Monday, June 27, 2011

Fire on the prairie

Butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, blazing in clumps along the trail, stole the show during a late afternoon prairie walk that commenced at the trailhead in Humeston Sunday afternoon, then proceeded north along the Cinder Path.

This is the south end of the 13/14-mile trail that begins in Chariton, although looking at it from a Wayne County perspective --- it begins in Humeston, too. Much of the trail from Chariton to Derby, however, is heavily wooded, so if you love the open sky and prairie, you'll enjoy the stretch from Humeston to just east of Derby more.

I joined about a dozen prairie enthusiasts from the Humeston area, led by Willa Clark, for the walk, hurried along after about an hour by ominous clouds in the west. About half of us on the trail, however, were preoccupied with picking wild raspberries, which grow all along the 10-minute initial stretch of trail leading through a tunnel of woods toward open sky.

Although there were no butterflies out on this hazy damp afternoon, there were plenty of bees. I'm going to try to get back down later this week when the sun is shining to check on the butterflies, which have been enjoying a slightly domesticated version of this native prairie plant flourishing in my garden, too, right now. Thunder's rumbling again this morning after a wet night, but the forecast promises a dry week ahead.

Waves of coneflowers were blooming along the trail, too, just edging past their prime with a big variety of other native plants scattered among them, but the threat of a storm that could have left us exposed to lightning and heavy rain 15 or 20 minutes from shelter kept us moving along too fast to really appreciate the mix.

This brilliant color combination resulted along the trail when butterfly milkweed and prairie coreopsis, Coreopsis palmata, mingled --- as they're doing at home right now, too, in the medicine wheel garden.

Here's a sample of coreopsis, spectacular enough on its own without a milkweed chorus.

This stretch of native prairie along the Cinder Path, if you use your imagination, can give some idea of what much of southern Iowa, other than wooded creek and river valleys, would have looked like 160 years ago and more.

Although this is a natural survival, unenhanced by seeding, hard work has been (and continues to be) involved in encouraging it to flourish. Humeston-area volunteers have spent hundreds of hours cutting away woody growth, especially sumac, and setting the controlled prairie fires that once would have kept invasive vegetation at bay. The workers have included students from Mormon Trail High School, which serves the Humeston and Garden Grove communities.

Everyone in this photo, of a trailside consultation, has been involved although Willa (at right) is the most knowledgeable about plant specifics, and helped the rest of us identify what was in bloom.

We ran out of time, so I didn't get a chance to ask about the identity of this lovely lavender plant in the same neighborhood. I'll have to work on that myself.

Prairie walks are held in Humeston, commencing at 4 p.m. at the trailhead, on the fourth Sunday of every summer month --- everyone's welcome.

But the Cinder Path never closes, so all are welcome to visit at any time. If arriving in Humeston from the north on Highway 65, turn left (east) on Fletcher Street along the north edge of the park and drive a block and a half east. Look for the narrow drive to the left leading back to parking at the trailhead. Check out the restored depot, now City Hall too, in the same neighborhood. The prairie opens after a brisk 10-minute walk north along the path.

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