# Nature

Who speaks for nature? Can justice and citizenship guide us?

Photo of Neil Hamilton speaking at the Iowa Nature Summit on November 17 provided by the author and published with permission.

Neil Hamilton is the former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center and professor emeritus at Drake University law school. He delivered these remarks at the Iowa Nature Summit at Drake University on November 17, 2023.

My hope in planning the Summit was our collective work can help change the trajectory and effectiveness of how we advocate for nature in Iowa. I hope you agree we are off to a good start.

Elevating nature in our discussions

One challenge we face is elevating the discussion of nature to the place it deserves in the public discourse. It is too easy for those threatened by our issues to characterize us as just a bunch of nature lovers—people who like to play outdoors while others are trying to make a living. This is a dangerous mind set because if political issues involving nature are reduced to being between Iowa’s pigs and you playing in the river—history shows pigs may win every time.

Our respect for nature is about much more than just enjoyment—as vital as that is. Our respect for nature focuses on the essential role—the foundational role—nature plays in supporting life. Without nature there is no human survival, it is that simple. That is why water quality, soil health, and climate are essential to our future—it is why we need to elevate the importance of nature in our advocacy.

If we want the view of Iowa nature in five years to be better and not just a continuum of little progress and slow decline, what must change? How do we get out of the rut—or ephemeral gully—we find ourselves in today?

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Monarchs on my mind

Bruce Morrison is a working artist and photographer living with his wife Georgeann in rural southeast O’Brien County, Iowa. Bruce works from his studio/gallery–a renovated late 1920s brooding house/sheep barn. You can follow Morrison on his artist blog, Prairie Hill Farm Studio, or visit his website at Morrison’s studio.

Every summer we enjoy the monarch butterflies in our pastures and acreage, from their first arrival to their final departure. And each a different generation!

There are so many amazing mysteries in the natural world, and these iconic butterflies are right at the top of the list.  According to MonarchWatch.org, over the summer there are three or four generations of monarch butterflies, depending on the length of the growing season. Each female lays hundreds of eggs, so the total number of monarch butterflies increases throughout the summer. Before the end of summer, there are millions of monarchs all over the U.S. and southern Canada.

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Chemical trespass, a rural Iowa reality

Bleeding Heartland user PrairieFan is an Iowa landowner.

My boxelder trees look horrible.

The foliage on the outer branches is a sickly pale green. The leaves are twisted and stunted. Looking at other plants near my house, I see cupped and contorted leaves on trees, vines, and wildflowers. As happens every year, farm chemicals have trespassed (drifted) onto my conservation land.

Iowans who don’t know what it is like to live near typical corn and soybean fields might guess that farm-chem trespass would be a very occasional accident, followed by apologies, handshakes, and maybe a “sorry” gift. But that is not how it works in much of rural Iowa. 

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Wild Lupine

Kenny Slocum is the naturalist and natural resource manager for the Clayton County Conservation Board.

Lupine and I have a complex relationship. Despite the fact that some variants are indigenous to Iowa, I had to leave home to learn to recognize it.

After college, I moved to Western Montana where I first became acquainted with the genus. Following my term with the Montana Conservation Corps, I bounced up and down the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills, the Colorado Plateau… Everywhere I went, lupine was there to greet me. Always a crowd-pleaser, a colony of lupine on a hillside brings an incredible splash of color to the summer meadow wherever the geography.

As with so many other plants, it took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to leave Iowa to find it. I would have needed to take a road trip out of my native Scott County, though. Especially in search of the true Iowan lupine.

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Book review: The Revolutionary Genius of Plants

How can plants move without muscles? How do their root systems explore the soil? How do they adapt to changes in the environment, and sometimes survive extreme challenges such as fire or drought?

Stefano Mancuso explores those and other questions in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior. The book isn’t new (first published in 2018), but it was new to me after my brother gave a copy to one of my children.

Although the book doesn’t directly discuss prairie and woodland habitats that have inspired most of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflower content, Mancuso’s provocative theories are relevant to Iowa’s native plants as well.

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Iowa naturalist B.O. Wolden remembered

B.O. Wolden (1886-1968) was a prolific naturalist, an amateur botanist, and an advocate for conservation. Born to pioneers in rural Emmet county, Olaf witnessed drastic ecological changes during his lifetime as European Americans reshaped the tallgrass prairie bioregion. For nearly forty years, Olaf shared his observations of the natural world in a regular newspaper column called Nature Notes.

The Observer: The Life and Writings of Bernt Olaf Wolden was written by Amie Adams in partnership with the Iowa Master Naturalist Program and Emmet County Conservation. The book contains a biography of B.O. Wolden (written by Adams) and a selection of 100 of Mr. Wolden’s “Nature Notes.” Readers will learn about Iowa’s natural history and this fascinating Iowa naturalist. Copies are available for purchase online and at the Emmet County Nature Center. All proceeds support conservation and nature education in Emmet county.

Please enjoy the following excerpts from the book.

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The Baltimore checkerspot and the turtlehead

Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.

It’s human nature to regard your home community as special, distinctive, or unique in one way or another. I’ve always seen my rural community in this light, although some claims to fame are rather small.

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On gratitude and Sylvan Runkel

This post was supposed to be a book review.

I bought a copy of Sylvan T. Runkel: Citizen of the Natural World at the Okoboji Writers’ Retreat in September, thinking it would be perfect to review for my Iowa wildflowers series. Runkel co-authored some of the best Iowa wildflower guides, and I’ve used Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands and Wildflowers of the Tall Grass Prairie countless times.

Co-authors Larry Stone and Jon Stravers both knew Runkel and interviewed many of his friends, relatives, and former colleagues while researching their biography. As expected, I learned a lot about how the famous conservationist grew to love the outdoors and became passionate about native plants and natural landscapes.

The book also struck a chord with me as I’ve been coping with the most physically challenging year of my life.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Autumn in southeast O'Brien County

Bruce Morrison is a working artist and photographer living with his wife Georgeann in rural southeast O’Brien County, Iowa. Bruce works from his studio/gallery – a renovated late 1920s brooding house/sheep barn. You can follow Morrison on his artist blog, Prairie Hill Farm Studio, or visit his website at Morrison’s studio.

I’ve heard many folks express that autumn is their favorite season. It has always been mine. 

Even as a youngster, when any sane kid would tag summer as a fav (for obvious reasons), I’d still long for autumn. The fall season had a siren song about it; maybe it was too short, leaving you wanting…longing for more; frost in the air, colors everywhere, and harvest time. But more than likely, it was all those things plus what young kids long to spend time for outdoors in autumn. 

"Yellow Ave, Up the Road from Donnie's Place" - photograph - © Bruce A. Morrison

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Monarchs merit royal care

Kurt Meyer writes a weekly column for the Nora Springs – Rockford Register, where this essay first appeared. He serves as chair of the executive committee (the equivalent of board chair) of Americans for Democratic Action, America’s most experienced liberal organization.

Who doesn’t love butterflies, especially monarch butterflies?

Let me share several verbal bouquets I encountered in reading articles about monarchs. “Showy looks.” “Extraordinary migration.” “One of the natural world’s wonders,” and, “one of the continent’s most beloved insects.” Unfortunately, I also came across some very troubling terms, like “endangered,” “vulnerable populations,” “declining precipitously” and “teeter(ing) on the edge of collapse.” Suffice to say, it all captured my attention.

Monarchs have been in the news a great deal lately. Appropriately so.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Sedges

Leland Searles is consultant and owner of Leeward Solutions, LLC, a company that offers regulatory and non-regulatory environmental services. For more information, see Leeward’s website at http://www.leewardecology.com. All photos of sedges enclosed below are Leland’s work and published with permission.

You have walked on them, looked at them, maybe even pulled the seed stem to nibble on the tender base, as though it were a grass. But it isn’t.

Sedges are an important, often overlooked group of native plants. In Iowa there are at least 125 species belonging to one genus, Carex.

Carex sedges often are overlooked because they look so much like grasses. And with wide variation in their appearance and very tiny details, they are a daunting group of plants to learn. But with patience, those details also lead to small moments of awe and wonder at the different symmetries and adaptations of each.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: The Croton Unit of Shimek State Forest

Join Lora Conrad for a walk through the Croton Unit of Shimek State Forest to photograph and identify plants growing in this “premier woodland wildflower location.”

“Shimek State Forest is located in Lee and Van Buren counties in southeast Iowa. The forest served as a base for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and 1940s, where they planted thousands of acres of hardwoods and conifers for demonstration purposes. Named after early Iowa conservationist Dr. Bohumil Shimek, the forest offers bountiful outdoor recreation opportunities… ”

So goes the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ understated introduction to Shimek State Forest which is 9,448 acres spread across five forest units.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Hoar frost

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: I’m interrupting the winter hiatus of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series to bring you some lovely images by a new guest photographer, Paul Laning. He first shared these pictures in the Iowa wildflower enthusiasts Facebook group, which has remained active this winter.

I’ve had professional training in photography and design and been taking pictures since 1978. I take many nature photographs, but hoar frost is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy my art.

I took the first five pictures with my cell phone near Buffalo Center (Winnebago County). I shot the last with a Canon EOS in Clear Lake.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: A fungal takeover

Elizabeth Marilla is a mental health worker, writer, picture-taker, hiker, and mom living in Iowa. Connect with her on instagram at iowa.underfoot.

