I found a big fat garden spider, striped yellow and black, stationed brazenly at the center of her net, which she had marked, running-light style, with zig-zags in stitched bold face.
Some plants were done flowering for the season, but I recognized their fruited or seeded forms: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for its spindle-shaped pods; Wild Rose (genus Rosa) for its red hips; Ground Cherry, aka Tomatillo (Physalis heterophylla) for its husk-covered fruits; and Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), for its round, prickly seed pods. This last plant I had grown back in my farming days, hoping to process it for its dimethyltryptamine content, though I never got around to that.
Another plant I knew from farming whom I had never met in the wildand which was the most exciting introduction of the daywas Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum). I originally got seed from Richo Cech's Horizon Herbs (now Strictly Medicinal Seeds), of Williams, Oregon, because it was indicated for lung ailments. Richo has a way with words and describes the plant's appearance so: "Towering herbaceous perennial with deep delving roots" The large, handsomely and characteristically lobed leaves are very impressive, designed by nature to rise up through and push away prairie grasses. The stems are heavy, thick, hairy and green, glistening with fragrant and bitter gum." He later adds this advice: "During dormancy, burn off over the crown every few years (they won't mind, they are stimulated and cleaned by the fire and nourished by the ash)." After years of ordering seeds and plants from his company, I came to know I could count on Richo's dry wit as well as his botanical expertise.
"Characteristically lobed" as a description of the leaves does understate the case, though. Here, Farrar goes the further mile:
Leaves leathery, clustered at base, up to 15 inches long and half as wide, deeply notched nearly to midrib forming lobes that are likewise notched. Stem leaves alternate, becoming progressively smaller, bases clasping stem. Leaves hairy but not conspicuously so, principally along main leaf veins, rough to the touch.
It was from this foliage that I recognized Compass Plant (who had bloomed earlier in the year). I snapped some photos with my phone and texted them to Clarabelle (my former farming partner), knowing she would be excited too. We had grown the plant in Oregon and I always wondered if he (I thought) felt out of place and alone there. This was a plant integrated deeply into a particular ecological community; with the other plants and the animals to be sure, but also with the humid summers, the frigid winters and the wide open spaces. Over the years, when I reflected on the nearly complete destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies, I often mourned for the Compass Plant. I lovingly tended him in gardens, but when he shot up his towering flower stalk, I could see that he was missing his grass neighbors. I suppose all plants are shaped by their community, but Silphium laciniatum seems especially so to me. All the sadder that his home range is reduced to such ragged fragments.
Early conservationist Aldo Leopold, who witnessed the destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies first-hand in the early 20th century famously wrote, in his book, A Sand County Almanac: "What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked."