Grassland Prairie, an Ever Changing Scenario

Submitted by Art and Barb Straub

August is the time to visit an area tallgrass prairie, as the vegetation is in full splendor. Whether you are looking for Big Blue or shorter stemmed grasses, the flowers (forbs) may be your destination for contemplation. The Ney Center east of Henderson would be a quiet spot to view blossoms and grasses, while, a prairie off the Sand Prairie Road, 316th Street is another; although there are many more sites nearby Henderson/LeSueur and surrounding populations. The Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter is another choice spot for viewing vivid summer colors.

A plant that gets lost in the shuffle due to its tendency to blossom lower in the grasses is the fascinating and unusual Rattlesnake Master. (See photo) Presently, most have finished blossoming, but they leave behind golfball sized bristly spherical flowers/seed pods. We appreciate them for their deer resistant quality among flowers in a flower garden, but also due to their odd shape and the spiny foliage…much like a yucca plant. Also, pollinating insects love the blossoms. Butterflies, moths, beetles, wasps flock to the sweet-smelling flowers, but they have one quality most do not appreciate. Yes, they are invasive, related to the carrot family, but thankfully do not spread like our nemesis, Queen Anne’s Lace. In finis, they are very valuable to our pollinators!

As to the name, Rattlesnake Master, there seem to be two views. 1) They are NOT conducive to curing snake bites; but, 2) the story goes that indigenous peoples would chew the plant roots; blow the dust on their hands; and then would be able to handle rattlesnakes. There being few rattlesnakes in our area, we haven’t tested that theory. Another interesting factor related by numerous writers is that Indigenous peoples braided the tough stems; made material for moccasins; those ancient moccasins having been found in caves where the Native Americans lived in western states. Hmmmm?

A second prairie flower which has been ‘tamed’ and appears in area flower gardens is liatris, more commonly known as blazing star. Bees and butterflies absolutely crave the nectar gently oozing from the tightly bunched lavender flowers growing from two to four feet stalks. Spectacular blossoms begin at the top of single stems and work their way downward. To top it off, the root is edible, yet like fungi, others are welcome to try the tubers first while we remain living spectators.

Missing in action: Trumpeter swan adults, Sylvia and Sylvan and their cygnets disappeared from the Coachlight Pond August 9th. They’d been back and forth between the two main scummy waters lately, but now no sign remains. There is a third pond to the east, we searched there August 15th, and were greeted by…a beautiful marsh and jungle with not a swan to be seen. Next, while traveling south on Highway #169 near the former LeSueur Water Treatment ponds, our ‘designated observer’ spotted white objects at a distance in pond #2. With heavy speedster traffic, species could not be designated. Whereabouts of the Coachlight swans remains a mystery.

Searching for our favorite little gray chimney swifts has left us totally frustrated. Normally, (and what is normal these days,) we would discover the speeding gray birds dropping down one of two large chimneys in LeSueur. August 15th finally yielded 175 disappearing into the maw of a chimney after the evening twilight. Usually that number would be 500 or more. So many questions, so much to meditate and contemplate upon.