Prairie Flowers: A Changing Mosaic of Color

It’s too easy to just visit an area once and think you know it. Visit your favorite woods, stream, or prairie once a week this summer and really pay attention to what you see. It is always changing.

I was reminded of this constant change while preparing for upcoming invasive shrub removal at the Paint Creek Heritage Area Wet Prairie. I couldn’t find the blue-eyed grass I’d noticed a week earlier, and the prairie grasses were growing quickly! What I really enjoyed, though, were the new flowers that had opened, spreading swaths of new color into the patchwork of the prairie.

The first yellow flowers of shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) had just emerged, foretelling a golden show in the coming week. You might recognize this attractive shrub because it is sometimes used in landscaping. Shrubby cinquefoil is fairly common just beyond the park sign along the Paint Creek Trail, so you won’t have to look very hard to find it.

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) is a low shrub that is found in open, wet ground in high quality natural areas.
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) is a low shrub that is found in open, wet ground in high quality natural areas.

Pale purple spikes dotted the prairie. This species was a new one for me – my best guess is pale spiked lobelia (Lobelia spicata), but let me know if think otherwise! The “3+2” pattern of the petals resembled the close relative cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis): notice the 3 bottom lobes of petals and the 2 top lobes. The delicate purple flowers seemed to be more abundant in slightly disturbed areas.

Pale spike lobelia (Lobelia spicata) splashed delicate color throughout the prairie. Another flower that should be easy to spot if you get out to the wet prairie this week.
Pale spiked lobelia (Lobelia spicata) splashed delicate color throughout the prairie. Another flower that should be easy to spot if you get out to the wet prairie this week.

I’d noticed hairy beard-tongue a week or so earlier, but I can’t resist showing it to you. Like a lot of  common names, hairy beard-tongue is a rough translation of the Latin name, Penstemon hirsutus. Scientists were very descriptive when they named these plants! Hairy beard-tongue likes sandy, open ground, including prairies and the oak barrens that used to be abundant in this area.

Hairy beard-tongue is an attractive plant and does well in landscaping. Help out native pollinators and add some flair to your flower beds!
Hairy beard-tongue is an attractive plant and does well in landscaping. Help out native pollinators and add some flair to your flower beds!
If you look closely at hairy beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus), you'll notice what looks like a hairy tongue coming out of the middle of the flower.
If you look closely at hairy beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus), you’ll notice what looks like a hairy tongue coming out of the middle of the flower.

Lastly, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is getting ready to pop! Next week we’ll have a glorious display of deep orange milkweed flowers all along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silverbell. Don’t miss it!

The orange of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowers is beginning to color the flower buds.
The orange of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowers is beginning to color the flower buds.

Let me know if you see these plants flowering at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, or if you see something new!

About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

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