May

 

 

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Callirhoe papaver (Winecup).

 

 

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Mimosa hystricini (Sensitive briar)

 

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Rudbeckia texana (Texas brown-eyed susan) in the Welsh remnant Prairie in 1990.

 

May is a transitional month in the prairie, but it is a great month for sunflowers and milkweeds and many other species. The last of the Louisiana irises bloom—the short and zig-zag stemmed Iris brevicaulis. May presents a 3 feet tall prairie in general and reaching 4-5 in select species. Some meadow scenes are roughly 2 feet in height and provide some of the most striking view—such a section should be provided in any prairie garden not only for the sake of your eyes and emotions but also in order to provide a habitat that many of these shorter plants can be maintained—this area can be mowed after the major blooming (mid-June to early-July) and a reasonable amount of re-blooming may result in a second splash.

May also provides many views from the recent April blooms and some from the upcoming June explosion of blooms—this is why I call it a transitional month. At first view, May appears to have far fewer blooming plants, but this is a result of the loss of large, spectacular bloomers followed by their replacement with many small bloomers including Phlox, Callirhoe, Echinacea, etc. Taller plants from the April blooms often hide the smaller bloomers from view and reduce the overall effect. Thus growing a meadow without the large Baptisia and other plants of April will provide for a view of these beautiful prairie gems.

Creating a meadow is one of the best ways to get into the prairie. Here is an excellent example of a May meadow using 20 species of prairie plants in an area that can be mowed in mid-June with some good rebloom, and maybe another mow in mid-August for another small rebloom. The list contains showy flowering plants that are generally easy to grow after seeding or transplanting; however, they are not commonly regarded as hosts for butterfly larvae and serve mainly as nectar plants for pollinators. The exception is the milkweeds, but Monarch larvae are usually absent from our area in June, July and August, when mowing is suggested—a patient search might be useful just in case there is a straggler!

 

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A view of a meadow remnant prairie south of Fenton in May 1990. Clumps of Rudbeckia hirta (yellow midground = Black-eyed susans), Callirhoe papaver (red foreground = Winecups), Mimosa hystricini (pink background = Sensitive briar) and Echinacea pallida (pink background = Pale purple coneflowers) are apparent.

 

A list of 20 dry feet meadow choices to make a May ‘knock your eyes out view’ follows:

  1. Phlox pilosa
  2. Callirhoe papaver
  3. Schrankia (now Mimosa hystricina)
  4. Echinacea pallida
  5. Erythrina herbacea
  6. Silphium gracile
  7. Rudbeckia hirta, grandiflora and texana
  8. Gaura lindheimeri
  9. Monarda fistulosa and lindheimeri
  10. Tephrosia onybrachiodes
  11. Butterflyweed and other milkweeds
  12. Ruellia spp.
  13. Prunella vulgaris
  14. Erigeron strigosus and annuus
  15. Tradescantia spp.
  16. Conoclinium coelestinum
  17. Gaillardia aestivalis
  18. Stachys floridana (considered too aggressive by Charles Allen and others)
  19. Euphorbia corallata
  20. Penstamon digitalis

 

Phlox, Callirhoe, Mimosa and Echinacea collected together make a great show. Add black-eyed susans and beebalms, and the view is as gardenesque/meadowesque as it gets. Add Mamou and Butterflyweed and you have a knock-your-eyes-out view. Unfortunately Coreopsis and many Tradescantia are generally finishing. A few Coreopsis tinctoria may bloom, but these annuals tend to disappear. Silphium gracile, although a bit taller but airy, can make a great contribution to the view. Tephrosia onybrychoides (Multibloom hoarypea) and Gaura lindheimeri (Lindheimer’s beeblossum) also bloom profusely. Cassia and Passiflora may be added as they are wonderful butterfly host plants—but cutting these down at midseason would be detrimental to the varied sulphur butterfly caterpillars and Gulf Fritillary caterpillars feasting on them.

Adding Lantana to this garden would also provide addition bang for your bucks. Arguments regarding whether the various kinds are native or exotic have not been settled. They do not appear to be common in the wild, but they are here and there. They were not found on the prairie remnants, but I have seen them in roadside areas along with natives; thus they are naturalized exotics at worst and possibly natives at best. I grow them with stem cutting taken in winter and simply inserted into the soil—I am always surprised to see them take root and grow.

Prunella vulgaris (Heal-all) and Scutellaria integrifolia (Helmet flower or skullcap) may be excellent additions. They are striking and blue to purple flowering, low growing plants. They are absolutely beautiful and rival the bluebonnets of Texas in both color and length of bloom season, but I have never seen them in nearly the numbers evidenced by the countless pictures of bluebonnets. They bloom briefly between in April to May.

Chamescrista fasciculata (aka Cassia and known as Partridge Pea) and Tephrosia are peas with characteristic blooms, but Chamescrista is an annual with bright yellow flowers, and Tephrosia is a perennial with white flowers that turn pink and then red during the 3 days that each bloom survives. These can become abundant and persist; Cassia is able to persist in the garden for years—not a common feat for annuals in the prairie—a habitat where perennials tend to crowd out the annuals. These will bloom for the next 5 months, if they have an opportunity in their location.

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Spiranthes sp. (Ladies tresses or Corkscrew orchid)

 

Spiranthes blooms. Orchids always receive attention—not only the most varied group of flowering plants in the world but also the most striking. The orchids occur in most kinds of habitats and achieve an intimate relationship with specific insects and fungi. Ladies tresses are among the most weedy of the orchids, but I would not want them thought of as weeds—they are native and highly sought after by pollinators. They are striking in their morphology and never cease to tease you into thinking there must be a dozen kinds as the number of twists and turns in the spiral orchids are bedeviling. Transplanting any of the orchids is literally an attempt to achieve a sense of deep depression and event-driven loss of common sense.

Sunflowers, including many coneflowers, black-eyed susans, rosinweeds, coreopsis, krigia dandelions, fleabanes and more, are blooming.

The mints, Monarda (beebalms) and Pycnanthemum (mountain mints), make a great show in May. They are very aromatic and tasty—a pleasure to other senses in the midst of all this visual beauty. The flowers are white to pink—2 species of each genus bloom in May(M. lindheimeri and M. fistulosa and P. muticum and P. tenuifolium), but another species in each genus will bloom in August and September. The latter blooms of August are P. albescens and M. punctata. The smells vary from camphor-like to peppermint to spearmint and other minty smells companioned with tastes. These plants contain essential oils that are toxic to many bacteria, and as such are considered medicinal plants. While some remind me of medicine, others have very pleasant smells and tastes. Other tasty plants include the Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora) with a distinctively licorice taste and smell—it blooms in August.

The milkweeds are my joy in May—they bloom as though there is no tomorrow. An essay on milkweeds was blogged earlier.

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A wet marsh south of Kinder with Helenium drummondii (Fringed sneezeweed) in the 1980s.

 

Helenium drummondii (Fringed sneezeweed) blooms in profusion in wet areas in the remnant prairie, but it has never been well-established in our gardens. Other plants that enjoy wet prairie include Physostegia intermedia and Pontedaria cordata—both remain in the garden, but they are not flourishing. Lots of other plants, including the candyroots and several carnivorous plants, are common in the prairies, but have not established in the gardens.

By the end of May, few pollinators remain. The causes may be many, but I suspect that the overhead activity of cropdusting airplanes and their drifting insecticides and herbicides are among the major causes for this drastic decline. As a result, few seeds are produced—most notable to me when examining the milkweeds. By summer’s end, the pollinators have returned.

May includes Mother’s Day, with the peak bloom of daylilies and gladiolas in the conventional southern garden. In the Cajun Prairie Gardens, I have used daylilies (Hemerocallis) as accent plants in some of these meadows—exotic plants are not generally recommended. Daylilies bloom from April to July in the Cajun Prairie Gardens. Unlike the Midwest, where daylilies have become somewhat weedy and escaped, in Louisiana, these plants appear to not be an escapee problem. Because the plants are beautiful, edible and highly useful to the gardener, I choose to use these plants. The plants respond well to mowing in summer and burning in winter. Their varieties are nearly inexhaustible, both in form and color. Also on the non-prairie view, May provides an explosion of zinnias and cosmos for my and my butterfly’s pleasures—these pleasures extend into September and further if weather permits.

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Erythrina herbacea (Mamou).

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The native herb Mamou in all of its glorious bloom. This hummingbird-pollinated, medicinal plant has a root system like a tree and is more commonly found in the edges of the gallery forests and prairie, but it is a great grower in the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The plant is celebrated in a book by Bill Reese and Charles Allen. The chemical in its seed and roots is a blood thinner, which my Mom used in a syrup to act as an expectorant and phlegm-buster–now considered too dangerous to use. Photo requested by Terry Erwin.

