Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Walk in the Carleton College Arboretum

One reason Erika and I retired to Northfield, Minnesota, is the Carleton College Arboretum.  Located on the north edge of town, this 880-acre preserve is a wonderful resource for both the college and the Northfield community.  The arboretum contains riparian and upland forest, oak savanna, and restored tallgrass prairie.  In late summer, Erika and I especially enjoy 140 acres of prairie.  Wildflowers and birds abound.
On Monday we took an hour's walk in the arboretum.  On our way to the prairie we came upon a plant with which I am unfamiliar.  Being a casual botanist, encounters with unfamiliar wildflowers are not that uncommon for me.  The plant in question is a Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis).  These yellow flowers bloom in the evening and wither the following morning.  The plant has a plethora of medical uses ("eczema, asthma, migraines, inflammations, premenstrual syndrome, breast problems, metabolic disorders, arthritis and alcoholism"), and, infusions of the plant, as a folk tea or coffee substitute (Coffey, 1993. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers).
The prairie was awash in purple Wild Bergamot and yellow sunflowers.  The Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) was difficult to identify.  Thanks to the director of the arboretum for help with this one. The basal leaves of this plant tend to point north and south, thus the name.  The North American prairies were once awash with this species.
Big Bluestem (Andropogon girardii) is a grass that is emblematic of the tallgrass prairie.  When European settlers first rode their horses into this prairie, Big Bluestem was so tall that they sometimes lost their way.  (Perhaps the first Europeans had small horses, since now this grass grows to about 10 feet.)  In this photo you can see why an alternative name for this grass is Turkeyfoot.  This species is a dominant member of the prairie ecosystem.  It is a warm-weather plant, and does not become mature until relatively late in the summer, allowing other earlier-spring plants to complete their life cycles earlier in the spring.

As Erika and I walked along a path through Big Bluestem, a small but vociferous bird called forth from within the tangles.  I will report on that encounter in my next blog post.

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