Sunday, October 04, 2009

White Prairie Clover

What’s blooming in the area: Tea roses, leather leaved globemallow, white prairie clover, Crimson Rambler morning glory, goats’ head, chamisa, winterfat, ragweed, snakeweed, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, tahokia daisies, purple, heath, and hairy golden asters, pampas grass; bittersweet berries; sand burs ripening; tamarix leaves turning yellow, Russian thistle and prostrate knotweed turning red; grape and Virginia creeper leaves dead; red pepper plants dead.

What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Mexican hat, chocolate flower, chrysanthemum; Lapins cherry leaves turning orange.

Looking east: Snapdragon, large-leaved soapwort, Maximilian sunflowers.

Looking south: Sweet pea; zinnias and cosmos dead

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, calamintha, David phlox, Mönch aster; leadwort leaves turning burgundy; skunk bush orange red.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, sweet alyssum; tomatoes dead.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern; rochea leaves turned red.

Animal sightings: Brown speckled woodpecker landed on front porch post poised to attack; rabbit, geckos, large black harvester and small dark ants, cows brought in to graze in village.

Weather: Below freezing temperatures Friday and Saturday mornings; last rain 9/24; 11:36 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When plants die that have been around for some years, I mourn a little, as I would for someone I knew years ago. When the plants are relatively new, I shrug and remind myself it’s hard to find perennials that can survive this environment.

When the wild prairie clover disappeared last year, I wondered if it was simply short-lived. It had only been growing under the protection of a clump of June grass at the end of my drive since 2006. I knew a gopher could have gone after the deep taproot. The rabbit as easily could have eaten the sparse, light green foliage.

When a five-year-old stand of the white flowers died at the Bridger Plant Materials Center in Montana, people were less philosophical. After all, these were the scions of the Antelope seed they had collected in Stark County in 1947 and released in 2000 to growers for prairie restoration projects. Entomologists discovered the larvae of long-horned beetles had burrowed into the root crowns.

Those who were already using the kidney-shaped seeds in their restoration projects wanted to know why they failed to germinate. The most obvious answer was that the clover is a legume that needs a specific bacteria in the soil to help its roots convert soil nitrogen to feed the plant.

Some also pointed to the seed-stealing habits of rodents, while others noted the need for cold moisture or abrasion to break the seed’s dormancy, and that irrigation increases the existence of particular rust parasites.

Timothy Dickson and William Busby found a more complicated answer: a prairie is not a uniform mix of plants. Dalea candida grows better when there is less competition from warm season grasses. I’ve noticed some time ago that in this area, the only plants that live with the bunch grasses are things like snakeweed and winterfat and then only when seeds drop where the wind has loosened the soil enough and water happens to pass.

Most of the forbs are either in the arroyo, or have sprung up where off-road vehicles have killed the grass. Of course, Russian thistle is the most likely volunteer, but other annuals and perennials do emerge. Last weekend white prairie clover was growing on the north side of the arroyo plain, near the path of the water flow, and in one of the feeders.

The herbaceous perennial can grow anywhere from the prairie provinces of Canada to Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora below 7000'. In this country, it avoids the far west and New England, but can grow in the glades and savannahs of the southwestern south. Early in the last century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley found it grew on open slopes throughout New Mexico.

Dan Moerman noticed the distribution of native people utilizing two subspecies is much more limited. Outside the Pawnee and Kiowa, every group lives in or near New Mexico. Going down the Rio Grande are the Santa Clara, the San Ildefonso, and San Felipe. Moving west, he read about the Laguna, Acoma, Navajo, and Hopi. No one reported a use that suggested it was common enough to be built into the material, medicinal or nutritional culture.

If a plant is this difficult to grow, I wonder why so many try. Although some give the usual answer about forage quality, I suspect for many it’s nostalgia for lost prairies. It may indeed attract a number of bees and contain chemicals that make it easier to digest, but plants like Illinois Bundle Flower are better.

The white flowers are simply something you remember in the grass, and hate to see disappear. The small flowers open at the bases of tall, narrow columns, and the rings rise through the blooming season. The modified pea flowers have a single wide banner, but the other petals are reduced to flaps amongst the stamens. When the cone is short and flowers fill the entire head, the usual tutu of lightness turns into a fairy’s wand.

Dickson, Timothy L. and William H. Busby. "Forb Species Establishment Increases with Decreased Grass Seeding Density and with Increased Forb Seeding Density in a Northeast Kansas, U.S.A., Experimental Prairie Restoration," Restoration Ecology 17:597-605:2009.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

Wynia, Richard. "White Prairie Clover," USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide, 2008.

Photograph: White prairie clover with grass on the bank of the arroyo, 27 September 2009.

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