Sunday, August 11, 2013

Plant Quest at Weldon Springs

big bluestem
Today I went to Weldon Springs, with the intention of looking for plants rather than birds. Of course, I brought along my binoculars (and saw some good birds, including my first Illinois Wilson's snipe for the year flying overhead), but mostly, I was looking for wildflowers.

I have just started the Illinois Master Naturalist class, which has been a dream of mine for several years now, and this morning, as I drank my coffee, I was reading the chapters on botany and prairies in preparation for the next lesson. Due to a lazy morning, it was a bit late for a birding trip, but one of the nice things about plants is that they tend to stay put all day, so I headed out to look for some wildflowers and prairie plants.

I actually began with a quick stroll through part of the backpack loop, which has been a horrible spot this year due to flooding and mosquitoes. Luckily, it has dried out significantly, and the mosquitoes are just a bit annoying now, rather than a blood-sucking death-swarm, as previously.

I saw some white snakeroot:

white snakeroot
This flower is common throughout Illinois in "moist or dry woods, woodland borders, and disturbed sites." Native Americans used the roots as a tea for diarrhea, fevers, and kidney stones, and as a poultice for snakebites. One of the plant's components, eupatorin, might have anticancer properties. The plant is not benign, however; cows eating the plant produced poisoned milk, and humans that consumed it became ill with "milk sickness," the disease that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother. (Or she might have been killed by vampires. Historians are divided on that point.) Source (for the real information): Illinois Wildflowers by Don Kurz (Cloudnet Publishing, 2004), hereafter referenced as IW.

Back in the woods, I also found common boneset:

common boneset
This is another common Illinois plant. It was used by the Native Americans to treat a wide variety of illnesses. The American settlers called it "boneset" because it was used to treat the aches and pains of flu-like symptoms (a.k.a. "breakbone fever). IW

In another month, this trail will be riotous with tall yellow flowers (I think, goldenglow and Jerusalem artichoke), but not much was going on, either flower or bird-wise, today. I did find some American bellflower:

American bellflower
This is another common wild plant in Illinois. It was used by the Native Americans as a leaf tree to treat cough and tuberculosis, and as a crushed root to treat whooping cough. IW

I soon left the woods for the prairie, and it was here that the wildflowers shined. Actually, I was a bit embarrassed at how I've neglected the marvelous restored prairie at the Union Schoolhouse trail. I've been a bit focused on birds all the time since moving to Dewitt County, despite being an amateur prairie enthusiast; actually, when I saw the quality and variety of prairie plants on offer, I was amazed that Weldon Springs is never cited as an example of a good place to view Illinois prairies.

To be honest, the first view is not something that's going to make your average person swoon with the beauty before them. There's a lot of big bluestem (or the name I prefer--turkeyfoot), which is a lovely prairie grass, but's a grass, so not that dramatic.

But a quick stroll revealed three of the four silphiums, which are large yellow prairie flowers in the aster family. These are some of the common forbs found in Illinois prairies; forbs are the flowers, as opposed to the grasses (like big bluestem).

These silphiums are big, showy yellow plants with scratchy leaves. Prairie dock has the biggest leaves (as in, huge); compass plant has more spindly leaves that are supposed to orient north to south (though I don't advise you to count on that if you're ever lost on the prairie); rosinweed I haven't had a chance to see yet; and cup plant has leaves large enough to cup water in, for the delectation of birds and insects.

There was a lot of cup plant at Weldon Springs:

cup plant
Another flower that was everywhere was bristly sunflower. The on-site naturalist commented how these plants have really popped up this year:

bristly sunflower
I was also pleased to see a lot of rattlesnake master:

rattlesnake master
Illinois Wildflowers calls this one "occasional" rather than common. It is found in open woods and prairies, and was used by Native Americans to treat snakebite, for bladder problems, and for muscular pains.

Here's another good prairie plant, wild quinine (also called American feverfew):

wild quinine
Another common Illinois plant, which was once used to treat fevers and malaria when quinine was in short supply. It may stimulate the immune system, according to modern research; but it can also cause dermatitis and allergies in some people, so caution is advised. IW

I talked with the on-site naturalist for a while and complimented her on their nice prairie. She said they've been working on it for the past thirty years (seriously, why isn't this place better known?), and agreed to let me interview expect more about Weldon Springs to come!

In the meantime, she said there was some nice blazing star blooming a bit further down, so I went in search of it. This is another common Illinois prairie plant.

prairie blazing star

This part of the trail is scrubbier, but I found some other interesting plants, such as tall boneset:

tall boneset

And I think this is a kind of tick trefoil:

I'd already found another possible tick trefoil in the woods; there are about 17 different species of them in Illinois. If anyone can tell me for certain what these plants are, please do!!

Finally, I passed a small pond, and found some arrowhead:


I've seen this flower before, at Humiston Woods in Livingston County. Unfortunately, my Illinois Wildflowers left me high and dry on this one, and I had to resort to my other ID book, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern). Muskrats and ducks like to eat the starchy tubers, causing an alternate name of "duck potatoes." In any case, look at that huge, arrow-shaped leaf.

This same pond also produced some pickerelweed, another aquatic plant missing from IL Wildflowers. It is related to the wild hyacinth.


Finally, along the sides of the pond, I found some horse nettle.

horse nettle

This plant, found throughout Illinois in "open woods, waste ground, cultivated fields and roadsides" is a member of the nightshade family. Although the Native Americans used it as a gargle for sore throats and a poultice for poison ivy rash, the berries are quite toxic, so don't imbibe. IW

By now, I've spent about as much time blogging about the plants as I actually spent looking at them...and it's time to get dinner on the table. So enough for now!

Hopefully this will inspire someone to go out and find some plants in their own county. Are any of these common where you live?

1 comment:

  1. Prairies are so beautiful! I do tend to think of them primarily as bird habitat: meadowlarks, dickcissels, and "the bird of birds", the BOBOLINK. I keep meaning to learn some of the local wildflowers here in the UP, and make an inventory of the plants growing on our 20 acres. Maybe you can come up and help me? MOM