 

 

The month ends with the first blooms of Hibiscus moscheutos var. lasiocarpos (Crimsoneyed rose-mallow)—a plant that takes over the view in the Louisiana Iris marsh during June and July. Ipomoea sagittata (Salt marsh morning-glory)—a beautiful blue-purple-flowered vine grows among the Hibiscus. Masses of Ludwigia spp. (Water primroses) grow and bloom bright yellow open blooms beneath the Hibiscus and the morning-glories.

Hibiscus pic

A preview of the marsh in the Cajun Prairie Gardens in June. More than a thousand Hibiscus bloom. The yellow flowers in the foreground are Ludwigia sp.

 

What was blooming in the Cajun Prairie Gardens on May 1, 2015?

  1. Tradescantia spp.
  2. Scutellaria integrifolia
  3. Silphium gracile
  4. *Iris brevicaulis. (Louisiana Iris)
  5. *Asclepias tuberosa
  6. *Asclepias perennis
  7. *Asclepias lanceolata
  8. Gaura lindheimeri
  9. Callirhoe papaver
  10. Baptisia alba
  11. Orbexilum psoraliodes
  12. Orbexilum simplex
  13. Baptisia sphaerocarpa
  14. Physostegia intermedia
  15. Asclepias viridis
  16. *Phlox pilosa
  17. *Allium mobilense
  18. *Allium canadense
  19. *Erythrina herbacea
  20. Stachys floridana
  21. Sisyrinchium (red flowers)
  22. *Echinacea pallida
  23. *Rudbeckia hirta
  24. *Prunella vulgaris
  25. *Cicuta maculata
  26. Coreopsis lanceolata
  27. *Mimosa hystricina
  28. *Crinum americanum
  29. *Ludwigia sp.
  30. *Ruellia spp.
  31. Oenothera speciosa
  32. Polytaenia nuttallii
  33. Lobelia appendiculata
  34. Euphorbia corallata
  35. Buchnera floridana
  36. Erigeron strigosus
  37. Erigeron annuus
  38. Herbertia lahue
  39. Penstamon spp.
  40. Pycnanthemum tenuifolium
  41. Pycnanthemum muticum

*first bloom apparent.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gl5wzHjzvMk WOW! Great video. Thanks to Larry Allain for passing it along to me!

Posted by M. F. Vidrine 012716 (malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com)

 

April

 

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A view of the Cajun Prairie Gardens from the highway (HWY 91) toward our home. The foreground is covered in Coreopsis and Tradescantia while the background is mainly Baptisia.

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Gail immersed in a sea of Coreopsis and Baptisia along Highway 91 edge of the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

 

April brings height to the prairie as it reaches 2 feet and in some areas it reaches 3 feet—by May it will be 3 feet in general and reaching 4-5 in select species (the title page photograph by Marc Pastorek depicts M. Vidrine with several guests in the Cajun Prairie Gardens in April 2013).

April is the month of the splashes—Baptisia (Wild indigoes), Tradescantia (Spiderworts), Polytaenia (Prairie parsley) and Coreopsis (tickseeds) are on dry prairie and Iris spp. (Louisiana irises), Iris virginica (Blue flag), Cicuta (Water hemlock), Hymenocallis (Spiderlily) and Amsonia (Bluestar) are in the wet prairie. But these are simply the large and striking species. A previous essay on Louisiana Iris focuses on these magnificent plants.

April is the month when Easter is generally celebrated. The Wild indigoes were used to dye the eggs for pocking, thus the plants were often referred to Pock-Pock plants. Boiling eggs with their leaves resulted in a yellow egg. Early in the month, Baptisia sphaerocarpa and B. bracteata laevicaulis prevail, while in the later part of the month, B. alba prevails, this later species appears to prefer a wetter habitat than the others. Baptisia nuttalliana also occurs in the dry prairie and blooms in the mid-month—it is uncommon in the gardens. A northern blue flowering species (B. australis) can also be grown, but it is short-lived in my experience and not a species of the Cajun Prairie.

Cirsium horridulum (Bull thistle) blooms in lanes and disturbed prairies as a short-lived, fire-hating species. It is important as a host plant for the Painted lady butterfly and as an excellent nectar plant for pollinators, but it is indeed horrid in its aftermath as a spiny and rather unattractive weedy plant in its senescent stages. It can be abundant in lawns, as it was during the first couple of years in the Cajun Prairie Gardens, but it readily disappeared with the regimen of fire management. Several plants now appear along trails and in disturbed areas created by fire ants or crayfish or man. Its flowers are however a pure delight to gaze upon, and the stem and root are good sources of water on a hot spring day—avoid the thorns!

Asclepias viridis (Green antelopehorn milkweed) blooms near the end of the month. Monarchs arrive as early as March 13 in my records and begin laying eggs on emerging milkweeds—they incredibly find them when they are a mere inch in height. The eggs hatch a week or so later and the plant has grown to 6 inches and put out numerous leaves, which then serve as a vegetarian delight for the growing caterpillar. It will take the better part of 3 weeks for the caterpillar to grow and form a pupa and another 10 days to form a butterfly. Almost a month from egg to adult, but this is temperature dependent and of course food dependent. If the caterpillars run out of food, they leave the plant in search of new milkweeds—several reports of caterpillars eating other plants have occurred, and some of these caterpillars have completed their life cycle. More often than not, the caterpillars that leave the milkweeds encounter a dim outcome. Fortunately, the prairie gardens, at least the Cajun Prairie Gardens now has more than 200 milkweed plants growing in it. The Eunice project has only a mere dozen milkweed plants at present, in spite of an effort to transplant hundreds of plants during the early years of restoration.

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Physostegia intermedia.

Physostegia intermedia (Obedient plants; Slender false dragonheads) blooms from April to the end of May. By the end of June, P. digitalis (Obedient plants; finger false dragonheads) blooms, while late August to early October, P. virginiana spp. praemorsa (Obedient plants) bloom. This seasonality of species within a genus blooming is not uncommon. We see the same in Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, Baptisia, Helianthus, Monarda, Pycnanthemum, Liatris, and more species. At variance there are a number of species that rebloom several times during the year, e. g., many milkweeds, Hibiscus, etc. Other species simply have long blooming seasons, e. g., Gaura lindheimeri, Silphium gracile, Eryngium yuccifolium, Helianthus mollis, etc.

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Herbertia lahue.

Small Iris relatives, Sisyrinchium spp. (Blue-eyed grasses) and Herbertia lahue (Prairienymph) bloom along with the big irises; however, they prefer somewhat drier sites in the prairie. Whereas Sisyrinchium is abundant, Herbertia is relatively uncommon. Also prairie lilies, Hypoxis and Cooperia, bloom in drier areas than their cousin, Hymenocallis—an amaryllid. Wild onions(Allium) and Nothoscordum are also blooming profusely. These onions or garlics provide good smells and tastes to those wishing to bring them into the kitchen. Crinum americanum (Swamp lily)  blooms next month. Although several efforts were made to transplant species of the genus Aletris (Colicroots—both the yellow and white species), success eluded us.

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Iris virginica (on either side of the walk in the foreground) and a variety of Louisiana irises scattered about in the wet portions of the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

The mints are developing, but blooms are expected in May. Monarda and Pycnanthemum species provide grand smells and tastes to the prairie explorer. Avoid tasting other plants, especially Cicuta maculata (Water hemlock) in the prairie garden, although Black swallowtail caterpillars may be enjoying its leaves as well as those of Prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttalliana).

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Calypogon oklahomensis in the Fenton Prairie remnant.

Calypogon oklahomensis (Bearded or Oklahoma grass pink orchid) blooms in late March to early April. The little orchid with a large flower is very rare and probably extirpated in the Cajun Prairie, where it was fairly common south of Fenton. Some of the original material from that site was sent to me by the author of the species. I planted these in my gardens, where they bloomed for several years and slowly disappeared one by one. A single plant bloomed in 2014, but it failed to reappear in 2015. Dr. Charles Allen reports this species as locally abundant at several sites in the Kisatchie National Forest and Fort Polk on slopes in contrast to its close relative and larger orchid, C. tuberosa (Grass pink orchid), which appears to prefer wet habitats. This big sister grass pink orchid blooms a little later in the bogs and savannahs of southwestern Louisiana, especially common at Fort Polk and in the Kisatchie National Forests to the northwest of the Cajun Prairie.

