If the extent of your plant identification repertoire is lightly reminding yourself that “sedges have edges” as you admire a bunch of butterfly milkweed in passing then some brief investigation into the world of wildflowers can teach you a lot about pasture and prairie plant communities.
Attendees at the 2019 Anderson County Wildflower and Pasture Tour in Welda, Kansas, gained new appreciation for the diversity of the state’s native and introduced plant species, as well as a few helpful bits of knowledge to apply at home.
Thick rings of tall grass in otherwise short areas brings an odd look to some prairie pastures and hay meadows, and the sight led to some serious speculation about the phenomenon’s origins by early pioneers.
“The old story was that little fairies would come out to the prairie, dance in a circle and stomp the grass out,” Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment watershed specialist Jeff Davidson said. “These fungal fields typically take the shape of a half circle to a full circle.”
While fairy rings are more difficult to see in grazing pastures, the sight of the rings in hay meadows bodes well for soil fertility and can be a sign of quality soil health.
“The fungal association that the native plants have is self-sustaining,” Ethan Walker Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health specialist said. “This is just a fungal bloom where the spore has bloomed somewhere in the middle of the circle you see.”
Prairie pastures have a much different fungal make-up than fescue pastures, Walker said. The fungal make-up in a natural prairie ecosystem has been refined overtime to be self-sustaining.
Every wildflower or weed settlers encountered along the prairie came with a story or name of significance to help with plant identification. While many of the stories have been lost or diluted over time, there is still a lot of wisdom to be found in the plants’ origins. Davidson used daisy fleabane as an example of a prairie plant with an unusual purpose and an intentional name.
“There is a little bit of an insecticidal property to daisy fleabane,” Davidson said. “Pioneers used to collect a bouquet of daisy fleabane in the morning and put it in their sod shanties to protect against fleas and flies.”
While the insecticidal properties of the plant are minimal, it’s an interesting plant quality to know in a pinch.
Compass plant is another plant early settlers found useful, as the leaves always orient north and south. The plant is a quality forage for cattle but is rarely seen in heavily grazed pastures thanks to its fuzzy leaf texture and sweet taste to bovines.
“We would call these plants a bubble-gum plant — the fuzzy texture of the leaves makes it very appealing to cattle,” Walker said. “In an overgrazed pasture, you typically won’t see any compass plant.”
St. John’s wort is another common prairie plant that’s said to have medicinal and spiritual properties especially in the month of June.
“The tale is that if you hang St. John’s wort on your window sill on June 24, which is St. John’s birthday, it will bring good luck for the rest of the year,” Walker said. “St. John’s wort is also not native; it is an introduced plant.”
St. John’s wort has a distinctive yellow flower with tiny red dots in the margins of the flower petals said to represent the blood of St. John. In pastures grazed by sheep, identifying and removing the plant could be critical.
“St. John’s wort has a chemical that is very toxic to sheep,” Walker said. “If sheep eat a lot of it — which they will readily — it causes dermatitis and could eventually be fatal.”
Hundreds of plants make up prairie plant communities and supply quality feedstuffs for livestock, habitat for native insects and animals, as well as a host of hidden benefits for people from teas to insecticides. Digging deeper beyond the most prominent wildflowers and weeds can lead to a whole new level of appreciation for Kansas’s natural prairies.