John Wesley Powell Audubon is a Chapter of National Audubon

John Wesley Powell Audubon, P.O. Box 142, Normal, Il 61761

Audubon Garden Awakening from Winter by Gretchen Monti

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), pictured above, have been the highlight of our garden on Constitution Trail at Vernon Avenue. According to illinoiswildflowers.info, the flowers are attractive to many kinds of insects seeking pollen or nectar, especially short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, and beetles. Shooting Star and Prairie Smoke have also been lighting up the front of the garden.

All the rain means the weeds are also thriving. And I’m sure the plants miss Dale Birkenholz as much as we do. Contact Gretchen Monti (gretchenmonti@gmail.com) or check JWP’s Facebook page if you would like to be notified of scheduled work opportunities. Or just pull some obvious weeds when you drop by to enjoy the colors, aromas and insect activity of Audubon Garden.

Audubon Garden

 Exploring the Audubon Prairie Garden

Location:  Audubon Garden is on Constitution Trail just north of where the trail crosses East Vernon Avenue at Angela Drive in Normal, Illinois.

Prior to European settlement 90% of McLean County was covered with Tall Grass Prairie. It developed during a dry climatic period, 6-12 thousand years ago, when these plants, mostly from the south and west, out-competed the woodlands that followed the melting of the continental glaciers.  When our land was settled, the prairies were soon plowed, and today only a few small remnants remain. 

The roots of the prairie grasses are deep and fibrous. Over hundreds of years they incorporated large amounts of organic matter into the soil, producing some of the most fertile in the world.  These deep roots also allow them to survive droughts and cold winters.  Once established, they flourish without a great deal of care.

This garden contains a sample of the species that make up our prairie. It consists of grasses, and forbs, the so-called flowering species.  Because the grasses are bunch grasses instead of sod-formers, the area between them provides space for the forbs.  As many as 100 species may exist on an acre of high quality prairie.  Succeeding species bloom from May to October. Many of them were used for food or medicines by both Indians and early settlers.

 

JWP Audubon Prairie Garden Plants

This section of native prairie plot features low-growing species common to spring and summer.  Included are Nodding Wild Onion, Prairie Smoke, Jacob’s ladder, Harebells, Blue-eyed Grass, Prairie Alumroot, Butterfly Weed, Wild Petunia, Columbine, Prairie Phlox, Wild Geranium, Shooting Star, Purple Prairie Clover, New Jersey Tea, and the grasses Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed.

 

Wild Onion or Garlic Allium canadense 

This species was one of the most powerful herbs known to American Indians and early settlers.  Its antiseptic properties were used treat wounds, burns, fevers, parasites, arthritis, and dozens of other maladies.   It was also an important food, used to treat scurvy and an important part of the pioneer diet.  The bulb is about an inch in diameter, and the species reproduces by division of the bulb or seeds from a spherical cluster of aerial bulblets.

Prairie Smoke Geum triflorum 

This member of the Rose family is named for the long plume-like tails that trail from the fruits.  Thus, a bed of mature flowers blowing in the wind somewhat resembled smoke on the early prairies.  The roots of prairie smoke were used by several tribes of Indians for a weak tea that presumably had many medicinal properties.  When mixed with milk and sugar it made a substitute for cocoa. 

Alumroot  Heuchera richardsonii 

The leafless flowering stalk with its small greenish flowers is one of the most striking characters of this species.  The maple-like flowers form a rosette near the ground, and the root is known for its puckering characteristic.  The best known member of this group is the cultivated coralbell.  It resembles this species but the flowers range from pink to deep crimson.

Butterfly Milkweed Asclepias tuberose 

This milkweed is one of the most striking species in dry open areas of our prairies.  It is the only milkweed that does not produce a milky sap; instead a watery juice is exuded from a cut stem.  Insects, especially butterflies are attracted to it, but the flower has a complex pollinating mechanism and only one or two pods develop from a single plant.  The species reproduces by both seed and rootstock, transplanting is difficult because of the stout and deep root.

Shooting Star Dodecatheon meadia 

This fairly uncommon prairie and open woodland species is of special interest because of the structure of the flower.  The smooth 6 to 18-inch flowerstalk arises from a basal rosette of leaves.  Five white to deep lilac petals of each flower are joined at their bases to form a short tube. The petals point upward to form a starlike pattern.  A beak of fused stamens protrudes from the center to give the so-called shooting star effect.  The flower is pollinated by bumblebees. After the flower withers, the dry flower capsule points upward.  It contains many tiny seeds that later disperse.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) 

This low shrub is found in nearly all types of prairies and along woodland borders.  It reaches three feet in height and blooms from May to September.  The small white, hooded flowers occur in dense oblong clusters.  Each produces a hard, three-lobed capsule containing three seeds when mature. A decoction from the leaves of this plant was used to treat many maladies by early settlers, but it was best known as a substitute for tea.  It contains no caffeine but objectionable alkaloids can be extracted if it is steeped too long.  New Jersey Tea was used to tan hides because it root and bark are very high in tannin.  The red, deep root was considered an obstacle to plowing original prairie.

Lead Plant Amorpha canescens

This deep-rooted prairie shrub is so hairy that it has a whitish cast, lending to a lead color, hence its name.  Each flower possesses only one petal, hence the term amorpha “without shape”.  Protruding yellow stamens are the most characteristic part of the flower. Blooming time is late May to August. The fruits are fuzzy pods, each containing one bean-shaped seed.  Lead plant is often cultivated as an ornamental.  Its presence is an indicator of a high quality prairie.

Compass Plant Silphium laciniatum

This species is often considered as the aristocrat of prairie forbs, and some specimens have thought to reach an age of nearly a century.  It possesses a thick, deeply penetrating taproot, and the plant may reach a height of eight feet.  The leaves grow to one foot long and six inches wide.  The irregularly lobed basal leaves tend to orient themselves in a general north-south direction, hence, the common name. The flowers resemble those of the wild sunflower, and contribute to the July through August color on the prairie.  As with many forbs the roots have been valued as a tonic and many medicants.  Even though it possesses a rough, sandpaper texture, this species is preferred by cattle, hence disappears from most grazed pastures in the Midwest.

Prairie Dock Silphium terebinthinaceum

Prairie dock is among the largest-leaved of our prairie plants.  The basal leaves are sandpapery, spade-shaped and may be up to 16 inches long.  The flowers are clustered at the top of a shiny, leafless stalk two to ten feet tall. This long-lived perennial is similar to compass plant in possessing a resinous, fragrant sap that was used as chewing gum by Indian and pioneer children.

Tall Mountain Mint Pycnanthemum virginianum

This stout, erect perennial tends to be multi-branched toward the top.  As with most members of this genus, the dried stems from previous autumns still are are very fragrant and recognizable.  Eight species of this group have been recorded in Illinois, and two are found in this area.  A tea brewed from the leaves was used by early settlers as a general tonic, and the leaves have been used as a seasoning in cooking.      

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) 

Found in prairies and dry open woods in this area. A similar species, (purpurea), occurs to the south and east and is more commonly found in our nurseries.  Several cultivated forms differ in shape and size and are common as cultivated plants.  The plants are sometimes used as a painkiller and for other medicinal purposes.