Whereas, the Texas Hill Country prairie gardens (think Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, Winecups, etc.) are Spring-loaded (March-June) in their blooms and the Midwest prairie gardens (Iowa, Minnesota & Wisconsin) are Summer-loaded (late May- early September), the Cajun Prairie Gardens are loaded by month from early April to late October (in some years, late March to early November), and you can include the entire winter if you love big grasses! Here is an abbreviated list of significant plants (genera; note that one species may be blooming in one month and another in the next) are part of the blooming bursts of color:
April = Baptisia, Iris, Coreopsis, Tradescantia, Amsonia, Hymenocallis, Physostegia
May = Asclepias, Rudbeckia, Mimosa, Phlox, Monarda, Echinacea, Silphium, Callirhoe, Pycnanthemum, Baptisia
June = Hibiscus, Physostegia, Silphium, Pycnanthemum, Asclepias, Chamescrista, Tephrosia, Rudbeckia, Gaura
July = Eryngium, Hibiscus, Physostegia, Silphium, Coreopsis
August = Liatris, Arnoglossum, Silphium, Helianthus, Vernonia, Physostegia, Pycnanthemum, Rudbeckia, Asclepias
September = Liatris, Agalinis, Bidens, ‘Asters,’ Eupatorium, Physostegia, Vernonia
October = Solidago, ‘Asters’, Helianthus, Conoclinium

What plants were blooming in the Cajun Prairie Gardens on April 1, 2015?
1. Claytonia viriginica
2. Ranunculus spp.
3. Oxalis spp. (red and yellow flowered varieties)
4. Hypoxis hirsuta
5. Nothoscordum bivalve
6. Tradescantia spp.
7. Sisyrinchium spp.
8. Senecio glabella
9. Erigeron philadelphicus
10. Coreopsis spp.
11. Rubus spp.
12. Krigia dandelion
13. Salvia lyrata
14. *Baptisia spp. (the yellow flowered species)
15. *Scutellaria parva
16. *Hymenocallis liriosme
17. *Amsonia tabernaemontana
18. Houstonia (blue and white flowered varieties)
19. Vicia ludoviciana
20. Rumex crispa
21. Oenothera spp.
22. Cirsium horridulum
23. *Polytaenia nuttalliana
24. *Anemone caroliniana
25. *Viola sagittata
26. Lamium amplexicaulis
27. Sonchus sp.
28. *Silphium gracile

29. Valerianella radiata
30. *Iris virginica
31. *Iris spp. (Louisiana irises)

*first blooms apparent

If you want to learn how to identify plants and get into plant ecology:
Get a copy of Louisiana Wildflower Guide by Charles Allen, Kenneth Wilson and Harry Winters from Dr. Allen at http://www.nativeventures.net  or at native@camtel.net
or attend one of his PLANT IDENTIFICATION WORKSHOPS at Allen Acres.

 

As an additional reference, the plant photo section from The Cajun Prairie Restoration Journal (1995) is here provided as a downloadable document.

Plant Photos from 1995

Posted by M. F. Vidrine 012015 malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com

March: A Million Flowers A Day

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The Louisiana State University Eunice (LSUE) prairie garden in mid-March. The LSUE project was originated by Charles Allen and Malcolm Vidrine under the auspices of Chancellor Michael Smith in 1990–a year after the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice.

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Basal rosettes and sprouts in early March. Baptisia sphaerocarpa (Yellow wild indigo) is in the center, Monarda fistulosa (Bee balm) in on the middle bottom, and several grasses and other forbs are scattered about.

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Late March sprouts of Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed) at the center of the view–other plants are sprouting and filling in the view.

 

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A view of a portion of the Cajun Prairie Gardens centering on the cluster of Hymenocallis liriosme (Fragrant spider-lily)–this is the first day of the year that I estimated a million obvious flowers were blooming; however many are smaller than these huge spider lily blooms.

March is the month that the prairie literally jumps out of the ground. By the end of March (March 20th in warm years), the prairie is roughly one foot tall, green and vibrant with one million flowers blooming each day in the Cajun Prairie Gardens and probably many millions more in the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice. ‘A Million Flowers a Month’ is a potential subtitle for the book, as this condition lasts through the year until early November and in warm years probably until the first day of December. Really, it should be a million flowers a day, but the ‘million flowers a month’ because it rolls off the tongue more pleasantly.

The month begins with basal rosettes, which appeared in February, taking on their identities and flushing out new leaves and in some cases flowering scapes and flower buds. By mid-month, the entire surface of the prairie is readying for the first flush of flowers. Early bloomers are apparent including Nothoscordum, Houstonia, Coreopsis, Tradescantia, Claytonia, and more.

The month ends with that first explosion of blooms led by Baptisia, Hymenocallis and Amsonia. By the 30th of the month, a million flowers are obvious in the Cajun Prairie Gardens, and the bloom season is off to the races. The Baptisia (4 spp. of Wild indigo) are mainly in the dry prairie and literally overwhelm the beautiful view with their lupine-like bloom spires. Hymenocallis liriosme (Fragrant spider-lily) and Amsonia tabernaemontana (Eastern blue-star) occupy areas between the Louisiana iris rhizomes and provide extraordinary views of white spider-lilies mixed with blue-purple spires of blue-stars. Open areas are crowded with Coreopsis spp. (C. gladiata (Coastalplain tickseed), C. lanceolata (Lance-leaf tickseed) and C. pubescens (Star tickseeds)) and Tradescantia spp. (3 spp. of Spiderworts). Other areas have Claytonia virginica (Narrow-leaf spring-beauty), Viola lanceolata and Viola sagittata (Violets), Oxalis spp.(Violet and Yellow wood sorrels), Hypoxis hirsuta (Eastern yellow star-grass), Ranunculus spp. (at least 5 species of Buttercups), Anemone caroliniana (Carolina anemone), and Scutellaria parviflora (Small skullcap). Roadside ditches and disturbed areas are covered with blooming Erigeron philadelphicus (Philadelphia fleabane) and Pakera (formerly Senecio) glabella (Butterweed)—the roadside ditch winter plants of south Louisiana.

Counting species using basal rosettes within areas, e. g., quarter meter square, gives you an idea of diversity. In these gardens, an average of 10 species is found, while in the prairie remnants, an average of 40 species is found; thus these gardens may look like prairie but they are at best about 25% as diverse per unit area. Nature is so much more than we can conceive.

I am reminded of the drop of water examination in a general biology class, where we as students each brought in a water sample from a pond or ditch or stream for examination. I expected a few small items, but the drop was filled with dozens of different kinds of organisms. As a grownup, I had the opportunity to study mosquito populations in rice fields as a research scientist. I routinely brought a hand lens and bottles with me. I was using a white dipper to count mosquito larvae—a standard practice—and the white dipper served as an excellent background to see thousands of other living things in the water. I brought samples back to the lab and identified the various protists, rotifers, insects, mites, clam shrimps, cladocera, worms and much more. I (with my friends Roy E. McLaughlin and Osborne R. Willis)  was even lucky enough to discover a new species of colonial rotifer that I named after my college professor who guided me toward my Master’s Degree, Dr. Nell Causey. The species is now known as Conochilopsis causeyae—and is now considered a new genus as well. This rotifer is considered to represent an ancestral group to the other colonial rotifers and is only known from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and New Zealand—the latter record is not mine.

A similar condition exists for soil—microscopic examination of a teaspoon of soil from a natural habitat contains thousands of species and millions of organisms from bacteria to fungi to minute protists, algae, and animals. We literally have no idea as to the true diversity underfoot—but we can start to recognize the diversity among our organisms that resemble us in size and work our way down to the microscopic.

A final comment on the large pea plants known as the wild indigoes or pock-pock plants–their leaves were used to dye eggs a canary yellow for Easter pocking activities–I always think of these as my Mom did in that these are the signs of the Easter season. Large plants of Baptisia spp. (wild indigo or false indigo) often obscure many of the smaller plants. Their blooming spires, usually erect, are lupine-like (B. sphaerocarpa). Less obvious and more likely found in gallery forest edges is a less spectacular species (B. nuttalliana). These early species are yellow in color. One species, B. bracteata, has several varieties with prostrate spires with blooms literally laying out over the surface of the ground—these are extraordinary and actually my favorite among the group. Baptisia australis, the famous blue flowered species, is found in north and western prairies but not in the Cajun Prairie. Its close relative, B. alba, has white flowers and has an affiliation with wetter parts of the prairie, although it grows well in the drier locations in my experiences. In the gardens, these species appear to hybridize producing some interesting sports that may become good garden varieties. The prairie has numerous plant species that have become garden plants in the horticultural industry—knowing something about the lineages of these plants gives the gardener a sense of understanding how man and nature can interact to produce beautiful and useful plants.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine 011416 malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com

Milkweeds (and Monarchs)

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Gail in the milkweed container garden.