Wildflowers were a gateway to Mycophilia for me. Until very recently, I could only name and identify the most famous mushrooms I might wish for while walking around looking at wildflowers: Morel, Chanterelle, and Chicken of the Woods.

This post is dedicated the members of the Prairie States Mushroom Club, who warmly welcomed me into this bottomless new pastime during the pandemic, and who have very generously taught me many new things about the fungal biodiversity of Iowa–in particular Sarah, Glen, Roger, Marty, and Dean. These folx spotted some of the mushrooms pictured below. There are no additional forays planned for this year, but all fascinated newbies (as well as those with years of expertise) are welcome to join the club again next spring.

This post is also dedicated to the vigilant, patient, and devoted administrators of the Iowa Mushrooms Facebook page, total strangers who have been great teachers, helping me identify so many scrappy little specimens at all hours of the day and night! Impassioned beginners desperately need people like them. Luckily, it appears that the mushroom-loving community includes many genius laypeople, as well as quite a few very cool scientists.

Pictured below are ten of my favorite mushrooms found and photographed in southeast Iowa this summer and fall, with friends and often with my 3-year-old daughter. I have included a few of her recent mushroom drawings at the bottom of the post.

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An affair with the landscape

Bruce Morrison shares some of the northwest Iowa landscapes he has photographed or painted. Top image: “View From Brian’s Overlook- Sunrise No.1” – (NW Clay County – photograph – © Bruce A. Morrison)

When my wife and I moved to our little acreage in northwest Iowa nearly 20 years ago, I had already experienced a lifetime of love and reverence for the Landscape. I can still remember my summers as a youngster on the Des Moines River, which I lived above in Fort Dodge, and almost daily hikes down the railroad tracks to a friend’s farm west of town – where the Lizard Creek spread below their “night pasture”, as they called it…and met downstream with the north fork where the Chicago Northwestern track crossed the waterway’s junction.

The hillsides above the creek were favored respites to lay on in the summer sun and dry off after a swimming hole visit or after wading a good fishing hole; and many times just to watch the valley’s pair of Red-tail Hawks magically hanging in the air high overhead. The views always left me wanting to hold them fast in my memory; it was an emotion I never shook.

“Red-tail Migration” – (pencil drawing – © Bruce A. Morrison)

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Remembering Neal Smith

I was so sorry to hear that former U.S. Representative Neal Smith passed away on November 2 at the age of 101. Iowa’s longest-serving member of the U.S. House represented Polk County in Congress for 36 years, rising to the third-ranking position on the powerful Appropriations Committee. He had tremendous knowledge and wisdom. Having grown up poor during the Great Depression, he sought to use government to improve people’s lives.

I didn’t know Smith well but I always enjoyed seeing him at Democratic events, most recently at a Polk County or Third District event in 2018. The last time we spoke on the phone was in the summer of 2019, when I was working on a piece about the first passage of the Hyde amendment. At the age of 99, Smith recalled details about that 1976 House floor vote clearly.

Of all the events canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the one I was saddest about was the planned celebration of Smith’s 100th birthday at Drake University in March 2020.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: What is that plant, flower, or fruit?

Lora Conrad reviews nine useful resources for plant identification in Iowa.

Whether you are new to learning about Iowa wildflowers and native shrubs and trees or have been studying them as a hobby for some years, you are sure to see a plant or flower that you just can’t identify. Before posting a question for the experts on your local wildflower or flora Facebook page, you might want to see what you can learn about the plant and determine yourself.

Three types of resources are widely available: plant identification applications for a smart phone, public web pages from authoritative sources, and books. Each source can be useful but not always sufficient.

The purpose of this article is to compare the reference books that have helped me most in identifying plants in the woodlands, prairies, waysides, river banks, and roadsides of Iowa, as well as in my untamed yard. These are recommendations from a determined wildflower enthusiast—not from a botanist. So with that caveat, please read on.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Bugs on native plants

Elizabeth Marilla is a mental health worker, writer, picture taker, hiker, and mom living in rural southeast Iowa. Connect with her on instagram @iowa.underfoot. -promoted by Laura Belin

Wildflower love and layperson learning, often nurtured by the wisdom shared on Iowa wildflower Wednesdays, has led to closer looks at lots and lots of plants, and subsequently to my wondering amateurishly at the beings the wildflowers host and nourish–basically bugs I’ve ignored for way too many years!

Many mornings I hike with my daughter. We take pictures, get silly, find mushrooms (and slime molds), stomp around. Her questions are getting much smarter than mine, and if she miraculously naps in the afternoon, I often spend that time learning about flowers and bugs from far smarter folks than I, hoping I will be able to answer her questions when she awakes.

