The last red flowers on my columbines are finally fading – nearly two months later than usual. Most woodland wildflowers get their blooming done in the spring while some sunlight still filters through the forest canopy. This year is the only time I can remember that columbines and blazing stars (liatris) have been in bloom at the same time. Summer is the season for prairie wildflowers like blazing stars to show their stuff, and they’re doing a fine job of it this year.
Take a drive almost anywhere on the state’s interstate system or on many other roads, and you can’t help but notice the many prairie plants blooming along the roadside. You may notice whole fields of color scattered around the countryside where Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings still exist. Many CRP stands now benefit from the addition of mixes of native prairie flowers. Story County’s CRP stands on private land and virtually all of its roadside plantings have been rich in native prairie flower seed over the past 30+ years, thanks to extra support from Story County Pheasants Forever and ongoing leadership of the county’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Program (IRVM).
Yellow composite flowers of several varieties are dominant right now. They include yellow coneflowers, golden oxeye daisies, blackeyed susans and compass plants, usually the tallest of them all. They’ll soon be joined by several varieties of native goldenrods and sunflowers. Spiderworts add a touch of blue if they’re present. Some areas will have splashes of pink and purple where common milkweeds, monarda (bergamot), purple coneflowers, tick trefoils, or purple prairie clover join the mix. Asters will soon add more purples and blues. My favorite pink/purple flowers are the blazing stars. I always feel like a planting is particularly well done if blazing stars and flame-orange butterfly milkweeds are present in good numbers. They’re common on many native prairie remnants and are particularly attractive to butterflies. Unfortunately, I may value them more highly due to their relative rarity in planted stands. They’re not easy to get established from seed in wild settings, compared to some of their more common prairie companions.
I took my father-in-law for a ride to see his CRP prairie plantings recently. He was an early advocate of diverse mixes of prairie flower seed in his CRP plantings long before it became a popular trend. He spent years hand-harvesting seed from nearby native prairie remnants that hung on along a few roadsides and on thin-soiled limestone outcropped ridges that that occur in that part of Floyd County. Year after year, he’d add those seeds to new prairie plantings or scratch them into thin spots in growing prairie plots. The results of those efforts are easy to see this summer, even from a distance. It’s heartening to see some of the more difficult to establish varieties continuing to slowly increase their numbers many years after those first seeds were sown. I couldn’t help but notice something else as we slowly rolled by his decades of work. Butterflies were everywhere! Many were the now-threatened monarchs, but some smaller varieties like yellow sulfurs and red admirals were there in some numbers, too. They were gathering nectar from the flowers and some of the monarchs were obviously landing on milkweeds to lay their eggs.
I saw more butterflies in that half-hour ride than I have all summer around home. It’s plots like my father-in-law’s CRP stands that give butterflies a chance to feed and breed without risk of being smashed by a speeding car or being destroyed by sprays or the next pass of a hay mower. The Midwest needs lots more plots like these if monarch and other butterfly numbers are ever to recover from their current depressed state.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.