 

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Monarch butterfly visiting a Cajun Prairie Few-Flowered (Red) Milkweed

 

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Pollinator bees on Cajun Prairie Butterflyweed

While there are some 70 kinds of milkweeds in North America, only a dozen are found in south Louisiana, with 8 of these in the Cajun Prairie grasslands—several other species are found in the marsh along the coast or in the gallery forests. A commercially grown exotic species, Asclepias curassavica (Scarlet, Blood, Brazilian, Tropical or Mexican milkweed), can be purchased even at local big box stores when they are available—however, they do not like our winters and may die or die back and not be up and growing when the Monarchs arrive in April. So let’s talk natives and not worry about winters. Our natives die back to the ground in winter—they can also be mowed twice a year to stimulate new growth, blooming and fresh food for caterpillars/larvae of our Monarchs. The native species are up and readily available for Monarchs in the spring as they are co-evolutionarily timed to appear synchronously with the arrival of the butterflies.

Cajun Prairie species:

*Asclepias amplexicaulis      Claspingleaf (Blunt-leaf) milkweed
*Asclepias humistrata            Coastal milkweed
Asclepias lanceolata                Fewflowered (Red) milkweed
Asclepias longifolia                 Longleaf milkweed
Asclepias obovata                    Pineland milkweed
Asclepias perennis                  Aquatic (Shore) milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa                   Butterflyweed
*Asclepias variegata               White (Redring) milkweed
Asclepias verticillata              Whorled milkweed
Asclepias viridiflora               Green Comet milkweed
Asclepias viridis                      Green (Antelopehorn) milkweed

*Not found in the open prairies and marshes, but in adjacent forests and along the coast in sandy areas—these areas are within the Cajun Prairie ecosystem.

Milkweed distributions for the United States are provided at:
http://bonap.net/NAPA/TaxonMaps/Genus/County/Asclepias .

A good guide to the milkweeds is available as a PDF from Texas Parks and Wildlife: https://www.wildflower.org/plants/TPWD-Identification-Milkweeds-Texas.pdf .

Milkweeds have a great history. They were used as medicinals; their silk was used in a variety of ways; they are tremendous ornamentals; and they are host to a wide variety of organisms, most notably the Monarch and Queen butterflies.

Growing our native milkweeds has been difficult, but we at the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society have figured out how to do this with good success. At the Cajun Prairie Gardens, I have grown plants from seeds for the last 4 years with good success. The plants were then transplanted into the soil in my gardens, where they grew well and are now in good health and host Monarch larvae. I suggest that you do as I did and grow several species of milkweeds in your yard and garden—yes they can be grown along with your vegetables, but not if you use pesticides—it is then best to not grow milkweeds and invite Monarchs into a deadly zone, where the larvae will surely die.

My article on growing milkweeds is available from me as seen on the Coastal Prairie Partnership website:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4sa2oTIBeujTGFueXJ2a3J0WWktbHZQekxVN3hCT3doZWg4/edit?usp=sharing&pli=1 .
An excellent pdf file on growing milkweeds can be downloaded at the Xerces Website:
http://www.xerces.org/milkweeds-a-conservation-practitioners-guide/ .

The loss of Monarchs is coincident and correlated with the loss of pollinators and what is called ‘colony collapse disorder’ in honeybees. The loss of native plants/habitat by the intensive use of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other biocides in general is further complicated by the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), e.g., Roundup-ready crops like corn, soybeans and rice, where the use of herbicides is exponentially increased. Add to this the use of Roundup essentially as a defoliate in wheat at harvest time and the use of Atrazine, the second most commonly used herbicide and another endocrine disruptor. This has led to a new paradigm in agriculture. The development of the corn-based ethanol production has exacerbated the development of ordinarily unused habitat (wildscapes) with milkweeds and the overall increase in cropland. The new agricultural paradigm and the growing urbanization of the Cajun Prairie (Midwestern and Texas coastal prairies) are collectively threatening the survival of both the milkweeds and the Monarchs. Thus, opening our minds to the plight of the milkweeds and Monarchs is a prelude to the recognition of the dire straits that nature itself has slid into. We must act locally in order to alter the global changes that are likely to fall upon us.

We are currently changing wildscape habitat (6,000 acres per day) that minimally has weedy milkweeds into lawn, which provides no milkweeds at all. The opening of our lawns to milkweeds companioned with the abstinence from pesticide use, including neonicotinoids, will make these lawns home to the milkweeds and the Monarchs that will follow. We can install beautiful milkweeds in our lawns and create habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of species of bees and other insects and birds.

In Texas, environmental and educational organizations are teaming up with MonarchWatch to carry out a literal crusade (Bring Back the Monarchs: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/ ).

Doris Durbin Heard recently reported that the Asclepias tuberosa (Butterflyweed or Butterfly milkweed), the strikingly beautiful red-orange-yellow emblem of the prairie, was selected to be the ‘2014 Plant of the Year of the Garden Club of America’ in her note on page 15 in the June-July issue of the Garden Club magazine.

In Louisiana, the movement is beginning. Wendy Caldwell and Karen Oberhauser presented an article on Monarchs and milkweeds and promoted their preservation and restoration through the Monarch Joint Venture, a U. S. Forest Service effort, in the Louisiana Wildlife Insider, an online publication with beautiful illustrations available from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (http://monarchjointventure.org/images/uploads/documents/2013_summer_wildlife_insider_lo-res.pdf ).

Linda Auld, the Bug Lady, has provided thousands of seeds of the Brazilian milkweed and some native milkweeds for growing Monarchs. She has recently accelerated her effort with Project Monarch—an effort to promote milkweed and Monarch preservation by growing butterfly gardens.

For general milkweed gardening, Pat Sutton in her article at: http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/milkweed-for-monarchs/ discusses planting milkweeds from your region.

Susanne Dingwell also writes at her page a wonderful piece on planting native milkweeds at http://nativeplantwildlifegarden.com/help-monarchs-with-the-right-milkweeds/ and provides some wonderful photographs.

The goal is to replace lawn with milkweeds and create habitat for Monarchs—every town, home, business and school should be involved. It is not necessary to replace even a large piece of lawn, just a few square feet for a start. We can join them—not by paying dues or going to meetings—by planting habitat in our yards.

What is Monarch habitat?

Monarch habitat includes:
1. milkweeds, preferably native species from the Cajun Prairie, for larval food—enough to feed at least a handful of larvae.
2. nectar plants for adult food—not only do the milkweeds serve as nectar plants but any number of other flowering plants will do, including sunflowers, asters, zinnias, lantana, buddleia, daylilies, and many more. An emphasis on growing plants that bloom profusely in October and November is essential as these will provide nectar for Monarchs migrating south to Mexico. Milkweeds are essential for the Spring migration in March, April and May.
3. no pesticides—the use of glyphosates (including Roundup), Atrazine and agent orange (a mixture of equal parts 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D) kills milkweeds. Both of these are also endocrine disruptors—possibly the most dangerous factors currently affecting the health of humans on the planet.

Again the latter 2 aspects of habitat are rather easy to do, but the first requires some knowledge and sensitivity. The life cycle of the Monarch is intimately tied to milkweeds—without them literally the Monarchs disappear, forever, and therein is the problem that we can possibly solve.

Gail and I did a talk for the Houston Arboretum (Native Plant Society of Texas: Houston Chapter) talk on April 16, 2015:
* PowerPoint <http://issuu.com/prairiepartner/docs/041615-houstonarboretummilkweeds_co/1 >.This powerpoint contains pictures of the Cajun Prairie Gardens and the milkweeds of the Cajun Prairie.
* Video:  https://vimeo.com/125218940

Barbara Keller-Willy presents Milkweed: A Dinner for Butterfly Royalty to the Houston Chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas on February 25, 2015: https://vimeo.com/120693142 .

Marc Pastorek’s comments on growing milkweeds:
https://marcpastorek.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/planting-milkweed-seed-for-monarch-butterflies-nows-the-time/ .

Doug Tallamy’s (author of Bringing Nature Home) talk on natural landscaping:

Doug’s biodiversity talk:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEhl2ZwzCr4 —this is just excellent.
Doug Tallamy 2015 talk for Wild Ones:

Doug’s emphasis is to protect nature in order to take care of birds. He notes that many people put out seeds for birds and celebrate their role in saving the songbirds; however, they totally ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room—nestlings require insects as their food. The same half measure of providing nectar plants for butterflies and ignoring host plants for caterpillars applies here. Taking care of songbirds means providing lots of habitat for insects—as a single nestling may require more than a thousand insects, e. g., caterpillars, during development. Milkweeds and many other native plants, including many trees, are vital in this role as they host the very insects that the birds need.

