Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Purple giant hyssop

This year’s unseasonably warm autumn weather inspired me to feature a plant today that typically blooms in the summer. Several colonies of Purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia) were in peak flower six to eight weeks ago along the Meredith bike trail between Gray’s Lake and downtown Des Moines.

This member of the mint family is native to much of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes it as a plant of "special value to native bees, honey bees and bumble bees." The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service guide for this species notes that goldfinches and hummingbirds are also attracted to the flowers, and the plant is a "popular ornamental," since its height (up to five or six feet) "makes it a good choice as a background against fencing." It thrives in moist soil and can handle full sun or partial shade.

Purple giant hyssop is a close relative of blue giant hyssop, also known as anise hyssop, which Bleeding Heartland featured last year. According to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, purple giant hyssop has a green calyx (the "cup-like whorl of sepals" that holds the flower) and green on the underside of leaves, while blue giant hyssop has a blue-violet calyx and a "whitish" color on the underside of its leaves. Iowa naturalist and photographer Leland Searles gave me an easier tip: crush a leaf. If it smells like licorice, you’ve found anise hyssop.

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Weekend open thread: Depressing news, inspiring news

What’s on your mind, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: Some exceptionally sad news caught my eye recently:

A new investigation by the Associated Press and the USA Today network found that in the first six months of 2016, children aged 17 or younger "died from accidental shootings — at their own hands, or at the hands of other children or adults — at a pace of one every other day, far more than limited federal statistics indicate." Alaska and Louisiana had the highest rates of accidental child shooting. A separate feature in the series focused on three incidents that killed two teenage girls and seriously injured another in Tama County, Iowa.

Government research on accidental gun deaths is nearly non-existent, because more than two decades ago, the National Rifle Association persuaded Congress to defund gun research by the Centers for Disease Control.

Meanwhile, the AP’s Scott McFetridge reported last week on the growing hunger problem in Storm Lake. The problem isn’t lack of jobs—the local unemployment rate is quite low—but a lack of livable wages. Iowa-born economist Austin Frerick mentioned Storm Lake and other towns dominated by meatpacking plants in his guest post here a few months ago: Big Meat, Small Towns: The Free Market Rationale for Raising Iowa’s Minimum Wage.

I enclose below excerpts from all of those stories, along with some good news from the past week:

The African-American Hall of Fame announced four new inductees, who have done incredible work in higher education, criminal justice, community organizing, and the practice of law.

Planned Parenthood marked the 100th anniversary of the first birth control clinic opening in the country on October 16. Click here for a timeline of significant events in the organization’s history.

Drake University Biology Professor Thomas Rosburg will receive this year’s Lawrence and Eula Hagie Heritage Award from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Rosburg is a legend among Iowans who care about native plants, wetlands, and prairie restoration.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Tall boneset

You don’t need to venture into a high-quality prairie or wooded area to find today’s featured plant. Tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) grows well on sunny or partly shaded ground in a range of habitats: "open woods, thickets, prairies, along railroads, [or] waste areas."

Sometimes known as tall thoroughwort, this member of the aster family is native to most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.

Some trivia before we get to the photographs: according to the Friends of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden website, the 40-some plant species with Eupatorium as the first part of the Latin nomenclature (including common and tall boneset) are "named after the Persian general Mithridates Eupator who is said to have used plants as a medicine and in his personal quest to become insensitive to poisons."

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Tall blue lettuce (Blue wood lettuce)

Over the last few years, this weekly series has inspired me to visit many natural areas for the first time on the hunt for new (to me) Iowa wildflowers, such as wild blue sage, dwarf larkspur, and wood betony. Today’s featured plant was hiding in plain sight, barely a quarter-mile from my home. I’d noticed it before this summer, but for some reason assumed it wasn’t native and never learned its name until a couple of months ago.

Tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) is native to most of Canada and the United States. Sometimes called blue wood lettuce, biennial blue lettuce or woodland lettuce, the plant thrives in shady, wet habitats, including woods, swamps, and stream banks. I took all of the enclosed pictures on the Windsor Heights and Urbandale bike trails, which run along North Walnut Creek.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Amazing close-ups of insects on native plants

Iowa naturalist Eileen Miller and I became acquainted through our shared appreciation for wildflowers. Her longstanding fascination with insects inspired her to learn more about the native plants these animals use to feed and reproduce.

Members of the Raccoon River Watershed Facebook group (open to anyone, not just central Iowans) are regularly treated to Eileen’s spectacular pictures of insects and arachnids, such as: an Eastern Comma caterpillar making a shelter, a crab spider guarding her egg sac, a wolf spider carrying spiderlings on her back, some Giant Ichneumon wasps drilling into a dead tree to lay their eggs on larvae of Pigeon Horntail wasps, a male giant water bug carrying eggs on his back, or a little planthopper winged adult emerging from the last nymph stage.

I recently asked Eileen to share some of her favorite pictures of insects feeding on and/or pollinating Iowa wildflowers. Thirteen gorgeous shots are enclosed below.

Eileen’s past contributions to this blog featured golden corydalis, hoary puccoon and fringed puccoon, marsh marigold, snow trillium, hepatica, blue cohosh, pasque flower, and yucca. Two years ago, she provided material for a post about unusual native fungi.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Flowering spurge

Last week’s featured wildflowers stand out, even in a colorful summer prairie landscape. In contrast, you could easily walk past flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) without spotting them. The species is native to most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains and grows in a wide range of habitats. But although flowering spurge isn’t a rare plant, I don’t recall noticing it before this summer.

I took the enclosed photos in late August and early September where the edge of woods meets a restored prairie in Dallas County.

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