Thursday, September 22, 2016

Exuberant August, 2016: Can Plants Share Emotions with Human Beings?

August 2016:
Big Bluestem bloomed prolifically
in the Creek Field. 
With humble gratitude, I think back on the month just past, the month I shall always remember as “exuberant August.”

Has there ever been an August with so much precipitation spread out so evenly into so many gentle, light warm rains?

The result in our Creek Field was Jack-and-the-beanstalk-type growth.  

The clumps of Eastern Gamagrass were ten feet wide; the Switch Grass was ten feet tall.   The Whole-leaf Rosinweeds and Sawtooth Sunflowers were even taller.   Their bright yellow flowers said good-bye to earth and reached for the sky.   

The plants had so much energy it spilled over to me.  Every time I was near them I felt exhilarated!  

Exuberance--it was an emotion inextricable from either the plants or me.  We shared it!

But plants don’t have a nervous system.  Surely they didn’t really share an emotion with me?

Let me go into some background information and then return to that question.

Since 2013, we have been working to restore a native plant community to our Creek Field, 30 acres of  bottomground along McDowell Creek.  

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
volunteered near the creek.
Some bottomland prairie species, such as Bee Balm and Spiderwort, also grow in the uplands.   But others absolutely require a low, moist site.   These are the ones made scarce in the Flint Hills by the almost universal plowing of bottomground once the settlers arrived in the 19th century.    Several of those species bloomed in our Creek Field this August.   One of them—the hauntingly beautiful Blue Vervain—had been in our seed mix.   Another was a volunteer--Cup Plant--so named for the vessel formed where its leaves merge at the stem.   This August, all of its “cups” held water!  

Moisture-loving plants such as American Germander doubled and tripled the size of their patches, while early blooming species, like Canada Milkvetch and Echinacea, set seed in July but bloomed again in August.

This profusion of plant life spilled over into an abundance of animals.   

The Creek Field filled up with hummingbirds, quail, goldfinches, Indigo Buntings, and Dickcissels.   At dusk, hummingbirds were replaced by hummingbird moths, while overhead, dragonflies, barn swallows, and nighthawks filled the air.    
Euphoria sepulcralis, Dark Flower Scarab
on a Tall Thistle
in the Creek Field.  August 2016.

Some of the insects I found on August flowers were old friends, such as the drunken Euphoria Beetle, always at his pollen-bottle, deep in a thistle-flower; or the just-emerged Monarch butterflies, not a tatter in their wings, drinking deeply of August nectar.   

A Geometrid Emerald Moth,
(Family Geometrinae)
on a Tall Thistle leaf,
Creek Field, August 2016.
Thanks to Eva Zurek &
for the identification!

Others were new to me, such as the gorgeous moths I slowly came to know only through the help of cameras, computers, generous entomologists, and   

As night fell, coyotes and Barred Owls would begin to call but could scarcely be heard through the almost impenetrable wall of sound put up by katydids’ trills and cicadas’ screams.  Raucous August!

All of this made me feel exhilarated--but not as if the feeling came from within.   It felt as if the emotion were already in the field, and I simply went into it.  As I walked into the field, I walked into the feeling.

I know that sounds New Agey.  How can the human emotion of exuberance arise from a non-human assemblage of life?

But I don’t want to deny the experience just because it sounds wifty, or raises a question for which I have no lock-down, end-of-discussion answer.

What happens if we frame the question within a context of existing knowledge?

Let’s take it step by step:  An exuberant person is a high-spirited person.   But the root of the word has to do with external reality, not with internal feelings.  The Latin root “uber” means fertility, abundance, growth.  Add the prefix “ex,” and it means lavish fertility, super-abundance, phenomenal growth—like our Creek Field this past August. 

 It makes sense that the ancient meaning eventually gave birth to the modern:  Lavish fertility of the land meant humans would survive and thrive—a spirit-lifter, if ever there was one.     Exuberant land meant exuberant people.

So the Creek Field imparted its exuberance to me through ancient associations that became hard-wired in the human brain?

Perhaps.  But could there be additional explanations?

Plants communicate with their environment through the production and release of chemicals.    As Michael Pollan writes, “Plants speak in a chemical vocabulary.”   Wildflowers swaying in the wind are not just a lovely spectacle; they are also emitters of what Pollan calls  “chemical chatter.” 

We don’t have ears to hear this chatter.  

But maybe we aren’t as deaf as all that.  

Among the chemicals plants produce are two that function in mammals as neurotransmitters and mood-regulators—serotonin and dopamine. 