Below are a few things we have wondered about together this spring and summer. If anyone would like to share what they know about these native bug/flower relationships in the comments, add bumble bee IDs, or correct any errors, I very much welcome learning from other enthusiastic Iowans.

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Finding a path for people and wildlife in the Loess Hills

Patrick Swanson takes over this week’s edition of Iowa wildflower Wednesday. -promoted by Laura Belin

Earlier this month marked the first of what I hope to be a more common event in western Iowa: an organized multi-day hike through the Loess Hills. 

Conceived and orchestrated by Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and other partners, the Lo(ess) Hi(lls) Trek, as it was called, gave about 30 folks the opportunity to walk a route through and between conservation lands in Monona County. Golden Hills RC&D recently posted an excellent day-by-day synopsis of the LoHi Trek, so I won’t recap the details here.

As a participant, I would like to offer some of my reflections on this journey.  

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Horsetails and Scouring rushes

Leland Searles is a photographer and ecological consultant with expertise in botany, hydrology, soils, streams, and wildlife. -promoted by Laura Belin

The horsetails and scouring rushes (genus Equisetum) are rather odd plants on the Midwestern landscape, because they look like nothing else. They are related, by their genetic makeup and reproductive means, to the ferns. Occasionally, scouring rushes grow in dense colonies in the roadsides, where their dark green color and parallel vertical growth are a contrast with the other plants on their margins. A few plants manage to rise in the midst of such colonies, but these plants often are very dominant in the space they occupy.

Horsetails and scouring rushes have historical uses for several tasks, and they have provided medicines for some ailments, although those sometimes contradict each other. In general, the medicinal purposes are not backed by scientific evidence – only the testimonials of herbalists and the recorded uses by ethnobotanists who studied small-scale cultural groups in North America and elsewhere.

Yet the frequent occurrence of at least two species makes them deserving of attention as a native plant species.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: A lawn-to-native plant garden conversion

Emilene Leone explains the step-by-step process to creating her “home gone wild in suburbia,” with phenomenal photographs of the flowers, birds, and insects that visit her native plant garden in Davenport. -promoted by Laura Belin

For the last two summers, I have been working on converting large sections of my home’s yard to native plant space. I’ve been documenting the process both on my own Facebook page, as well as on Casa Leone Gardens. I was invited to write a post about my project for Bleeding Heartland’s wonderful “Wildflower Wednesday” series, and I’m so happy to do so!

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: A tour of spring flowers in southeast Iowa

Elizabeth Marilla is a mental health worker, writer, picture taker, hiker, and mom living in rural southeast Iowa. Connect with her on instagram @iowa.underfoot. -promoted by Laura Belin

I was born and raised in Iowa, but moved away at 18 without having learned much of anything about the natural history of Iowa, the history of Euroamerican settler colonialism in Iowa, the history and modern day presence of Indigenous/Native communities in Iowa, many members of whom are among the most passionate protectors of Iowa’s natural resources. Remember, for example, the Meskwaki Nation’s early leadership fighting the portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline running through Iowa, long before broad public attention was drawn to the project.

While hiking this spring I noticed that many parks and preserves are named for or include plaques honoring the mostly white landowners who either sold or gifted the land to the public or the trust, but most feature no education about who was here before that. The Johnson County Conservation board has recently expressed willingness to initiate a project to support learning and unlearning around Iowa history at the sites they manage and on their website, which I hope will center Indigenous voices.

Many of the southeast Iowa sites pictured below are located on lands held by the Meskwaki and Sauk Nations at the time of Euroamerican colonial settlement, as is my own home. One very small way to initiate some learning might be to cross-reference your own map with this one, created by the Historic Indian Location Database project, when visiting Iowa parks and preserves.

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Make Iowa great again: Yes, we can

Paul W. Johnson wrote this piece in 2017, when Republicans in the state legislature passed a budget bill that defunded Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and eliminated it from the Iowa Code. Governor Terry Branstad signed the bill and left in place the sections redirecting funding away from the Leopold Center to the newer, corporate-friendly Nutrient Reduction Center at ISU. But he item-vetoed the section that would have removed all code references to the Leopold Center. Consequently, the center still exists but with no funding for research and education on sustainable agriculture. -promoted by Laura Belin

Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887. He died in 1948 while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm. He and his wife, Estella, are buried in a cemetery in Burlington. Aldo Leopold is known today as the father of the wilderness idea, the father of wildlife management in the U.S., and the father of the land ethic. The land ethic encourages us humans to understand that we belong to the community of all life on earth and that we need to learn to love and respect it.

“Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner and the owner does well by his land: when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.” -Aldo Leopold  

That is why we established the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in 1987.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: A DIY bee house using native prairie plants

Patrick Swanson interrupts the winter hiatus of Bleeding Heartland’s Iowa wildflowers series with some lovely pictures and useful tips. -promoted by Laura Belin

Here we are in the deep throes of winter. A wistful melancholy arises from memories of greener and more colorful landscapes, and the dark days and cold dampness of our climate this time of year seems to cage us indoors, leaving us restless with cabin fever.