A lot of recent press indicts a protozoan parasite for killing Monarchs. My friend Roy McLaughlin who studied under Professor Richard R. Kudo—author of Handbook of Protozoology (https://archive.org/details/handbookofprotoz00kudo )–described the now concerning, protozoan parasite of Monarchs in this article:
McLaughlin, R.E. and J. Myers. 1970. “Ophryocystis elektroscirrha sp.n., a neogregarine pathogen of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus (L.), and the Florida queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus berenice Cramer.” Journal of Protozoology 17 (1970): 300-305. (original article). Read more about this protist at this website:
http://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/young-naturalist-awards/winning-essays2/2012-winning-essays/the-prevalence-of-ophryocystis-elektroscirrha-infections-in-the-monarch-butterfly-danaus-plexippus-a-study-of-the-protozoan-parasite-in-a-wild-population-of-western-monarchs.

This protozoan (protist) is found on milkweeds, where larval Monarchs ingest them and then succumb to these parasites. Overwintering protists can be hypothetically eliminated by cutting back the milkweeds that are contaminated. Of course, burning the prairie milkweeds eliminates the majority of these protists.

Milkweeds and their Monarchs are emblematic of the prairies, not only in symbolization but also in their disappearances. As the prairies disappear, the milkweeds, Monarchs and thousands of other species literally disappear, including many of the major pollinators. Growing a prairie is a great way to join the national movement to save the pollinators. The best way to begin is to focus on the Monarch and grow milkweeds and other nectar plants that Monarch’s use—their wide variety of nectar hosts are common native and some exotic plants that are also used by many other pollinators.

Here is a recent note by James Trager (March 1, 2016) regarding Monarch oviposition in the Midwest:

James C. Trager Mar 1, 2016

There is a bit of confusion about monarch oviposition (egg-laying) and feeding preferences. Common milkweed is the primary food of Midwestern monarch caterpillars because it is by far the most abundant and evenly distributed species, not because it is the most favored by the insect. Apparently, monarchs will lay eggs on just about any milkweed (genera Asclepias and Cynanchum), but in side by side comparisons of the most most common species in central USA, they prefer swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) above all, then common milkweed (A. syriaca) = showy milkweed (A. speciosa, of the western half of the region) > orange milkweed (A. tuberosa) > vine milkweed (C. laeve). Egg-laying females are highly attracted to tropical milkweed (A. curassavica), native to the American Tropics, and often planted in gardens, but this highly toxic milkweed actually stunts monarchs’ growth some (lower body weight and smaller relative wingspan compared to monarchs reared on other milkweeds), and there are indications there may be other detrimental effects to caterpillars growing on dense plantings of these milkweed, such as increased likelihood of disease transmission among the high populations of caterpillars that can form on them.

 

Additional note (031116):

Monarch numbers are apparently up as there were 4 hectares of trees with Monarchs this winter. Let’s hope that this huge low during the early part of March has not hurt these numbers too much. Much of northern Louisiana is under water.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine 011116 (malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com)

 

January and February

 

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The sign during the spring.

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Cajun Prairie Gardens’ signpost after the fire.

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Before the fire.

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After the fire.

 

The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project and The Cajun Prairie Gardens as classrooms demonstrate the dynamics of time and space in the changes that occur in a diverse ecosystem over time, both seasonal and through ecological succession. This essay focuses on the gardens in winter part of their cycles. Winter fire has been the primary maintenance feature of the gardens. These fires have generally occurred in January and February.

January

Bleak! Other days are bright and sunny, but the prairies are a mix of brown, red, and yellow straws—paille jaune (yellow straw) and paille rouge (red straw) were the French designations of patches of these browned grasses and forbs. Many days are windy and a circus of movement drowns out the sounds of anything else, while setting the grasses dancing.

Fire is the order of the day, but it awaits calm winds and sufficient low humidity and dry conditions in order to dispense its creative force. Once the prairie is established, fire usually creates a rather clean palette for the spring flush of growth and flowers. Fire stimulates growth of seeds and opens the area for exposure to sun such that new growth of perennials is exacerbated.

The blackened surface of the prairie will persist for only a couple of weeks; it appears as a ‘great death,’ but the underground roots and stems are alive and reorganizing in preparation for the Spring’s profusion of flowers. Some days are really different with occasional snow and ice events, but these are rare. Other than that the surface remains black absorbing every bit of sunlight’s heat in anticipation of the end of winter.

Other than burning, a series of management techniques including mowing, mass grazing and packing down are used as trial methods for controlling the massive aboveground material, which is susceptible to fire. This vulnerability to fire as well as the use of fire for management can be prohibitive in some communities for a dozen different reasons. For example, the loss of carbon to fire is problematic in some circles.

In any case, a management plan needs to be in place even before the planting of the prairie garden. The plan is affected by the size of the garden, the neighborhood, the plants chosen to be in the garden, and by far the purpose of the garden. Gardens need to have purpose; thus a set of goals should be drawn up and repeated often. Management problems will directly impact the goals and potentially change them midstream. The garden plan also needs to take into consideration the nature of the garden as a natural garden that will undergo succession. Unlike a garden of annuals, prairie gardens are comprised mainly of perennial plants—plants that take years to develop and persist for generations. This structure makes management and overall expense reasonable if you have a full palette of options on the table.

The most important part of these gardens is the gardener. Every garden needs a devoted gardener. Projects like these gardens need to be tended and maintained; although once the garden is established, the maintenance may be minimal, however significant. Wild gardens need advocates in addition to gardeners—these gardens are offensive to large swaths of people who have become distant from nature.

So January is a great time to plan a wild garden. What do you need?
1. a place that meets the minimal requirements: sun, time, acceptance.
2. a gardener who is willing to stay with the garden in good and bad times.
3. a plan for the garden both in space and time, including planting and maintenance plans.
4. a store of knowledge with a bit of expertise that will make the garden not only a naturalistic site but also a site with potential for numerous activities of man and nature.

January is also time to plant the garden. Seed can be sown anytime during the winter—many seeds require cold moist stratification, which will occur naturally if seeds are planted early in winter; usually 6 weeks of cold-damp weather will do it. Digging in propagules, roots, stems of a variety of kinds including bulbs and rhizomes, and nursery or wild grown plants provides an opportunity to get the garden off to a running start. Transplanting plugs from the wild or from prairies provide for the inoculation of the soil with microbes, insects, worms and other biota that may well be essential for the well-being of the garden and its new transplants. It is also a great time to amend an existing garden by planting new species: seeds can be planted in an area that is disturbed or by interseeding into an established area—the former may be labor intensive but is more likely to succeed in my experience. Remember that biodiversity is usually a central theme in this type of gardening, but selective addition of species is recommended as some species are rough and tough competitors.

February

In February, basal rosettes of hundreds of different species of plants will grow from apparently long dead underground stems and roots, while seedlings will emerge from a cadre of annuals and some perennials lucky enough to find bare ground—few will survive the competition with already fully grown bullies with massive root systems, which will sprout and shoot to a foot in height in a matter of weeks. These established plants shade the new leaves of seedlings and steal what moisture and nutrients were tentatively available for the new seedlings. It is a struggle from the instant of germination, but some new plants could survive and take their place among the giants.

The month usually ends with the first blooms of Nothoscordum bivalve (Crowpoison) and Houstonia spp. (bluets). In some years, a few Claytonia, Ranunculus, Tradescantia and Oxalis bloom. Senecio glabellus and Erigeron philadelphicus bloom in disturbed areas and along roadside ditches. These are the first blooms on the prairie and along the prairie edges—they are a feature in new gardens as many of these are early succession bloomers. This January (2016) is so warm that Crowpoison is blooming in the gardens.

Like January, February is good time to transplant plants into the garden. Transplants have excellent opportunities for survival. Seeds can still be planted and may have good opportunity for success. Seeded plantings usually take several years to provide much color.

February is a great month. I enjoy walking the prairies and identifying the basal rosettes. I can readily generate an imaginary image of the plants in bloom and see the prairie at its prime for each species. One of the most rewarding traits of the gardener is the ability to recognize these basal rosettes—it also makes moving plants at their optimum opportunity to survive feasible.

The end of February signals the beginning of the bloom season, and the end of the winter doldrums in the garden. Anticipation is high, and satisfaction is generally provided in the wild garden.

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Four views of the burning of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice led by Marc Pastorek and Jackie Duncan. Brian Early is seen wielding the torch in 2 views and Mac Meyers is seen carrying a water pail in another view.

 

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Clumps of Little bluestem and other basal rosettes at the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

 

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Clumps of Eastern gama grass and other basal rosettes at the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

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Among the basal rosettes and other sprouts, the first sprouts of Butterflyweed are visible. March is upon us, and the Spring explosion of blooms is just days away.

 

 

Posted by M. F. Vidrine  malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com

Time and Space: The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in pictures 25 years after installation

The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project is 25 years old. I took a series of pictures in 2013 and again in 2015 to portray the dynamic changes evident in this 10 acre garden. First, let us take a look at the project in 1994 in its sixth year of restoration as evidenced in a series of pictures in the book entitled A Cajun Prairie Restoration Journal by M. F. Vidrine, Charles M. Allen and William R. Fontenot in 1995.