Could we be more attuned to plants’ messenger molecules than we realize?  Do we have capacities we have yet to develop?

Botantist Robin Wall Kimmerer thinks so.   “Listening in wild places, we are audience to a conversation in a language not out own,” she writes.  She believes we humans were once fluent in that language and that we can become fluent once again.

In her book  Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer explores human-plant relationships by comparing the experimental method of Western science with the nature-learning of her Potawatomi culture.   In addition to mutual confirmations, the comparison reveals differences.    Western science asks about a plant,  “What are its parts?  How does it work?”    Indigenous wisdom, based in a tradition of sacred reciprocity, converses with a plant, asking, “What can you teach us?”

When Kimmerer started college, she found that the science curriculum would never address her most basic question, the one that led her to biology in the first place:   “I wanted to know why we love the world, why the most ordinary scrap of meadow can rock us back on our heels in awe.”

That’s not too different from my question:  What is this exuberance that is both out there in the  Creek Field and in here, in my head and heart? 

Scientists, some of whom are at this moment setting up experiments to test entomologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis” (which posits humans’ innate affinity for non-human life), will certainly help with the answer.

But all of us can help:  When among plants, we can ask freely and listen deeply.       

We can pay attention, with open hearts.

A modified version of this essay was published in the Junction City Daily Union on September 16, 2016.  

The short video below shows the Creek Field in August 2016.  The sunflowers sport not only blossoms but Dickcissel families and a juvenile Indigo Bunting.  And you can see (and hear) that Deci shares in the exuberance!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie, August 2016: Greetings from the Thistle Cafe!

Sunflowers and thistles provide the dominant colors in
the Creek Field this August.
The sunflowers in the foreground are Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus
).  The thistles in the background are Tall Thistles
(Cirsium altissimum).  Goldenrod is in between!

When the thistles bloomed this August, their lavenders, pinks, and magentas rivaled  the golds and yellows of the sunflowers.

We should never underestimate the lowly thistle--especially not this thistle, which isn't "low" at all, but is Tall Thistle (Cirsium altissimum), a marvelous native biennial! 

Tall Thistle (Cirsium Altissimum)
Creek Field, August 20, 2016.

Tall Thistles are full of nectar and pollen!

Their hot pink blossoms are like menus in a restaurant window, advertising delicious meals within.

Lots of flying folks stop by!  My camera found the following winged patrons at the Thistle Cafe, sipping & supping:

I was able to photograph these visitors during one hour in the Creek Field, around sunset on August 26, 2016.

The visitors were, in order of appearance, Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris); Common Wood Nymph (Cercyonis pegala--Western Missouri form); another Monarch; a Honeybee (Apis mellifera); another Monarch; Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea), sorry about that; the honeybee again; a hummingbird flying; same Corn Earworm Moth, sorry again!; yet another Monarch; a returning Monarch; same honeybee; one of the Monarchs again; hummingbird sipping; Monarch close-up; a Geometrid Emerald Moth (Geometrinae) resting, while coyotes start up in the background; and a Snout Moth at the end, family Crambidae.

Thistles may be full of nectar and pollen, but they were not so full after these visitors had come and gone!
Many thanks to Eva Zurek for identifying the Geometrid Emerald and the Corn Earworm Moth.    She identified the Snout Moth for me last year!

Second-year thistles flower in the Creek Field at dusk, on
August 29, 2016.
Tall Thistles are biennials.  The first year, they appear only as low-growing basal leaves; the tall stems and gorgeous blossoms don't emerge until the second year.   

There are huge patches of basal leaves in the Creek Field this year!

Tall Thistle basal leaves form a carpet

First-year Tall Thistles have
sent up their basal leaves.
Thistles were not in our seed
mix.  They are prodigious
(and welcome!) volunteers. 

Some areas look like a monoculture of thistles.  

They form a carpet on the ground.  

Does this mean that thistles will "take over" next year?

Not necessarily.  Prolific, quick-germinating biennials have a short-term advantage over perennials.  But the perennials, with their greater variety of survival strategies, have a long-term advantage.

We'll have to wait and see!

But for sure we'll continue to have lots of Tall Thistles for a long time to come.   

And that means more high living at the Thistle Cafe! 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: The Animals of August

With all the recent rains, the plants in the bottomland are 12 feet tall--and climbing.

This exuberance of growth spills over into an abundance of animal life--birds, insects, mammals.    

Earlier in the summer I was totally focused on plants.   Now I can't set foot on the bottomland without my attention being grabbed by someone with feathers, fur, or wings.  

