Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Lesser fringed gentian

Katie Byerly has a knack for finding rare native plants. She’s also on YouTube at Iowa Prairie Girl. -promoted by Laura Belin

Serious birders compile a “Life List.” A list of all the bird species they have ever encountered.

When I seriously started studying Iowa wildflowers three years ago, I soon realized that finding a fall gentian is considered a bonus during a wildflower search. I remember being thrilled finding my first bottle gentian. As I added more gentian to my “life list”–cream, stiff, and downy–it began to seem as if the elusive fringed gentian, which inspired so many, was eluding me.

Finally this August, I was so pleased when I stumbled upon a fringed gentian in a wonderful little fen located in the southeast corner of Cerro Gordo County. It turned out to be Lesser fringed gentian (Gentianopsis virgata), sometimes known as smaller fringed gentian.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Woodland lettuce

Prairie plants were obviously the focus during last month’s group walk around Tipton Prairie in Greene County. But we also saw some woodland wildflowers blooming near the edge of the prairie. Dr. Thomas Rosburg of Drake University identified today’s featured plant as woodland lettuce (Lactuca floridana).

Sometimes known as blue woodland lettuce or Florida lettuce, this species is native to most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, and to the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: White snakeroot

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) occupies a tragic place in U.S. history, having indirectly caused thousands of deaths during the 19th century. The Plants that Kill book explains.

When Europeans started to settle in the Midwest region of the United States in the 1800s, they and their livestock began to fall ill. The animals developed violent trembling when they were forced to move or became agitated, and the disease became known as trembles. People who drank the milk of affected animals developed so-called milk sickness, and it is estimated that in some areas of Indiana and Ohio 25–50 per cent of the deaths of early settlers were caused by this condition. One casualty in 1818 was Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whose son, nine years old at the time, would become President Abraham Lincoln.

The National Park Service website for the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana adds more context.

The illness was most common in dry years when cows wandered from poor pastures to the woods in search of food. In man, the symptoms are loss of appetite, listlessness, weakness, vague pains, muscle stiffness, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, severe constipation, bad breath, and finally coma. […]

Milk sickness or “trembles” was more prevalent in late summer and early fall, but records show that many cases occurred in the winter and early summer also.

White snakeroot will do you no harm, as long as you don’t consume milk from animals that have grazed on it. That’s good news, because this plant is among the most prevalent late summer wildflowers in shady, woodland habitats, especially in damp areas. If you’ve been on a trail running near an Iowa river or creek lately, you’ve probably seen some blooming. It’s native to almost all of the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Indian grass

During a visit to the never-plowed Tipton Prairie in Greene County earlier this month, I was able to see a native grass at the peak of its blooming period. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) was one of the four dominant species of tallgrass prairies, along with big bluestem, little bluestem, and switchgrass. It was once plentiful across the U.S. and Canada (except for west of the Rocky Mountains) and often thrives in prairie remnants or restorations.

The Illinois Wildflowers and Minnesota Wildflowers sites are good resources for botanically accurate descriptions of the plant parts. Indian grass is easy to identify for its reddish-brown color, spear-shaped spikelets before blooming, and flower clusters with yellow stamens.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Field thistle (Pasture thistle)

Thanks to lead organizer Mike Delaney, I was able to visit Tipton Prairie (west of Rippey on E57 in Greene County) earlier this month. The Raccoon River Watershed Association sponsored a walking tour, with expert guidance from Professor Thomas Rosburg of Drake University.

On my first outing to Tipton two years ago, I saw the four-acre, never-plowed prairie in late spring, when prairie phlox, prairie redroot, and yellow star grass were near their peak. The landscape looks quite different in late summer.

One treat was seeing a large colony of field thistle (Cirsium discolor), also known as pasture thistle. Although this plant is native to most of the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains, most thistles growing along Iowa trails and roadsides are invasive species. However, according to the Illinois Wildflowers website, field thistle can thrive on disturbed ground as well as in high-quality habitats. You may find it in “moist to dry prairies, openings in woodland areas, moist meadows near rivers, limestone glades, pastures and abandoned fields, open areas along railroads and roadsides, and waste areas.”

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Slenderleaf false foxglove

Patrick Swanson has an unusual, hemiparasitic plant growing on his Harrison County prairie. -promoted by Laura Belin

As midsummer’s profusion of prairie clovers, coneflowers, and leadplant begin to fade, late August sees an unusual flower make its splash on the prairie palette: the slenderleaf false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).

I had never encountered this plant before I started working to restore a native prairie remnant in the Loess Hills (an experience I wrote about here). My curiosity led me to learn more about A. tenuifolia, also known as slender-leaved false foxglove, and ultimately to share here some of the information I have gleaned about its life cycle.

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