Eunice praire phenology 1995

The recent pictures from 2013-2015 clearly show that the prairie has developed into a phenomenal garden, but that only makes sense when compared to the series of pictures in 1994. What follows is a mix of these recent pictures in order of months in which the pictures were taken. The rice dryer in the background will again serve as the point of focus–most pictures were taken from the bench along the concrete trails in the southeast corner of the 10 acre property.

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February 6, 2015–Controlled burn with Marc Pastorek, Jackie Duncan and Margaret Frey (pictured above).

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February 2013-fire in the prairie as a controlled burn removes the aboveground material in preparation for a new growing season.

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February 2013–the fire has prepared the site for the new growing season.

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Early March 2013.

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Mid-March 2013.

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April 2013.

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Dr. Charles Allen celebrates the arrival of Spring.

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late apr 2013

Late April 2013.

may 2013

May 2013.

jun 2013

Early June 2013.

2jun 2013

June 2013.

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Late June 2013.

2jul 2013

Early July 2013.

3jul 2013

Mid-July 2013.

early aug 2013

Early August 2013.

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Early August 2013.

aug 2013

August 2013.

2aug 2013

August 2013.

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sep 2013larry

September 2013–Larry Allain.

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September 2013.

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3lat sep 2013

Late September 2013.

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October 2013.

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oct 24 2013

October 24, 2013–Monarch on Willow Aster.

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November 2013.

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Merry Christmas from Gail and Malcolm.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine.

Louisiana Irises

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Cherry Bounce–a cultivar named by Dr. Ira Nelson and a great representative of Iris nelsonii.

 

The Cajun Prairie grades into freshwater marsh habitats along its southern border, with pockets of marsh in the prairie (marais and platin features) and pockets of prairie vegetation in the marsh on drier features (pimple mounds)—a complex of micro-relief features that permit the survival of both plants that prefer dry locations (dry feet) or wet locations (wet feet). Among the wet feet plants are the Louisiana Irises—a group of species that famously formed the largest reported iris marshes in the world, the Louisiana Gulf Coast. These irises also inhabited many wet sites in the Cajun Prairie and are as such a significant ingredient in the prairie diversity and in the prairie garden.

Five species:

Iris fulva (mainly reds, some rust, yellow and black (dark violets))
Iris giganticaerulea (mainly blues, some violets and whites)
Iris hexagona (mainly blues, some violets and whites)
Iris brevicaulis (mainly blues, some violets and whites)
Iris nelsonii (mainly reds, but some rust, yellow, black, white, blue/violet).

1. Iris fulva—this ‘red’ iris is considered the only truly red iris in the world. It is supposed to be pollinated by hummingbirds in contrast to the variety of bumble bees that pollinate the majority of the other irises. This short species (usually less than 3 feet in height) was common in the Atchafalaya Basin and north in the Mississippi River drainages into Illinois. These bloom in early April in the Cajun Prairie Gardens. Varieties derived from I. fulva appear to prefer some shade or uneven sunny exposure even during the blooming season, whereas most of the other varieties prefer full sunny exposure. Several varieties of yellow and black flower colored forms are very short and barely reach a foot in height.

2. Iris giganticaerulea—this ‘giant blue’ iris may reach 6 feet in height. It was widely distributed in the freshwater marshes and even into the salt marshes along the Louisiana coast. These vast marshes contained millions of these irises and formed the largest iris marshes in the world. Even a green (greenish-white) flowered iris has been hybridized. These bloom in early April in the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

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Iris giganticaerulea–the giant blue Louisiana Iris and a few Professor Neil, a Joe Mertzweiller tetraploid cultivar.

3. Iris hexagona—this ‘giant blue’ iris is just a bit less impressive in height than I. giganticaerulea. It is difficult to separate from its sister species, but it does have an obviously different bloom time. These bloom in late April in the Cajun Prairie Gardens.

4. Iris brevicaulis—this ‘Zig-Zag’ blue ‘short-stemmed iris’ has decidedly bent stalks at the bud positions. It is usually less than 2 feet in height and commonly attains a height of no more than one foot. These bloom in early May in the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The late blooming makes them hard to locate in the wild—I usually found them in the Winter as green leaves. Each prairie remnant that Charles Allen and I routinely visited had at least one clump of these irises, although we never saw them in bloom as they were generally shaded among shrubs or trees in wetter areas and seldom bloomed but rather formed fairly large clumps (>3 feet in diameter).

5. Iris nelsoni—some contend that this is Louisiana’s only endemic native unique to the state. These bloom in early April in the Cajun Prairie Gardens.
This iris is considered to be a natural hybrid between I. fulva and I. giganticaerulea with a small amount of genetic material from I. brevicaulis that was geographically isolated from the original genetic parents for sufficient time to be considered as a separate species; however, it hybridizes with the other species with little difficulty (The Louisiana Iris—both first and second editions were prepared by members of the Society of Louisiana Irises and are indispensible for anyone wishing to grow these native plants in order to gain a full measure of their variety and importance). It usually looks more like a ‘giant fulva’ and was called ‘super fulva’ –this is one of the many common names, including “Abbeville iris, Abbeville red, and Abbeville yellow.” Abbeville is a community in southern Louisiana at the edge of the Cajun Prairie—the prairie merges with the freshwater marshes just south of the community. The irises were first discovered in this area (and are believed to be restricted to this area) and made famous by W. B. MacMillan (famous local hybridizer who lived in Abbeville) and Ira Nelson (Professor of Horticulture at University of Louisiana Lafayette—formerly SLI and USL). The variety in flower color, growing habits and ease of hybridizing made it the focus of Louisiana iris hybridization.

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Jeri–a cultivar by Neil Berinot.

Each species is different in size, shape, color varieties and blooming times in the Cajun Prairie. The first bloom usually appears at the very top of the plant (terminal position) and presents itself most dramatically. I must confess that this first bloom is always my favorite. I would grow plants just for that first bloom—it is that impressive. The plants also differ in the number of bud positions—the number varies from one to 6 bud positions, with usually 2 flowers per bud position. Natural and man-made hybrids have muddied these character states and vary greatly in their reproductive and vegetative potential. Many wild-collected varieties are among the great growers and are prolific in reproductive and vegetative propagation. They usually bloom in unison and thus provide a very short-lived show for the gardener, but it is perfect for the pollinators, which are drawn by the ‘show’ and have ready access to many flowers for nectar—this also greatly enhances chances for pollination of the flowers. Thus in nature, it not uncommon to see a large area in bloom one week and only remnants of blooms the next week. Over a span of 3 weeks, the first week has few blooms and lots of flower stalks pregnant with flower buds, a second week with awesome blooms (flowers remain open for 2 days; flowers are paired at nodes with usually 2 or 3 nodes; flowers open sequentially, and thus usually all blooms are done in as few as 8-10 days), and a third week with the final blooms—many lower on the stems. The initial flowers to open are usually the ones on top (terminal position) of the spade (stalk)—hundreds to thousands of these blooming at one time makes the maximum show.

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Black Widow–my favorite Louisiana Iris–an early hybrid of Iris nelsonii by W. B. MacMillan.

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Dixie Deb–a cultivar provided by Frank Chowning.

Hybridizing these irises has become a major interest not only in Louisiana but also in California and many northern states. It also has become a major interest in Australia—the irises bloom there in our autumn (their spring) as their seasons are the inverse of ours. All of these irises have been used in the hybridizing programs. Tetraploids have been developed and are now a significant part of the industry. In the last couple of decades, hybrids between these Louisiana Irises and Virginia Irises (I. virginica) have been made. The only color in the spectrum (ROYGBIV) that does not naturally occur in the irises is clear orange, but a variety of hybrids exist that now closely approach if not satisfy the description. I always refer to daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) when I talk about flower colors, because the opposite problem exists in their color range in that there is no clear, bright blue daylily, but there are a myriad of red, orange, yellow, purple, black and white daylilies; this is due to the lack of the pigment anthocyanin. The daylilies however typically bloom just a couple of weeks after the irises peak around April 15th, except for a variety that I was given years ago and long forgot the name, so I called it ‘April Fool Orange,’ because it bloomed on April Fool Day on 2 consecutive years in the early 2000s; thus it blooms at the same time as the early to mid-season Louisiana Irises on some years and therefore giving the garden the entire range of color from black to white including ROYGBIV. Varying amounts of green are obvious in white and yellow flowers; green is an unusual color for flowers in most plants.