But the winter landscape has its own serenity, and those adventurous enough to face the chill are often rewarded by sights and sounds unique to the season. 

Last year about this time, I posted an essay here with pictures from a winter snowshoe trek depicting how the new-fallen snow transformed plants on my prairie into more magical, snow-capped versions of themselves.

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Brent’s Trail: Envisioning a state trail through the Loess Hills of western Iowa

Patrick Swanson describes a project to highlight “the unusual geology and scenic value of the Loess Hills, their importance as a wildlife corridor and a home to the largest tracts of native remnant prairie left in the state, and the presence of many protected areas along the backbone of the hills.” -promoted by Laura Belin

Earlier this month, I attended the dedication of Brent’s Trail, a new eight-mile hiking trail in Harrison County, near the town of Little Sioux, that links Murray Hill Scenic Overlook, Loess Hills State Forest, and Gleason-Hubel Wildlife Area.

The idea of a long-distance trail through the Loess Hills was envisioned by Brent Olson, whose career as area forester for the Loess Hills State Forest spanned 25 years before his untimely death in 2016 from cancer at age 53. His vision was championed by those who followed to create such a trail and name it in his honor.

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It's good to be orange

Chris Jones is a research engineer (IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering) at the University of Iowa. This post first appeared at the author’s blog. -promoted by Laura Belin

Many have written how earth’s species are undergoing a mass extinction right now, the sixth such event in the planet’s history. These writers include Elizabeth Kolbert and the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson. Extinctions are occurring now at a faster pace than any time since 65 million years ago, when earth’s collision with a 7-mile wide asteroid caused the 5th great extinction, wiping out 70 percent of all species.

One species that did survive the fifth extinction was the Pallid Sturgeon. This fish entered earth’s evolutionary record about 70 million years ago. “Pallid” means absence of color, and true enough, the pallid sturgeon is nearly white. It is one of the largest (up to 85 pounds), longest-lived (as long as 100 years) and ugliest (like a bizarre cross between a shark and an armadillo) fish species in North America. The fish is endangered because we wrecked the Missouri River.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday returns: Pasque flower

Patrick Swanson kicks off the eighth year of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series with pictures from the prairie remnant he has been restoring in Harrison County. -promoted by Laura Belin

If you have a favorite sports team, once the season concludes, there is often a period of reflection to consider how the season went. Maybe how each of the games unfolded. Perhaps how some of the games were affected by the weather. Maybe even those games you had to miss, but wished you could have attended.

Spring is now upon us, and just as we have begun enjoying the warmer weather, we must already note the passing of one of the prairie’s earliest native wildflowers – the pasque flower (Anemone patens).

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When the floodgates open

Leland Searles is a photographer and ecological consultant with expertise in botany, hydrology, soils, streams, and wildlife. -promoted by Laura Belin

“The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” (Georg Hegel, German philosopher)

There are too many potential topics for this blog, the third in a series, and that leads to a certain amount of indecisiveness. Until something happens. That something is the flooding that has already occurred in the Midwest this year, and the expectation of more to come. So far, western Iowa, eastern Nebraska, and northwestern Missouri have experienced the worst of it, with a much larger area affected to some extent.

The degree of flooding in the Missouri basin this year is nearly unrivaled in the record books. Still, I want to push this point: we should have known, and we should have acted to prevent it or mitigate it. Dams do not work in the long run, and when the system of dams was built along the Missouri in the 1940s and 1950s, the year 2019 was a long time off. We are now in “the long run” that no one then foresaw.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Winter wonderland

We interrupt the winter hiatus of Bleeding Heartland’s wildflowers series to bring you Patrick Swanson’s lovely recent pictures of his Harrison County prairie remnant. -promoted by Laura Belin

Saturday night, February 16, brought a nice snowfall to the Omaha/Council Bluffs region. We don’t often get the kind of snow events that make me want to pull out my snowshoes, but as morning broke on Sunday, I decided to throw them in the back of the car and head to the Loess Hills to see what nature provided.

As I introduced in a previous post, I have been working to restore a native prairie remnant. I had considered trying to burn a slash pile from my summer efforts clearing cedars, as I occasionally do in the winter when the weather cooperates. This day, however, the snowplow hadn’t yet cleared one of the roads I use to access the property where I intended to burn. As a result, I had to park and hike in from a different spot.

