In 2016, the Missouri Prairie Foundation established National Prairie Day: an effort to educate people about the vast grasslands which once stretched across North America, and to encourage commitment to the conservation and restoration of native prairies. This year, a new alliance of organizations dedicated to the voluntary restoration of native grasses on working lands in the U.S. will launch in conjunction with the celebration, held annually on the first Saturday in June.
Of course, learning about prairies is one thing: coming to love them quite another. I walked my first prairie in 2012. Since then, I’ve spent as much time as possible exploring their wonderful variety, from Texas’s coastal prairies to the tallgrass prairies of the midwest. One day — soon, I hope! — restrictions will be lifted, and I’ll be able to revisit some of my favorites. For now, I’ll celebrate the day devoted to their splendors with some photos from past visits, and my favorite prairie song.
Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky ~ The Tallgrass Express
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Chase County, Kansas
As we hop on our ponies to climb up the hill while the morning breeze sleeps and the air is so still, we see up ahead in the early half-light That clean curve of hill against sky.
West of the Bazaar, Kansas cattle pens
Then we’re out in the pasture as far as we’ll go, It rises around us, a giant green bowl, While the sunrise is filling the day up with light On that clean curve of hill against sky.
Diamond Grove Prairie ~ Missouri
The pioneers saw it as they crossed the wide plains til they built up their cities for fortune and fame;
Open range near Wonsevu, Kansas
So there’s few places left now to pleasure the eyes with that clean curve of hill against sky.
Prescribed burn on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve ~ Strong City, Kansas
Out here we’re still blessed with true darkness at night, our skies are a-glimmer with the Milky Way’s light; if you’re lucky, you might see a star shootin’ by that clean curve of hill against sky.
Konza Prairie ~ Manhattan, Kansas
But there’s more people and buildings and towers all the time ’cause there’s always a reason to put nature aside. Just a few places left now to pleasure the eyes with that clean curve of hill against sky.
Nash Prairie ~ Brazoria County, Texas
Now the hot sun is high and we’re riding on home, Our horses are spent, with their heads hanging low; I turn back my head now for one last goodbye to that clean curve of hill against sky.
Accustomed to seeking out autumn color in trees, vines, and shrubs, it’s easy to forget that grasses, too, can contribute to the pleasures of autumn and early winter.
One of my favorites, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is named for the greenish-blue color its stems show off in summer. As the year progresses, blue transforms to various shades of rusty red, and prairies begin to glow with a special vibrancy beneath the rising or setting sun.
Whether found in ditches or pristine preserves, the grass is beautiful, holding its color throughout the winter for the pleasure of humans, and providing cover and seed for small mammals and birds.
Little bluestem against winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
The size of the seedheads bobbing about in a ditch near the entrance to Burr Oak Woods conservation area in Blue Springs, Missouri made clear I’d found something other than an ordinary dandelion. From three to five inches in diameter, their gleaming fluff begged to be identified.
Identification turned out to be easier than I could have imagined. As I began catching up on blogs after two weeks of travel and family time, I discovered a similar puffball in a post from Montana Outdoors, together with a photo showing yellow salsify in bud and in flower. Eventually, I learned that the plant, originally from Europe, sometimes is called goatsbeard, but that risks confusion with yet another goatsbeard — Aruncus dioicus — that’s part of the rose family and which also (somewhat oddly) is known as bride’s feathers.
Intrigued by the coincidence, I wondered which other spring wildflowers Montana and Missouri might share. As if on cue, Terry followed up his post of the salsify with photos of a flower called self-heal. The examples I found scattered throughout Missouri and Arkansas seemed nearly at the end of their bloom, but they remained interesting and attractive.
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) at Missouri’s Diamond Grove Prairie
Self-heal seen from above in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas
Only a few days before, Terry had posted photos of a Montana native: the Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana). While that wild rose doesn’t overlap with Missouri’s native pasture rose, their appearance is similar, and the delight of their flowers surely is equal.
Beyond that, Rosa carolina also is listed as present in a few far northeastern counties of Texas, as well as in Kerr and Gillespie counties, which I occasionally visit. Next spring, I’ll make it a point to seek out this native rose closer to home.
Pasture rose (Rosa Carolina) at Missouri’s Diamond Grove Prairie
Certainly I expected to find at least a few unfamiliar wildflowers during my recent travel, but discovering these Missouri-Montana connections provided an extra dollop of delight.