By the way, I had grown and divided out some 40 plants of the ‘April Fool Orange,’ but I arrived home after a day of teaching only to discover that someone had visited my garden and dug these plants—all 40 of them as they were the first of my daylilies in bloom on this early spring day. Fortunately, I had a couple planted in another area and still have a few, but I now am well aware that extraordinary plants are difficult to cultivate in privacy in an open yard. I once had a circle of Phlox that was 6 feet in diameter on the corner of my gardens—these disappeared one spring day—again dug while in full bloom. I knew something was wrong as I drove by the garden, but it took a couple of minutes to comprehend the change. On several occasions, the Butterflyweeds (Asclepias tuberosa) were attacked when in full bloom, but their deep root systems protected them from complete disappearance. I have been lucky in that several visitors have come to look at the Louisiana Irises when they were in full bloom, but they took only small pieces such that I lost no significant clumps to their adventures.

There are now more than a thousand varieties of Louisiana Irises available in the trade. A number of wild collected varieties are still popular—I have many of these as my garden is a wilderness—but the more tame, highly derived varieties do not survive and grow with vigor after a few years of being treated as wildings.

Other members of the family Iridaceae in the Cajun Prairie include Habertia lahue (Prairie nymphs) and Sisyrinchium spp. (Blue-eyed grasses). Iris virginica (Viriginia Iris or Blue flag) and a number of other species are reported from Louisiana.

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Violet Ray–a cultivar provided by Caroline Dormon.

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Cajun Sunrise–a cultivar provided by Joe Mertzweiller.

Gardening with Louisiana Iris

1. Louisiana irises bloom over a 6 week period (the first bloom of plants may appear at the end of March thru early May in Louisiana = first half of Spring) in the Cajun Prairie Gardens. There are 3 basic groups based upon the appearance of the first blooms: early, mid and late season, with each group usually blooming for 2 weeks or so. Do you want all of the irises to bloom at the same time for maximum ‘flush of flowering’ effect, or do you want to spread the bloom season over the entire period?
2. Louisiana irises come in 3 basic heights: tall (> 3 feet; some reach 6 feet), medium (2-3 feet) and short (< 2 feet; some are less than one foot). Do you want all the irises to be of similar height for maximum effect? Do you want to plan a bed with taller irises in back and short irises in front?
3. Louisiana irises come in wild-collected varieties and hybridized varieties. In my experience, hybridizing has resulting in spectacular irises, but they appear to lose some vigor compared to the wild-collected varieties. Which do you prefer?
4. Each variety of Louisiana irises has a typical number of bud positions—the number affects not only the number of flowers but also the length of the blooming season as flowers tend to open one at a time spaced out at 2 apart. Thus a stem of an individual plant with 2 bud positions should produce 4 flowers over a 6-8 day period, and a stem with 3 bud positions should produce 6 flowers over an 8-12 day period, and a stem with 4 bud positions should produce 8 flowers over a 10-14 day period, and so on. Select varieties in part based upon not only their blooming time—the time of the appearance of the first bloom—but also upon the number of the bud positions. The plant stems with many bud positions do fall over more often than those with fewer bud positions. Wild collected irises usually had 2 bud positions—in fact early hybridizers spent a great deal of time searching for plants with greater numbers of bud positions and made this one of the major hybridizing features. Massive blooms from multi-budded plants may be a bit unruly—there are drawbacks from having too many flowers. What is your preference in numbers of bud positions? Remember—my favorite bloom is the first bloom, so a single bud position is enough to blow my mind—you get 2 flowers from the terminal bud that bloom sequentially, i. e., one after the other with a day or so between the 2 blooms.
5. Louisiana irises, like daylilies, have been manipulated to form tetraploids (they are natural diploids). These tetraploids are usually taller and more robust with larger and thicker stalks and blooms. Are you interested in tetraploids?
6. Louisiana irises form a rainbow of colors from white to black, including the common blues, purple, yellows, reds, orange blends, and even greens. What colors are you interested in? The flowers also may appear in half a dozen different forms (open, cartwheel, ruffled, pendent, recurved, doubled and more) and vary in color presentation (self (standards and falls are the same color), bicolor, bitone, edged and more). What flower varieties might do best in your garden plan?
7. What habitat are you planning, a raised bed or a pond-side garden? These irises do grow in raised beds that are well-watered and perform magnificently. They apparently do prefer heavy feeding with manure and/or some commercial fertilizer in the Fall and Winter. And they love water features in their habitat, but the water should not be so deep as to cover their leaves through their entire length for many days—shallow damp to wet sites are recommended for long term cultivation.
8. Louisiana irises are green in winter and spring, and brown in summer and fall. You can use Roundup on them in late summer when the plants are brown in order to get a pure stand and reduce competition.
9. Since their bloom season is brief, they probably function best when inter-planted with other plants. If you want to grow them with other plants, the following plants are recommended in Louisiana: Hemerocallis (daylilies), native Crinum americanum (American lilies), Asclepias (Milkweeds), Amsonia (Blue stars), Rudbeckia texana (Texas brown-eved susans), Hydrolea ovata (Blue waterleafs), Pontedaria cordata (Pickerelweed), Physostegia (Obedient plants), Hymenocallis (Spiderlilies), Arnoglossum (Indian plantains), Helenium (Sneezeweeds) and Rhexia mariana (Maryland meadow beauties). Iris virginica (Blue flags) can also be grown with them, but it is a bit aggressive.
10. Avoid the exotic Iris pseudacorus (Yellow flags) as they are overly aggressive, take over and kill Louisiana iris by lifting them out of the substrate where they either dry out or get burned by the sun.
11. Some of the red varieties, e.g., I. fulva and I. nelsonii, appear to need some shade during the afternoon. Most varieties tolerate full sun and thrive. Exposure of rhizomes to directly sunlight may damage them; thus, mulching in Summer is recommended. Some mulching in Winter may not be harmful.
12. Plants should be divided and replanted every 5 years for maximum display. They are heavy feeders and need manure or fertilizer. If they are not fed, they typically begin to consume themselves, and you will see the clump begin to shrink in size.
13. The Louisiana irises do not compete well with trees and grasses.
14. Normally, Louisiana irises double in size each year, i.e., double the number of fans. Good treatment will usually enhance results. Severe drought, heavy competition and other adverse conditions will reverse this normal pattern, and the plants may well consume themselves in order to survive. After 20 years, many of my iris clumps had shrunk to a single rhizome as a result of the wildness in my prairie.
15. Plants that are not doing well will cease to bloom or bloom sporadically, although they may grow vegetatively and not only form but also maintain a clump. I have some clumps that have not bloomed for 5 years—probably due to my lack of feeding them and the adverse affects of competition and summer droughts in the prairie garden; nonetheless, they persist and may do so for decades.

Field Test of Louisiana Irises

Two views of the Cajun Prairie Gardens’ Iris marsh in April 2001–more than 200 irises were planted in a low-lying marsh-like area (a third of an acre). The irises made their maximum display of blooms in 2001, where they displayed more than 2000 scapes. Over the next 10 years, little care was provided, and the marsh remained dry during summers and little fertilizer was applied–the irises consumed themselves such that only a hundred different kinds remain with most of them blooming only a single scape in 2015. However, the plants that survived this naturalization in situ are those that I advise growing in prairie gardens. I have reduced the size of the prairie iris garden to the area around the gazebo as seen here in 2015. The large iris marsh is now an area predominated by Hibiscus as seen in an earlier post.

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Gail and Caroline in the Iris garden on Easter Day (2014).

 

Posted by M. F. Vidrine (malcolmvidrine@yahoo.com).

Time and Space: A Single View Through the Year

jan 2013 ice and snow

View of Cajun Prairie Gardens from Highway 91 toward our home on January 2013 after an ice and snow storm.

The best way to look at a landscape is to view it through space and time. If you take a single view and look upon it at different times of the year, a story reveals itself before your eyes. In this essay, I will show you a single view during a year (2015) so as to reveal its ever-changing floral-scape. It is not really extraordinary, but it provides an extraordinary view of change and phenology of blooming plants in one view of space through the lens of time.

In future opportunities, I will widen the scope and view the entire yard. Each spot at some point in time is beautiful and noteworthy—snapshots of this beauty are useful in showing how the prairie entertains, but it leads the viewer to a false idea in that the prairie would be presented as beautiful all the time. Lulls in bloom are frequent, and plants seem to bloom in one place now and in another then—thus bouncing across the yard. But this bouncing is part of the story.

Our single view in this effort is a straight shot from the highway from the east to the west across the acre and half prairie toward the house (about 70 yards from the camera lens)—with the house as a focal point obviously challenged during April and May by the large, 20 year old clump of Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly milkweed) in the foreground. I have included a picture of the view after a 2013 snow and ice event—uncommon in our area–as the introductory picture. I will start with the old growth of 2014 and proceed to the aftermath of the January fire (January 17, 2015)—the most important event of the season. The view of the prairie before the burn and after the burn usually has a powerful impact on the audience. The date and time appear on the actual photograph, usually at the bottom right of the image.

