Trials and Tribulations of Plant ID: Indiangrass

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust

I am a wannabe plant nerd.   I know some of my plants.  I forget some and relearn them every year.  Some I remember and are added to the list of plants I feel pretty darn confident naming. I have one of those curious brains that I cram a lot into but the recall is lack luster.  Currently out here on some parts of the prairie a lot of grasses are blooming and seeding.  It is a beautiful sight.  I went out to snap some pictures and focus in on a couple of key identification characteristics of Indiangrass.  Follow me on the quaking slope of self-confidence known as trying to ID a plant. I’m sure some of you know what I mean.

As best as I can tell, and from years of plant hikes with true blue plant nerds, a couple of characteristics a person wants to take a look at are the auricles and ligules. You can find these parts by pulling down gently on a blade of grass and peaking closely at the sheath that wraps around the stem.   The ligule clasps the stem right there where the blade and the sheath meet. The auricles are the little guys that stick out from the collar. Oh, yeah, the collar is like a shirt collar.  When you see it you will know what I mean.

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Photo Credit

In indiangrass the ligules are ‘membranous’.  I don’t really know what that means, but we can assume right? The auricles ‘extend upward, are pointed and join the ligule’.   Let’s compare.  Looks about right.

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Left: Indiangrass leaf blade and ligule. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann Right: Indiangrass ligules and auricle. Photo Credit

 

 

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Next I took a look at the spikelets.  Spikelets are the flowering/seed parts of the seed head.  I haven’t gotten much further than using the awn as an identifying characteristic.  The awn is the pokey hair-like guy that sticks out of the floret and is attached to the actual seed.

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Indiangrass seed head and awn. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann
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Indiangrass seed head with bent awn.  Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

An awn can be used as a seed dispersal mechanism or aid in getting that spikelet planted in the soil. Indiangrass awns are often bent.  Apparently, and to be more exact, “They are tightly twisted below the bend and loosely twisted above the bend.”   As fluctuations in humidity vary from day to night the awn will alternate between standing erect and slackening, “This movement allows some seeds to effectively corkscrew themselves into the ground.” Needle and Thread grass is a great example of this adaptation.  Check out that awn.  Plants are so cool!

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Needle and Thread Grass Seed Awn.  Photo Credit:

For those of you on my end of the plant nerd spectrum I’m hoping this was helpful. Keep learning those plants.  Don’t let the science of it distract you, but instead lead you to awe and wonder.  For more information on grass identification check out this nifty little publication: http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/ec170.pdf.

I would also like to thank my assistant who actually didn’t help at all to keep grasses from blurring out in my pictures.

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Section 7: A History of Warrick Prairies

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust
With permission from: Robert Warrick, Landowner

Robert Warrick is a conservation minded landowner who has lived most of his life in Meadow Grove, Nebraska.  In 2008, with the help of the Northern Prairies Land Trust, Warrick and Sons Inc. placed a conservation easement on what he calls ‘Section 7’.  Section 7 is a piece of land in Pierce County, Nebraska that Robert first began to know over seventy years ago.  Below, Robert passed on to me a little history of that land now known as Warrick Prairies.

My first remembrance and contact with what I will call ‘Section 7’ was when I was in grade school in Meadow Grove, (about 10 south of Section 7) in the 1940’s.  Section 7 was part of a large area that was taken over by the United States War Department in the 1940’s during World War 2 and was called ‘Pierce Air to Ground Gunnery Range’. It was a couple thousand acres and Section 7 was the center of constant air bombing and fighter plane strafing.  As a young boy in grade school, my parents would take my brother and sister to a hill overlooking the area and we would watch as P47 and B24 bombers would come in at tree top level and practice blasting the poor sand dunes.  Between sorties, we would run out into the range and pick up spent 50 caliber casings and many times, live ammunition.  Dangerous?  Probably, but it was really exciting.  For many years I had an official sign that I had “borrowed” from the range. It read in large red lettering:  ‘Air Ground Gunnery Range KEEP OUT’. It was placed, appropriately, above my toilet stool.

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Landowner Robert Warrick points out gunnery damage still seen today.

Section 7 actually had a target, made on the land, by the Army.  It was many hundreds of feet in diameter, which can still be seen when the light is right.  I remember in the 40’s a large U.S. Army convoy came through Meadow Grove on the way to build a replica of a town on section 7 so that fighter pilots and bombers could practice shooting and bombing.  When I first started grazing cattle on Section 7 I made it a practice to pick parts of bombs that were partially buried or broken.  Many times they would fill the box of the pickup.  I have received notices recently, “As part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, munitions may still be present on Section 7. These munitions may pose an explosive hazard to you, your family other property users, or the public.  The Army recommends you share the enclose information with those who use your property, including those who lease or rent your property”.  THAT I HAVE DONE!

For many years after the closing of the Gunnery Range, farmers in the area would be tormented by ammunition clips of the 50 caliber machine guns from the planes.  They would be picked up by their cultivator on the shovels, while cultivating corn.

