A sea of yellow, sprinkled with purple, blue and white, hit my eyes upon entering the park. Ah, I said, it's prairie flower season!
Back in the early spring, we eagerly trained our eyes on the forest floor, looking for the first wildflowers that spelled the end to dreary winter weather. Some were so small that we worried we might overlook them. Their delicate petals sometimes got lost in the greenery emerging all around them. In short, finding spring wildflowers can take some work.
Not so with their summer and fall cousins: prairie flowers and grasses. You couldn't miss them if you tried, which I found out the other day during a walk at Blues Creek Preserve. This park, near Ostrander, is one of my favorites, but for varying reasons, I had not been there in a while. However, after hearing a number of Preservation Parks staff members talk about the beautiful prairie colors, I made the trip.
The prairie, which fills 20 acres at Blues Creek, is just a few years old, but already the plants are well-established and becoming more so each year. This month, the dominant flower seems to be gray-headed coneflower, which typically blooms July through September.
This plant can grow up to seven feet tall, but most of those I saw were about three to four feet in height. The petals are bright yellow (hence the sea of yellow that met my eyes), and drop away from a gray or green head. I read somewhere that the head, when crushed, tastes like anise, but in keeping with our practice of leaving wildflowers alone, I didn't check that out.
Exclamation points of purple punctuate the masses of yellow blossoms throughout the prairie, thanks to purple coneflower and wild bergamot (bee balm). Like the gray-headed coneflower, these flowers also bloom July through September, and the prairies are full of them right now.
They also are full of Queen Anne's Lace and chicory; these two were not in the seed mix that started the prairie, but they are wildflowers that do well in the prairie environment. They have made themselves comfortable at Blues Creek, and add to the beautiful mix of colors. Chicory, incidentally, is the blue flower you see each summer, filling the medians and lining the edges of highways.
If you look carefully among all the flowers and grasses, you'll see a pretty yellow flower called partridge pea. This was one of the flowers that thrived in the prairie's first season several years ago. It is still doing well, but has ceded its dominance to the taller coneflowers and bergamot. Bees are attracted to all the flowers, but according to Preservation Parks' natural resources coordinator, Chris Roshon, they especially love partridge pea.
Chris also mentioned that the flowers I saw during my walk at Blues Creek are the early bloomers of the prairie world. Coming up in September and October, we'll see (yellow) stiff goldenrod, (white) tall boneset and (purple) New England asters. Of course, the grasses will reach their full height -- six feet and more -- and start showing off their feathery seed heads.
So now, reminded of how pretty the prairies are, I decided to spend some time at the prairie patch at Hogback Ridge Preserve. It is quite small, but almost unbelievably full of life. In a few square feet of that prairie, I saw a half-dozen great spangled fritillaries and even more red admirals (both are butterflies) and the biggest bumble bees I've ever seen.
I also saw a hummingbird clearwing moth. While these daytime moths act a lot like hummingbirds, they are not quite as fast, and their flight pattern is different. But they are fun to watch! They love the wild bergamot, so look for them around this aromatic flower.
In addition to Hogback and Blues Creek Preserves, you'll find prairies at Deer Haven, Emily Traphagen and Gallant Woods preserves. All the parks are open 8 a.m. to sunset every day.
Even though summer is waning, it's nice to know that the plant world is still producing and preparing to show off some of its finest colors. Fall will be here soon, but there is plenty of time to enjoy the glorious show of prairie flowers. Don't miss it!
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.