Because the snow was deeper than I expected, I bailed out on the bonfire idea, and decided instead to take my own “snow day” to trek around on my snowshoes and capture some winter photos of the prairie and woods on the property. I posted some of my pictures to the Iowa Wildflower Report Facebook group, prompting an invitation from Laura Belin to submit a blog post.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: On Finding a Clematis pitcheri (Leatherleaf)

Whether you are a novice or seasoned professional, finding a “new” species is exciting for nature-lovers. Many thanks to Leland Searles for sharing this essay and beautiful photos. -promoted by desmoinesdem

At the end of a hot, dusty day on the gravel roads of Marion County, I braked the Honda van to a stop at a t-intersection. I had pushed hard to finish as many miles of roadside survey as possible, stopping each quarter mile to note the vegetation on each side of the road. Mostly I saw brome and reed canary grass, wild parsnip and wild carrot, giant ragweed and sheep fescue. Often enough there were stands of Jerusalem artichoke or common milkweed.

The t-intersection brought a decision. Do I drive a half mile on the county hardtop to a short, unnamed gravel road, one that I missed two days earlier, and have a look? I could see it from the stop sign: a sea of crop land on either side, an old fenceline leading a quarter mile to a farmstead. Not a big deal. Time to go home.

Sometimes a whimsical curiosity emerges, gently, gaining force, wanting recognition. I drove the half mile, turned and rolled twenty feet to a stop, looked out the window onto the fence and soybeans that were almost neon in the yellowing light. Not much here.

Curiosity again. What’s ahead in fifty feet? The accelerator moved gently down. Another stop. Brome grass out the driver’s window, the fenceline on the other side. Something between me and the fence, a native sedge, already gone to seed, its yellow leaves standing out among the darker grasses. Probably Carex grisea. Not very interesting. I should head home.

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Calling on RAGBRAI riders to help plant milkweed for monarchs

Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have prepared more than 50,000 balls containing common milkweed seeds for riders participating in next week’s Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). As its name suggests, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most prevalent among the 17 types of milkweed found in Iowa. However, the use of genetically-modified Roundup Ready corn and soybeans greatly diminished common milkweed on Iowa cropland. “Kelly Milkweed” Guilbeau and a friend scattered some milkweed seeds while doing RAGBRAI in 2014, then prepared about 2,000 balls of seed to hand out during last summer’s ride across Iowa.

Elizabeth Hill, who manages the Conard Environmental Research Area at Grinnell College, has collaborated with Guilbeau on the Milkweed Matters initiative, greatly expanded this year. I wish them every success; driving around Iowa last week, I saw huge stands of wild parsnip along too many roadsides.

I enclose below two pictures of common milkweed blooming, as well as a press release explaining where riders can pick up seed balls to toss in unmowed ditches along the RAGBRAI route, which runs across southern Iowa from July 24 through 30.

You can learn more at the Milkweed Matters website and receive regular updates on Twitter (@milkweedmatters) or Facebook. Butterfly fans can find more good links at the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa website. Although I’m not skilled at identifying butterflies, I enjoy the occasional “butterfly forecasts” by the Poweshiek Skipper Project.

P.S.- Hill will always have a special place in my heart as the accidental godmother of Bleeding Heartland’s Iowa wildflower Wednesday series.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Yucca (Soapweed yucca) and the Yucca moth

I’m always grateful when Iowa naturalist Eileen Miller shares her photography on this blog. Bleeding Heartland readers have seen her incredible eye for detail in wildflowers such as golden corydalis, hoary puccoon and fringed puccoon, marsh marigold, snow trillium, hepatica, blue cohosh, and pasque flower. She also once contributed a post featuring unusual fungi.

Eileen became an expert on wildflowers by virtue of her fascination with insects. If you or a child in your life are into bugs, I highly recommend joining the Raccoon River Watershed Facebook group, where Eileen sometimes posts unbelievable insect photo series, such as an Eastern Comma caterpillar making a shelter, 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.

Today I’m excited to share Eileen’s description and pictures of a plant and insect that are “the classic example of a plant and animal obligate symbiotic relationship where each organism requires the other to survive.”

I’ve never seen Yucca glauca, commonly known as yucca or soapweed yucca. Iowa is on the eastern edge of this plant’s native range, and in our state, yucca is found only in the Loess Hills. According to Charlie McDonald of the U.S. Forest Service website,

As the name implies, the crushed roots of soapweed yucca produce a lather that makes a good soap or shampoo. The lathering substances called saponins are found in many plants, but are exceptionally concentrated in yucca roots. The dried leaves of soapweed yucca can be woven into baskets, mats, or sandals. The strong coarse leaf fibers can be extracted to make cordage.