The Warrick & Sons Inc. placed the conservation easement on Section 7-25-3 in Pierce County, NE through the Northern Prairies Land Trust on 04/28/2008.  . Warrick & Sons have owned this Pierce section since 1988.  Robert Warrick (the author) is President of Warrick & Sons Inc. My wife Gudrun, my brother Jack and his wife Jean are the only stockholders in the corporation.  It is a family corporation, registered with the State of Nebraska. 

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Conservation Easement Boundary of Section 7.

My Great Grandfather Theodore A. Shafer, homesteaded in Madison County in 1879.  Warrick & Son’s received the Pioneer Farm Award in May, 1979. That land is still owned by my wife and myself. My grandfather J. W. Warrick came west in the 1870’s, He started a rural business in Meadow Grove, prospered, bought the land that I farmed.  My great grandfather Shafer retired to California on a small pension he received from the federal government from wounds he received in the civil war.”

A landowner I know in Dodge County, Nebraska who has spent his life farming and caring for his land was just recently interviewed about proposed cuts to the Farm Bill Conservation Stewardship Program.  The last line he repeated, and it has found a place in most of my days since.  He said, “The land remembers. The land remembers.”

Those of us who have been out to Section 7 with Robert Warrick have seen his work on restoring this piece of land. The scars left behind are easily recognizable.  The land remembers.  Perhaps anyone who spends a lifetime knowing a piece of land understands this secret. Robert Warrick knows the sentiment, “Blowouts can still be seen caused by this military training.  It is all now in private ownership and is healing, but it takes care and time to heal man’s follies and ventures.”

Thank you Robert for sharing this piece of history.  Your passion, dedication and love of the prairie inspires all who you give your time to. Thank you.

Flowers, Fire, and Wildlife

Jen Corman                                                                                                                         Coordinating Wildlife Biologist Northern Prairies Land Trust

Last December, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Biologist, Josh Kounovsky, watched 22 acres of oak woodland and prairie burn on Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA). In fact, he carefully planned and coordinated the burn himself: the burn was a prescribed fire designed with specific goals. One of the overall goals of the fire was to allow the woodland and prairie to function as woodland and prairie again. Great Plains grasslands and oak woodlands evolved with fire. As humans have focused on preventing fires, populations of trees that had been limited by fire, such as eastern redcedar, have increased and reduced the ability for oak woodlands and prairies to sustain themselves and the wildlife that depend on them.

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Prescribed fire has restored an area on Grove Lake WMA where oak woodlands and prairie meet. Small cedars killed by the fire are in the foreground.

Over the last few years, WMA managers have stepped in to cut and remove eastern redcedar that had begun taking over the woodland. They have also worked to thin out some of the hackberry, mulberry, and other shade-loving trees that have also started growing more densely in the forest due to the loss of fire. Cedar and other shade-loving trees shade out young oaks and native plants that grow on the forest floor. Young oaks cannot replace dying oaks where cedar and other trees have crowded into the forest. Cedar was also spreading from the woodlands into the surrounding prairie on the WMA. With the loss of forest plants, young oaks, and native grasslands, Grove Lake WMA was losing quality habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the turkey, deer, quail, and grouse that the WMA was created to support.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida, left) is blooming in the prairie openings and downy blue violet (Viola sororia, right) is blooming in the woodland. As described in a previous post, prairie violet is especially important for the regal fritillary butterfly which feeds only on violets during the caterpillar stage.

The initial, costly removal of many cedars from the woodlands and prairie allowed biologists to use prescribed fire as a more efficient long-term management tool. Thanks to Kounovsky and his experienced burn crew, the fire was a success, killing small cedars that had sprouted since cedar tree removal. Fire also made space for flowering plants that wildlife needs by clearing some of the dense leaf litter from the forest floor and the dense, dead grass in the prairies. The result is a rejuvenated oak woodland and tallgrass prairie with many wildflowers. Wildflowers provide food and cover for wildlife and support insects that anchor the food web. Insects are an especially important food for game bird and songbird chicks.

Hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense, left) and fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum, right) blooming on prairie restored by prescribed fire. Puccoon seeds are a nutritious food for grassland birds.

Fire is a tool that will ensure Grove Lake WMA will provide high quality hunting opportunities for future generations of hunters. Prescribed fire will benefit many non-game animals and plants as well. As spring arrives, we are excited to see what is blooming on the burn. We hope you enjoy these photos of mid-May blooms!

White-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium campestre) blooming in the prairie after prescribed fire. This delicate wildflower is not actually a grass.
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Violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) is especially abundant along woodland edges in the burn area.
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Groundsel (Senecio integerrimus), also known as lambstongue ragwort, growing in restored woodland this May.