In the clips above,  Dickcissels gather atop Sawtooth Sunflowers; a Silver-spotted skipper feeds on a Tall Thistle; a young deer blends in with the vegetation; quail travel from one buffer to another (over their heads dragonflies are hunting, and if you look closely, you can see the clouds of gnats they're after) ; a Southern Plains Bumble Bee gathers nectar & pollen; and finally, while cicadas out-do each other calling, American Painted Ladies (Vanessa virginiensis) swarm by the pole barn.  

So what if drought is built into the tall grass prairie and will certainly be upon us in some future August?

Exuberance is now, and we're all part of it!  

Thank you to Dick Beeman for confirming the identification of the American Painted Ladies!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: A Tale of Two Julys (2015 vs. 2016, Part 11)

New Things Under the Sun (of July 2016), cont.

New Eminences in the Creek Field:

1.)  Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria), formerly negligible, was prominent in the Creek Field in July 2016.

This introduced biennial in the Figwort family is well naturalized in North America.   It became an assertive presence in the Creek Field in 2016.  
One of the many Moth Mulleins to bloom
in the Creek Field in July 2016.

It was especially noticeable in the Toe.

2.)  Partridge Pea, (Chaemaecrista fasciculata) was in the seed-mix for the Field Buffer but not for the Creek Field.   This native annual in the Bean Family became noticeable in the Creek Field in July 2016.   

Check out that flower! 
Partirdge Pea Flower.
Creek Field, July 2016

3.)  American Germander (Teucrium canadense) is a hardy native perennial in the Mint Family.  It can grow rapidly in a wet  year.   2016 is a wet year!  Last year it volunteered modestly on the Field Buffer near the Loop Path.  This year, it tripled its presence in the buffer and also jumped into the Creek Field--a first for the Creek Field.   Currently, it exists there as isolated individuals.    

American Germander, native perennial volunteer.
Creek Field, July 2016

However, due to fast-growing rhizomes, it can quickly form colonies.   

This could be the start of something big!   

A New Challenge to Biodiversity

In July 2015, I was behind the curve.  I had let some Musk Thistle go to seed!  
Musk Thistle Going to Seed, Creek Field, July 2015

This year, I removed all the Musk Thistle before it set seed.

I also set the Crown Vetch back.

But while I was doing all that, Bindweed was stealing a march on me!  

Bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) in the Creek Field, July 2016
I woke up one July day to realize that Bindweed had formed patches in the southern end of the Creek Field--no doubt deriving from mother-bunches along the driveway and in the barnyard.  This introduced perennial is a Noxious Weed in Kansas.   Its habit of twining itself around other plants, including valuable native perennials, means it cannot be sprayed while its neighbors are still growing.   

Still, there is an array of techniques for dealing with Bindweed.  

I am so glad I made a major effort with the other invasives in 2016.  I will have to continue monitoring them in 2017.  

But this fall & next spring I will make it a priority to remove as much Bindweed as possible!   

I will make 2017 The Year of Controlling Bindweed!  

Uh-oh.  That phrase has a double meaning.  Is "controllling" a verb with Bindweed as its object and "I" as implied subject, so that it would be the year of me dominating this invasive?  Or is "controlling" an adjective describing Bindweed, so that a characteristic of Bindweed is to limit and dominate implied objects, one of which would be me?

You can read it both ways!  

Similarly, when one engages in real-world "Bindweed control," there are dual & opposite possible outcomes!  

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: A Tale of Two Julys (2015 vs. 2016, Part 10)

New Things under the Sun (of July 2016), cont.

New to the Toe: 

The far north end of the Creek Field (the "toe") is a 5-acre area we had put into a Pheasants Forever food plot in 2013, the first year of the restoration.   We didn't do anything with those acres after that, and so for the next two years it was a mix of diminishing millets and increasing horseweeds and ragweeds.

In July 2015, it was predominantly Giant Ragweed.

In July 2016, Ron mowed down large areas of Giant Ragweed, and soon a carpet of newly-germinated foxtails appeared, along with patches of Western Ragweed.   Above this new growth rose 3 species that were new to this part of the Creek Field:

Maryland Figwort
Creek Field
July 2016
1.)  Maryland Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) bloomed in the Toe.   

Its appearance was a first for the Creek Field as a whole.   

The flower is an interesting one!

Note the ant in the blossom, half-in, half-out!  
Maryland Figwort Flower
Creek Field
July 2016

Blue Vervain
Creek Field
July 2016
Moisture-loving Native Perennial
(A million thanks to the incomparable Jeff Hansen for identifying Maryland Figwort!)  