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Turtle Protection Bill passes and is signed by the governor

When a bill passes by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, like the turtle harvesting bill did in both the Iowa House and Senate, one might assume it was easy to persuade lawmakers and the governor to act. Not necessarily. Thanks to Mike Delaney for an in-depth look at how one good idea became state law. Delaney is a founder of the non-profit Raccoon River Watershed Association. Turtle graphic produced by the non-profit Iowa Rivers Revival. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Over the years I have noticed a decline in the number of Soft-shelled turtles on my sandbars along the Raccoon River in Dallas County. When I first bought my farm in 1988 12” and 14” Soft-shells would regularly slide into the river off the sand where they were warming their cold-blooded bodies. A few seconds later you could see their noses and foreheads pop up to look around. When my son and daughter were little I showed them (as my older brothers had shown me as a child) how to walk along the shore at night, focus a flashlight at the water’s edge and spot the heads of baby Softshells sticking out of the sand. However, we have not seen these little guys for many years.

I asked around about what happened to the turtles. County conservation folks told me that the commercial turtle trappers were selling them to China. I asked some “environmentally concerned” friends. One said that the DNR was worried about Iowa’s turtles and had proposed rules to limit turtle “harvest” during egg laying season and limits on the numbers that could be taken. Iowa had no rules preventing over-harvest of turtles. I was told that the rules were being held up in the governor’s office.

I decided to act on the matter.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday returns: Dutchman's breeches

After a somewhat late start, many spring wildflowers are blooming now in central Iowa. If you walk in a wooded area over the next few days, you may see Virginia bluebells, spring beauty, toothwort, rue anemone, Dogtooth violets (also called trout lilies), or today’s featured native plant, Dutchman’s breeches. Thanks to the distinctive shape of the flowers, Dutchman’s breeches are among the easiest spring wildflowers to identify.

The arrival of spring also heralds the return of Harlan Ratcliff’s Central Iowa Butterfly Forecast, updated every two weeks at the Poweshiek Skipper site.

This post is also a mid-week open thread: all topics welcome.

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Weekend open thread, with Iowa nature links

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

I have several posts in progress about the 2014 elections and looking ahead to next year’s legislative session and even the campaigns of 2016. But for today, I wanted to share some nature links.

Good news: Iowa’s pheasant numbers “have rebounded to a six-year high,” according to a roadside survey the Iowa Department of Natural Resources conducted in August.

Hunting season is in full swing. The non-profit Save our Avian Resources has compiled a good list of lead-free bullets and ammunition for hunters. Toxic bullet fragments left in gut piles are a major threat to predatory birds including eagles.

I learned via Radio Iowa that the Iowa DNR has added more content on its website about large mammals in Iowa, including black bears, gray wolf, mountain lion and even moose (rarely seen this far south). This page on the DNR’s website is a great resource for all kinds of information about animals indigenous to Iowa.

Bad news: for most of this fall, nitrogen levels in the Raccoon River have remained above the standard for drinking water. Along with the Des Moines river, the Raccoon River is a major source of drinking water for more than a half-million central Iowa residents.

Bleeding Heartland’s Iowa wildflower Wednesday series is on hiatus until the spring (you can view the archive here). Guest diaries featuring Iowa nature photography are welcome any time of the year.

Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Fungi edition

After record rainfall during August in some parts of Iowa, it’s a banner year for mushrooms. Naturalist and photographer Eileen Miller has been taking spectacular pictures of fungi in the Raccoon River watershed. So this week, Bleeding Heartland is taking a break from wildflowers to focus native Iowa fungi. Eileen contributed a dozen photos and some commentary, which I’ve enclosed below. To my knowledge, I had never seen most of those mushroom species before.

This post is also a mid-week open thread: all topics welcome.

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Weekend open thread: Labor Day edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread.

Labor Day has been a federal holiday for 120 years, and it’s just one of many reasons Americans can be grateful to the organized labor movement.

Labor Day also marks the unofficial end of summer for many people. It’s a wet and muddy holiday weekend in central Iowa, as Des Moines just closed out the rainiest August on record. Hummingbirds will start flying south soon, and early September is a good time to see monarch butterflies on their migration through Iowa. The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City has a volunteer monarch tagging event scheduled for this Saturday, September 6. The Des Moines Register’s Mike Kilen reported late last week that several conservation groups are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give the monarch “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act. Conventional farming practices, notably the widespread use of Roundup herbicide, have decimated milkweeds, which monarchs need to breed. Planting milkweeds along roadsides and in private yards can give butterflies good habitat.

In even-numbered years, politicos long considered Labor Day the unofficial beginning of the general election campaign, or at least the time more voters start paying attention. Campaigns are so expensive now, with so much more outside money flowing in, that Iowans have been bombarded with as many political ads during the “slow” summer months as we would have seen ten or twenty years ago in September and October. I wonder whether television commercials are becoming less effective for political campaigns these days. So many people change the channel or avoid commercials altogether by using DVR or Netflix.