Pasque Flowers: Harbingers of Spring

“Early in the spring, when the snow has scarcely melted, the Northern Great Plains are covered with gray-blue flowers that look like smoke hovering over the prairie. These are the fuzzy pasque flowers–“very brave little flowers,” say the Cree Indians, “that arrive while it is still so cold that they must come wearing their fur coats.”
~Melvin R. Gilmore, Prairie Smoke 1929
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Pasque Flowers in their “fur coats” ready to bloom. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

I know of a place that holds a secret.  It’s a small patch of prairie soil.  Once, in early spring, during my first years out of a college, a mentor of mine drove out to this southeast quarter section and first shared what came to be for me, the magic of pasque flowers.   A handful of years later, I ended up living on a small acreage just across the road from that very place.  Ever since, spring has been marked by the hunt for the first blooms of spring.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

The end of winter is always hard on me. I want sun, warmth in my bones and to sleep with my windows open. To me, stumbling upon a south facing slope with eyes trained on the ground, pasque flowers represent the stretching into the light and reaching out from under the symbolic death of winter. Or as Glimore wrote it, “… pasque flowers again bring their cheering promise of coming spring.”  With snow on the ground and all else still dead or dormant, these slight lavender blooms stand out against the gray browns.  Fragile but with a sense of duty to herald the life that is coming back to the prairie, pasque flowers are, again Gilmore, the “…first gladsome harbingers of the lovely hosts to follow.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, among other great accomplishments, collected Native American uses, stories and lore of the great plains plants and animals, including the pasque flower.  He writes,

“They [Native Americans] have songs and stories about many of the species of plants and animals with which they are acquainted such a song being the expression of the life or soul of the species to which it pertains.”

He relays the song of the pasque flower as translated from the Dakota language:

“I wish to encourage the children of other flower nations

Which are now appearing over all the land;

So, while they waken from sleep and rise from the bosom

Of Mother Earth, I stand here, old and gray headed.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

~Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairie Land Trust

Thoughts of Spring

The anticipation of spring cannot be felt more than by the movement of birds north through the central flyway. The sound of  goose or sandhill crane alone can warm my winter bones.  As we drag through this last bit of prairie winter, the subtle shift from dormancy and symbolic death to light and birth begins with the flight of birds on their spring migration.

I think Leopold says it best,

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed.  But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat.  His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.”

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Image Credit: Lowell Georgia

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairies Land Trust

 

Environmental Stewardship Begins with Heart

I think we all have ‘the’ story we can trace back through the foggy trail of memory to a collection of moments when we became forever bonded to wild places. Maybe it’s just my experiences, but those moments hover around the ‘unsupervised savagery’ end of the spectrum of childhood memories.  Foul smelling mud face paint.

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Like mother like son. Mud pit on National Mud Day      Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Running through the Platte River riparian zone like a NINJA! Dodging branches and hopping downed trees.  I was super human, I could talk to animals and move rocks with my Jedi mind.  My parents had no clue I would visit this place.

I wouldn’t be the same without those experiences and I still adventure like this.  Midnight forays at 10 below. Jumping the frozen creek, getting tangled in spent brome grass and running up the soybean field to catch the full moon rising over the hill. My heart is eight-years-old in those moments.

Your story may have had an adult to guide you or may include a sibling or neighbor.

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December sunrise tea-time contemplations. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Fishing with your brother, or turning over decaying trees with mom to look at centipedes and rollie pollies.   Perhaps it was similar to mine, an escape, a place of solitude and imagination shared with no one.  Whatever the case, it seems many things have changed since our childhoods.  Those changes may be a topic for another post for today seems a day needing inspiration.  So I leave you with this little ditty from Rachel Carson’s, ‘The Sense of Wonder’.  An ode to the young hearts in our lives and in ourselves.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had the influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.  Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge.  In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature-why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused-a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more imiportant to pave the way for the child want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust

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Taking a float break to hear stillness. In Stanton County, Nebraska Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Conserving Biodiversity Under Private Land Law

How do we explain the opposition to conservation easements? After all, isn’t an easement merely the expression of a private landowner’s intent as to how land will be used, no different from a decision to plow a field, dig a mine, build a house, hotel or airfield?

The answer is in the laws and customs that support private land ownership.  These land laws evolved over the last several centuries almost exclusively to encourage transformation of land into a human mold.  As Sax says: “A piece of iron becomes an anvil, a tree becomes lumber, and a forest becomes a farm.”  Traditional property law treats undeveloped land as inert and passive, waiting to be put to use; it considers the natural functions of the land, such as providing habitat for biodiversity, as expendable.  Through recent times, land law has been employed, essentially, to end the existence of natural systems.

Dirt road dissects private land in Stanton County, Nebraska. Image Credit: Jamie Bachmann

When  private landowners expand their intentions of how land should be used to include the ecological concept of protecting biodiversity, they move beyond the common interpretations of land use and law.  The ecological perspective views land as a system that performs valuable functions in its natural state, while the conventional perspective encourages the transformation of nature to achieve the goals of the Industrial Revolution.  Herein lies the source of the tension.

 

In the 21st Century, society requires a system of land laws that are equally attuned to protecting the remains of our biological heritage, restoring degraded waters and landscapes, and renewing forests and grasslands to play a positive role in controlling climate change.

Viewed this way, a conservation easement appears as a small but necessary step in the evolution of private land law. Just as land law evolved to support the Industrial Revolution, it now must evolve to support the new requirements of contemporary society.

JHD