Eye-popping prairie blooms

By Carol / July 7, 2010 /

The prairie popped with new flowers this week. Many  sent me scurrying back to my Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowerbook for help with identification.

This lilac beauty is one I knew – Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Wild Bergamot bloomed in profusion along the trail I often walked when we lived in West Des Moines. It’s a member of the mint family. Good for making tea.

This exotic bloom – a triple decker that looks more like a Carmen Miranda hat – is Spotted Bee Balm, Monarda punctata– a relative of the Wild Bergamot.  The colors will be more intense as the flower matures and I’ll post another photo as it happens. For now, just know that the true flowers are the pale yellow petals with purple spots that are tucked under the larger leaves, which are the flower bracts.

Canadian milk vetch, Astragalus canadensis, looked a lot like Partridge Pea before it bloomed.  Not surprising since they’re both in the bean family (Fabaceae). The leaves are fern-like.

Just as a reminder, here is a Partridge Pea. These delicate little annual plants grow in abundance throughout the prairie and this week have come into bloom.

Another plant that is showing it’s color is the Gray-headed coneflower, Ratibida pinnata.  This flower caused me to question my first identification. The cone is definitely gray at the outset, but as the seeds fill in, it becomes more brown. You can see this phenomenon on the flower at the bottom. There is a Yellow coneflower, Echinacea paradoxa, so I wondered.  At least one difference, though, is height. Yellow coneflowers are 2-3 ft. tall. Gray-headed coneflowers are taller. The book says 4 ft. The ones in my prairie are 5ft.+. So I’ll keep looking for Yellow coneflowers.

Sweet Black-eyed susans are also blooming this week. In a photo, you can’t tell them from Black-eyed susans. In person, the Sweet variety is much taller – 6 ft. – and the blooms are much smaller – less than 2 in. across.

With all these new blooms, the prairie is well on its way to showing all its color, but there’s much more to look forward to. I’ve identified only 9 of the 37 species I planted last year.

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