Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Flora funeral: Silphium and Liatris

The pews shine with furniture polish as the funeral ceremony approaches all too soon, I am afraid.  We have read the obituary either on the internet or in the strange pulp we call newspaper.  There was an accident, no, that’s not quite correct.  There occurred an intentional erasure of a Silphium and Liatris beside a highway as the road expanded to carry cargo from Cathay to London and places in between.   They had to go, making way for trucks, cars and commerce.  In another county, these two species of wildflowers were literally mowed down to accommodate fields of bermuda grass for cattle grazing.  Man and his machines with an ideology of progress cut these plants from our world.

At the flora funeral, I settle in the pew, way at the back because I want to leave as soon as the sermonizing begins, for I know that in some corner of a county road, a cemetery, an abandoned field, there are survivors and I want to find them and stand guard against their enemies.  The parson begins, “We come here today to honor two beautiful friends, Silphium and Liatris, that unfortunately were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  He continues and I slip out the back….

I shall find Silphium’s relatives, the kin of Liatris, somewhere on the back roads of America.  I know I will discover them, for mankind cannot be so cruel as to grind under every beautiful blossom in the name of progress.  I will, and many others will, stand as sentinel, protecting their existence from unthinking blades of technology.

* * *

For several years, Aldo Leopold monitored a tract of Silphium near a Wisconsin graveyard as mowers came closer and closer, year by year, eventually cutting it down.

Silphium

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm. It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event.

It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by sythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. 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.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

 — Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac (1948).

* * *

Elaine Lee, a friend of mine, wrote me about Liatris, her narrative quite similar to Leopold’s Silphium, as you can read for yourself:

Purple Gayfeather, Liatris

Just this morning as I was driving to work I noticed about 150-100 yards west of the abandoned oil storage tank east of Putnam, there is a field full of purple flower spikes.  I think, just from seeing them while driving eastbound, that they may be purple Gayfeather, or Liatris.  The only other time I have seen Liatris in the wild, it was called to my attention by a Texas Master Gardener and she was doing her best to protect a very small stand in Clyde, near the cemetery.  According to her they are not extremely common in this area.  I had never seen them before, but I think the purple color of these plants, plus the fact that it was after many other wildflowers had bloomed that she made me aware of them and this particular field could be the same.  If so, it is a very large cluster in a good-sized field.  The habitat was very similar to that of the small cluster I saw in Clyde — an open field, not attended, and not plowed or mowed for probably many years.   Just the right amount of sunshine and rain coming at just the right time.

— E-mail of Elaine Lee to Jack Matthews, May 21, 2012.

I will seek out the Liatris as soon as possible, photograph it and write about its presence in west Texas.  I don’t like going to funerals and neither do my friends.

______________________________

Notes, corrections and additions:

Excerpt of Aldo Leopold from: http://gargravarr.cc.utexas.edu/chrisj/leopold-quotes.html

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Wine Cup Clearing: Flowers of Flying Hat (25-31)

Wine Cup clearing

At 8:30 this morning, I walked and drove to the far field.  Smiling at wild mustang grapevines that yield monarch butterflies along the fence row, I hiked with camera in the grove along Salt Creek.  The creek runs water despite the lack of rain for over a month.  Squall lines last evening bypassed the ranchito, dumping hail and rain in Fort Worth, sixty-seven miles away to the east and in Cisco, forty-five miles to the west.  Wine Cup clearing, as I now call it, bears Wine Cups this Spring.  I saw none last year.  In the photograph above, the Wine Cups are on the right side of the clearing.  They have cool shade from the oak and elm and the creek runs nearby that brings the ambient temperature down a few degrees.

Names have been given, I am sure, to places on the ranchito before I came, but they have not been passed down.  (There has been only one owner previous to me besides the Venable family that settled larger sections of land in the surrounds.)  I give a name first by location:  near field, far field, arena pasture, barn pasture, etc., but then when an object or landform becomes prominent, like Pecan Tree or Wine Cup, I name the space, giving it animation and fixing the impression.  I have no crew to direct into the pastures, but when I refer to The Grove or Pecan Tree Pasture, friends and family know where that is, associating flora and fauna with location, and ambiguity disappears.

25. Wine Cup (Poppy Mallow)

Two-years ago, I discovered one or two Wine Cups in the grove, up from the creek, in a private place for this blossom.  Today, eight blossoms of Wine Cup or Poppy Mallow emerged from the same location.  Eight Wine Cups are not a bell weather of climate change, but rather, I suspect, a change due to fallowing, allowing the flowers to replenish.  Green grass and tall trees abound about the Wine Cup’s private place.  I find no Wine Cups at other locations on the ranchito although I continue to search.

26. Trailing krameria,Crameria, Prairie sandbur, Trailing Ratany

I find Trailing krameria or Prairie sandbur in only two places on the ranchito, both on the knoll where the house sits.  This is a delicate plant and can be missed and mowed under if one is not careful.  It lies along the fence line between the house and front pasture and, secondly, has emerged on a terrace  to the southeast.  I find archeological evidence of hearth and tool making about the ranchito and I wonder if earlier inhabitants or migrants  saw this plant.  I presume so and know it must have some medicinal properties?

27. Skeleton Plant, Purple Dandelion, Flowering Straw, Milk Pink

The stems of Skeleton Plant are rigid, attached at obtuse angles, like a skeletal frame.  The flower stalk and blossom are tall, some two feet.  These plants are more prolific this year than two years ago.  Here is a larger picture of the Purple Dandelion with yucca blossoms.  I cultivate neither.  Both emerge wild.

Purple Dandelions with yucca blossoms

28. Bull Nettle

In the far field I have Bull Nettle.  It has medicinal properties, but is quite painful to be brushed against.  As a boy, I got a painful lesson in ‘trying’ to pick its blossoms.  I have a collector in Wisconsin to whom I will send a few with warning labels this Spring.

29. Prickly Pear cactus

30. Coneflower

31. Common Yarrow

No. 31 is Common Yarrow.

The pastures are browning here and towards San Angelo and Mexico I am told by ranchers more desert appears.  Grass fires have been erupting this last week between here and Abilene.  Yet, the diversity of nature here on these 53 acres of my ranchito shows both browning pastures and a creek that runs water with moss growing on its banks.  Brown and green, primary colors of nature, intermingle and birds continue to sing despite the fear I have that a climate shift has come and the green will dwindle until next year’s Spring rains.  I may be right; I may be wrong.  As the ancients said, We shall see what we shall see.

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Flowers of Flying Hat (5): Ground plum, not yummy

Yesterday evening as I came back a different path from the barn after feeding Star, I discovered this flowering plant, the Ground plum, milkvetch.  I spent over an hour perusing field books until I identified Ground plum.  I nailed the identification when I corroborated a field book description with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website.  Depending upon the species of Astragalus, some members are poisonous, but this species is not.  Even so, Ground plum is not a yummy plant although its fragrance is lovely — somewhat spicy I believe.

5. Ground plum, milkvetch (Astragalus crassicarpus?). March 3, 2012, southeast second-level terrace. See: http://www.wildflower.org/gallery/result.php?id_image=9002; Wills and Irwin, p. 138, especially.

I discovered a new link for plants: University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany.  You must check this out for medicinal uses of plants.

This medicinal use of plants starts me thinking.  I may set aside an area in the barn to harvest some of these plants.  I already have a request for bull nettle to be sent up to Wisconsin for an indoor greenhouse.  Don’t let the bull nettle go outside!

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