2.)  In July 2016, Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) also bloomed in the Toe!

Blue Vervain is a moisture-loving cousin of the more common Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta).   Blue Vervain is bluer, with more numerous & wider-branching flower spikes, and longer stipules on its leaves.

It is one of those plants that would be common if bottomground had not been plowed up!

Verbena hastata,  Creek Field, July 2016

Blue Vervain has a hauntingly luminescent blue color.  

Blue Vervain was in our seed mix and did bloom at the other end of the field in 2013, but it didn't come back the following year.    It wasn't heard from again until it bloomed in the Toe in July 2016!

Did it spring from our original seeding?  Or is it a complete volunteer? 

Either way, it is a thrill to see it, back where it belongs.  

3.)  Nettle-leaf Vervain (Verbena urticifolia) bloomed near the Blue Vervain and the Maryland Figwort in the Toe of the Creek Field.   

White Vervain, Verbena urticifolia.
Native perennial.
Volunteer.   Creek Field, July 2016

This appearance was a first for the Creek Field as a whole.

Another common name for this species is White Vervain.  

Like Blue Vervain, it is a moisture-loving native perennial, but unlike Blue Vervain, it was not in our seed mix.  

It is a volunteer, deciding on its own to come back to the bottomland!   

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: A Tale of Two Julys (2015 vs. 2016, Part 9)

New Things under the Sun (of July 2016) (cont.)
Here are more singularities from July 2016.

New to the Buffers:

1.)  In July 2016, a new species of milkweed appeared where I had removed Crown Vetch from the Creek Buffer, just west of the bridge:  It is Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridiflora.  The two individuals pictured here show how variable the leaves can be--one has leaves shaped like potato chips and the other has lance-shaped leaves.  What the two sets of leaves have in common is wavy edges.  

Green Milkweed
Asclepias viridiflora. Native perennial.
Volunteer.  Creek Buffer
July 2016

Green Milkweed.  Volunteer.
Road Field Buffer.
July 2016

The potato-chip individual was close to the bridge, the lance-leaf  one far away, bearing out what Michael Haddock says about this species:  It tends to appear as single individuals, not as patches.  

2.)  On July 28, 2016, I found a Monarch caterpillar on the buffer!

Last July, we had gorgeous stands of Common Milkweed.    Monarch butterflies are supposedly in trouble because their caterpillars eat milkweed and there isn't enough milkweed.  So I was glad about our abundance of milkweed, and I searched the milkweeds hopefully, looking for signs of munching--but in vain.   

No munchers!   (In 2015, I wouldn't find Monarch caterpillars until the Swamp Milkweed bloomed in August.)

This July was similar.  We were surrounded by tall, healthy Common Milkweeds, with thick, luscious leaves--but where were the caterpillars?   Not on the Common Milkweeds!   

But there was one exception.  On one Common Milkweed in the Plum Buffer next to the driveway I found one Monarch caterpillar.  From a distance I could see hopeful signs--holes in the upper leaves and frass on the leaves below.  When I looked closely, sure enough, there on a milkweed leaf was Mr. Pillar, munching away.  

Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)
Plum Buffer, along driveway, July 2016
The head faces downward.   The other photo shows the rear
facing upward.

The front end of this caterpillar resembles the back end.  

Here the head is facing downward, while the rear, with its fake "antennae" and "eyes," faces upward.  

3.)  This year I recognized it!  Maple-leaf Goosefoot was in a new location on the buffer.

Last July, I spent the longest time trying to figure out the identity of Chenopodium simplex, Maple-leaf Goosefoot, all because the books I consulted called the flowers green, while they looked white to me!    

Maple-leaf Goosefoot
Chenopodium simplex, native annual.
Volunteer in the Creek Buffer
July 2016
Last year, this native annual grew on the northeast end of the Creek Buffer; this year it volunteered on the south end, just east of the bridge.  

In July 2016, I knew it right away and could simply appreciate its lovely structure.

This plant resembles Lamb's Quarters (another Chenopodium).

4.) Cup Plant bloomed on the Creek Buffer!

Cup Plants (Silphium perfoliatum) have been volunteering around the Guest House for a number of years.   Germinating easily from seed, these native perennials have been claiming more and more territory every year.    

Cup Plant, Guest House, July 2015.
Native perennial, volunteer.
The red dots are aphids.

In July 2015, Cup Plants by the Guest House hosted tiny red aphids.

This year, Cup Plant crossed the creek!   

Cup Plant
Creek Buffer
July 28, 2016

On July 28, 2016, I found this single Cup Plant  blooming on the southeast end of the Creek Buffer, in a spot that just a few months earlier had hosted a monoculture of Crown Vetch. 

