Little if any green is to be seen outdoors here this frozen March, which presents a problem for an artist friend commissioned to paint a client's prairie (depict; not go out and splash paint on it). This is complicated by the fact the guy's a native Californian and doesn't carry prairie around in his head, nor does he use the Internet, where prairie photos abound.
So I said I'd pull together a few I'd taken in Lucas and Wayne counties and e-mail them to his wife, through whom he communicates with the digital universe.
But there's a problem here, too --- the prairie has a palette that shifts constantly from spring to fall and into winter. It is one thing in the spring, another in late summer. Grasses are the backbone, but present as a uniform green background until late summer, when each variety comes into its own as season's end nears.
If I were painting prairie, I'd start in July when prairie blazing star flower stalks begin to open. The biggest colonies I know of regionally are near the Lucas-Wayne county line in the Derby-Humeston area. Blazing star stalks open from top to bottom --- it's important to know that.
Rough blazing star (above) also can be found, but it is less prolific than its prairie sister --- and has to be searched out.
Compass plant (above) blooms longer and climbs higher the that the "stars," but mixes companionably with both. Butterfly milkweed (below) adds orange punctuation marks.
A little earlier during June, pale coneflowers (below) come into their own, gentler sister to the more garish commercial varieties that will take over gardens if left unattended.
Look a little more carefully and you'll find smaller plants, like prairie clover (below).
And hoary puccoon (below).
Spiderwort likes to have slightly wet feet, so generally doesn't mix with dryland varieties.
Michigan lilies show up here and there, too, during late May or early June.
As summer progresses and the blazing stars fade, the goldenrods and various sunflowers come into their own, preparing to send the season out in a blaze of warm color.
Look for the asters, too.
And finally, down near the ground as first frost approaches, look for the gentians. The prairie gentian opens wide.
But the bottle gentian doesn't, hence the name "bottle."
This is hardly a comprehensive accounting. The variety in southern Iowa's prairie remnants is amazing although only a hint of what must have been before the plow.
And although it doesn't seem that way now, it won't be long until it's time to start patrolling the trails, looking for smaller and more subtle jewels in the grass.