Former State Senator Kent Sorenson’s guilty plea last week may or may not lead to other prosecutions in connection with Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign, but it has already cost one former Paul staffer his job. Jesse Benton had been managing the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. He resigned on Friday evening, citing “inaccurate press accounts and unsubstantiated media rumors about me and my role in past campaigns that are politically motivated, unfair and, most importantly, untrue.”  

A Little Vietnam in Dallas County

(Terrifying comment on the lack of basic safety awareness among some Iowa gun enthusiasts. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Yesterday I conducted a wetlands delineation for the Iowa DNR at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Area, along the South Raccoon between Adel and Redfield. Among the highlights: a good plant list that included a new sedge species, Carex oligocarpa; numerous butterflies, including Tiger and Black Swallowtails, American Lady, Spring Azure, Eastern Comma, and Red Admiral; experience with riparian soils; and overall a good day.

The most memorable part came in the last 15 minutes. Four 20-something year-olds noisily stopped about 450 feet away on the old canoe access road and began making sounds that could have been firecrackers. When the first clear rifle report came, I knew that this was no mere Independence Day warm-up. At least two bullets hit within 100 yards of me and a third whizzed overhead as I crouched behind a low dirt pile.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Snow trillium

At this time of year, I love seeing the native plants change almost daily. On the Bill Riley bike trail in Des Moines yesterday, I saw lots of violets, bluebells, spring beauties, toothwort, dogtooth violets, and some buttercups that Bleeding Heartland will cover next Wednesday. In our corner of Windsor Heights we are seeing most of the above, as well as the first Jack-in-the-pulpits, bellwort, sweet William (phlox), and littleleaf buttercups blooming. Buds are developing on May apples, wild geranium, Virginia waterleaf, and even Solomon’s seal. I have trouble identifying birds and insects, but we are seeing a wider variety of both, including a red admiral today. Here’s the latest central Iowa butterfly forecast.

Today, Bleeding Heartland reader Eileen Miller has shared some of her photographs of snow trillium, a beautiful early spring wildflower. I’ve seen these blooming along the Living History Farms woodland trail (between the 1850 farm and the 1900 farm), but I’ve never captured good shots of them. Eileen’s description of this flower is after the jump, along with her pictures.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Hepatica

Naturalist and Iowa outdoor enthusiast Eileen Miller has given Bleeding Heartland permission to publish her gorgeous photographs of an early spring wildflower: Hepatica. (Common variants include Hepatica nobilis and Hepatica americana). This plant can flower anytime between March and June in Iowa woodlands. This year, it started blooming relatively late because of the harsh winter.

After the jump I’ve posted Eileen’s photographs, along with her descriptions of the plant, its stages of growth, and its pollinators. I’ve never managed to get such clear shots of insects on wildflowers.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

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Mid-week open thread: Signs of spring in Iowa edition

Although another winter storm is forecast to hit northern Iowa later this week, spring marches on, and with it returns the central Iowa butterfly forecast, updated every two weeks. I haven’t seen any butterflies yet this year, but several people I know have spotted them within the past week.

During the past two days, ruby-throated hummingbirds have been seen in southern Illinois and Missouri. The only hummingbird species native to the Midwest, these birds usually arrive in central Iowa by May 1.

The federal government is asking for the public’s help in monitoring and preserving native bat populations, threatened by a fungus causing “White-nose syndrome.”

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

A generous Des Moines business owner got national publicity this week. Ellen DeGeneres gave $10,000 to Derrick Walton, a onetime homeless man who established Chef D’s Rock Power Pizza on the south side of Des Moines. Walton feeds needy people for free at his restaurant on Mondays.

UPDATE: Remarkably, one of the three eggs from the Decorah eagles’ nest hatched on April 2. I would not have thought eagles could successfully incubate eggs through the unusually harsh weather we’ve had since late February.

Weekend open thread: Nature in winter

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? Across central and parts of eastern Iowa, today was this winter’s first good sledding opportunity. But road conditions are iffy, and tomorrow’s high temperatures will be in the single digits, so be careful if you need to venture out. Earlier this month, I posted a bunch of winter safety links here.

Today’s Sunday Des Moines Register includes a feature by Mike Kilen on Leland Searles’ Raccoon River Watershed Phenology calendar. In a blatant play for the reader’s attention, Kilen led with the calendar’s many references to animal mating. This calendar is a fantastic resource for Iowans interested in birds or native plants. You can order copies here; part of the proceeds go to the non-profit Raccoon River Watershed Association.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round, and they have snowshoes for visitors to borrow if you want to explore the prairie. Highly recommended. The center also holds some special events during the winter, including a guided snowshoe hike on December 28 and a bird count scheduled for January 4.

I just learned about this website containing links to Iowa natural areas, including marshes, prairie remnants and fens as well as state parks and preserves.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

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