If my experience with this species at the Guest House is any indication, it won't stay single for long!

Its preferred habitat is low, moist areas, so it should be even happier here than in the rocky, hilly area by the Guest House.

Its species name--perfoliatum--refers to the way the stem goes through the "cup" made by the leaf bases, united at the stem.   

Here the "cup" of Cup Plant holds water from a recent rain.
Creek Buffer, July 28, 2016
How encouraging it is to find Cup Plant volunteering where the Crown Vetch was!   We can push aggressive non-native species back, but without the help of native perennials, coming in to hold the ground, the fight against invasives would be difficult if not impossible.

5.)  At the north end of our property, Green Ash trees have been volunteering, effectively extending the gallery forest from the Creek Buffer into the Field Buffer.  One effect of a wider tree-span is a wider perching area for cicadas.  

The cicadas have always been loudest in the trees along the creek.

On July 23, 2016, I found this cicada calling from an ash tree.   In this clip, the Creek Buffer cicadas can be heard from the beginning, while this individual gets settled in the tree.  Once he's settled, we can hear him adding to the din!


6.)  Another native perennial new to the Creek Buffer is the moisture-loving Maryland Figwort, Scrophularia marilandica.  It too is a new resident of what used to be Crown Vetch territory.

It is a very pretty plant!
Maryland Figwort, a moisture and shade-loving plant,
blooms in the Creek Buffer on July 28, 2016.

Here it is on July 28, 2016, blooming among the trees and Giant Ragweed of the Creek Buffer.  Its blossoms appear as tiny red berries against the green.

It also came in where Crown Vetch was, just a few months ago.

It appeared this year in the Toe of the Creek Field as well--so more on this species in the next post.

Restoring Bottomland Prairie: A Tale of Two Julys (2015 vs. 2016, Part 8)

New Things Under the Sun (of July 2016, that is)

Here are some singularities that stood out in July 2016:

New Acquaintances:

A Common Checkered Skipper.  Note that
a skipper has a stout body, like a moth, but holds
the wings vertically over the body, as do butterflies.
His antennae have clubbed ends--a feature that distinguishes
a butterfly from a moth.  Skipper butterflies often
have a slight curve or hook on their "clubs," as does
this one here.
Creek Field.  July 11, 2016.
1.)  On July 11, 2016, I was charmed by this gorgeous skipper--new to me--sitting atop a wild lettuce plant.   Irresistible!  Look at that fuzzy head!    

This lovely creature is the Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis).     As a caterpillar, this skipper feeds on plants in the Mallow family, from Purple Poppy Mallow to Velvetleaf Weed.  In the adult form, pictured here, he nectars on plants in the Sunflower family, such as wild lettuce!  

Thank goodness for the Creek Field.   It has what this skipper needs!
(Thank you to Ken Allison at for the identification.)

2.)  On July 21, 2016, I noticed tiny white moths fluttering in the American Plums along the driveway.   

Lomographa vestaliata
White Spring Moth
On American Plums in the Thicket
along the driveway.

They were startlingly beautiful, with shimmering, translucent wings--a shining array of satin & lace!

I had never seen these moths before.

These radiantly-clad insects were White Spring Moths, Lomographa vestaliata.   The larvae eat the leaves of Prunus shrubs, among other things, so perhaps the moths were laying eggs on the plums, Prunus americana.   

The next day these visitors were gone, taking their dazzling attire with them. reports only two previous sightings of these moths in Kansas.  We are on the western edge of their range.  

 How lucky was I to be in the right place at the right time!

(Thank you to KSU insect diagnostician Eva Zurek for the identification!)

3.)  On July 28, 2016, I encountered the dense, whorled, club-like  flower-spike of Heal-all!   Jeff Hansen had identified this plant for me last winter from the brown seed-head alone.   So I looked for Heal-all  this July and found it blooming in the field-buffer, on the western edge of the Loop Path.  

Heal-All, Prunella vulgaris, Non-native Perennial.
Volunteer in the Field Buffer,
next to the Loop Path
July 28, 2016 
Heal-all is native to Europe (possibly other continents as well) but has long been naturalized in North America.   Native Americans learned to use it for a variety of medicinal purposes, joining people around the world who value this plant for its healing properties.   Another common name for this plant is Self-heal.

Heal-all was not in our seed mix, but it is most welcome!  It is also moist welcome:  It likes wet soils and stream banks, just what our bottomland provides.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could live up to its name?  The thought is lovely--but no lovelier than the plant itself.