The last picture is among the first that I took with the new camera, which was a gift from Gail at Christmas. It shows the scene on December 29, 2014, as the year ends. With it I can now show the entire year in pictures.

The View Through the Year

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feb 8 2015

mar 3 2015

mar 25 2015

mar 30 2015

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apr 10 2015

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IMG_2013

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may 22 2015

jun 20 2015

jul 5 2015

jul 19 2015

aug 29 2015

sep 10 2015

sep 27 2015

oct 3 2015

oct 10 2015

oct 24 2015

nov 19 2015

dec 12 2015

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dec 29 2014

The view shows a sequence of blooming that follows a distinctive pattern:
• February-March—numerous basal rosettes.
• March-April—splash of Baptisia sphaerocarpa and Tradescantia spp.
• April-May—splash of Asclepias tuberosa, Baptisia alba and Monarda spp.
• June—splash of Physostegia sp. and Rudbeckia hirta.
• July—splash of Eryngium yuccifolium and Silphium gracile.
• August—mass of grasses and a rebloom of Asclepias tuberosa.
• September-November—mass of grasses and small bloomers.

Numerous other small bloomers in the foreground or large bloomers in the background are dispersed in the views including species of Gaura, Liatris, Polytaenia, Tephrosia, Scutellaria, Callirhoe, Euthamia, Chamescrista, Echinacea, Hymenocallis and many more. Species literally underfoot are not evident in these photographs, including species of the genera Prunella, Hypoxis, Vicia, Stylosanthes, Phlox, Claytonia, Oxalis, Houstonia, Nothoscordum, Sisyrhinchium, Pityopsis and others.

In addition to the blooming scenes, there are intricate groupings of plants and interesting geometries of the stems of various plants. The overall changes in the scene indicate the good diversity evident in the garden as viewed from the more or less wide-angle view. From the view, one readily gathers the sense of change in the garden from a wildflower garden in spring and early summer to an open meadow in midsummer to a grassland prairie (somewhat oppressive) in the late summer into early winter to a an old field look in the dead of winter.

From the apparent devastation of the winter fire, the prairie rises like a Phoenix from the massive root system with the earliest blooming plants springing into flower within weeks.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine

Time and Space: The Players

Mourning Cloak CPG in Acadia Parish on April 26, 2008.

Mourning Cloak butterfly–an extremely rare visitor–in the Cajun Prairie Gardens in Acadia Parish on April 26, 2008. (photo by Caroline Vidrine Withers)

The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project and The Cajun Prairie Gardens as classrooms demonstrate the dynamics of time and space in the changes that occur in a diverse ecosystem over time, both seasonal and through ecological succession. Seasonal changes are my initial focus, whereas, changes in ecological succession will be taken up in later essays. The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project is 26 years old, while the Cajun Prairie Gardens are 20 years old. The story of ecological succession will focus on the changes in the gardens over the years as they have developed, while the seasonal stories will focus on the changes that can be observed during a single year.

I am giving a lot of thought as to how to present this information in both an entertaining and an educational way, such that the product will entice interest among readers to build a garden that they can use to entertain and educate not only themselves but also their communities of neighbors, friends and students. I have decided to literally take it a month at a time and photographically walk through the gardens showing both scenes and specific flowers. I had the good fortune of having a camera that places the date and time of the photo as evidence of the time of the event, and this should be not only helpful to me in recounting events but also to the reader as you comprehend the timing of the events within the space of the gardens.

Several venues (in no special order in this effort) will be followed to elucidate time and space in the gardens:

1. A month by month discussion with essays on each month/blooming season.
2. Essays on individual plants—usually genera, e. g., Iris, Tradescantia, etc.
3. Pictorial essay with the view from the front yard.
4. Pictorial essays with views from varied spaces that might be used to demonstrate the timely changes in landscape.
5. An occasional essay that elucidates some specific aspect of the prairie that I think is of great importance.

The seasonal changes will be evidenced in stories and photographs depicting: 1. the phenology of blooming of the major plants, 2. the flight seasons of the butterflies, 3. the ever-changing landscape, 4. the flight seasons of the dragonflies and 5. other events and organisms that elucidate some interesting aspect of the prairie. These have been my focus for 30 years of watching the Cajun Prairie. In case you are interested in other groups, various scientists have focused and are focusing on birds, bees, trees, mushrooms, mammals, reptiles and other aspects of the prairie.

In the 2010 book entitled The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History, I have both listed the plants according to Larry Allain’s Coefficents of Conservatism and outlined two decades of phenology studies of blooming plants by Charles Allen and others. These observations were combined with mine in order to produce a long chart of blooming times for Cajun Prairie plants. These times did vary from one year to the next and to some extent with the stage of succession of the garden under study. While there is much variation in the gardens, the remnant prairies as I recall were far less variable—apparently their deep root systems companioned with their diverse inter-relationships with soil biota and one another stabilized them such that they ‘worried’ little about wet versus dry seasons nor about extreme changes in temperature and even an occasional wildfire or mowing. The latter events reset their blooming times on several occasions and even exacerbated their blooming abundance and lengthened their bloom season. Aside from all these distractions, our focus here will be on blooms during the 2015 growing season in both the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project and the Cajun Prairie Gardens, both in the Eunice area.

The major players in our discussions and in the drama of life on the prairie are the plants of the Cajun Prairie. A list of the major genera of ferns, grasses, and forbs is here provided. These would be found in some assortment in any Cajun Prairie remnant habitat as well as in any Cajun Prairie garden. The majority of these species are elements of my gardens, but a good number have yet to be grown successfully. Photographs of these plants are available online at many sites as well as in numerous wildflower books. Many of them will be featured in my upcoming discussions. General common names are provided to add color to an otherwise fairly dry list of names, but then actors typically go by stage names that reflect some aspect of their personality or character, e. g., nicknames.

The Players

Agalinis (5 species)—false foxgloves
Aletris (2 species)—colic-roots
Alium (2 species)—wild onions and garlics
Amsonia tabernaemontana—bluestars
Andropogon (3 species)—bluestems
Anemone caroliniana—anemones
Aristida (3 species)—three-awn grasses
Arnoglossum plantagineum –Indian plantains
Asclepias (8 species) –milkweeds
Aster (see Symphyotrichium and Eurybia) (5 species)—asters

Baptisia (4 species)—false indigos
Bidens aristosa—beggar’s ticks
Bigelowia virgata—rayless goldenrods
Boltonia (2 species)—doll’s daisies
Buchnera americana–bluehearts

Cacalia (see Arnoglossum)
Caenothus americanus—New Jersey teas
Callirhoe papaver—winecups
Calopogon oklahomensis—grass pink orchids
Canna flavida—cannas
Carex (3 species)—caric sedges
Cassia (see Chamescrista)
Centrosema virginianum—pigeonwings
Chamescrista fasciculata—partridge peas
Chrysopsis mariana—Maryland goldenasters
Cicuta maculata—water hemlocks
Cirsium horridulum—thistles
Claytonia virginica—spring beauties
Clematis crispa—leather flowers
Coelorachis rugosa—joint grasses
Conoclinum (2 species)—mistflowers
Cooperia drummondii—evening rain lilies
Coreopsis (4 species)—tickseeds
Crinum americanum—American lilies
Crotolaria sagitallis—arrowleaf rattleboxes
Croton capitatus—goatweeds
Ctenium aromaticum—toothache grasses
Cuscuta indecora—dodders
Cyperus (many species)—flat sedges

Dalea candida—prairie clovers
Desmanthus (2 species)—bundleflowers
Desmodium (2 species)—tick trefoils
Dicanthelium (2 species)—rosette-grasses
Drosera brevifolia—sundews

Echinacea pallida—Pale purple coneflowers
Eleocharis (3 species)—spikerushes
Eragrostis (many species)—lovegrasses
Erigeron (3 species)—fleabanes
Eryngium (2 species)—button snakeroots
Erythrina herbacea—Mamous
Eupatorium (4 species)—thoroughworts
Euphorbia corallata—flowering spurges
Eurybia hemisphaerica—showy asters
Euthamia (2 species)—grass-leaved goldenrods

Fimbristylis (3 species)—fimbrys

Gaillardia aestivalis—Indian blankets
Galactea volubilis—downy milkpeas
Gaura (2 species)—beeblossums
Geranium sp.—wild geraniums

Hedyotis nigracans—bluets
Helianthus (2 species)—sunflowers
Herbertia lahue—prairienymphs

Hibiscus moschentous lasiocarpus—rose mallows
Houstonia (3 species)–bluets
Hydrolea ovata—blue waterleafs
Hymenocallis liriosme-Fragrant spiderlily
Hypericum (4 species)—St. John worts
Hypoxis hirsuta—yellow star grasses
Hyptis alata—cluster bushmints

Ipomoea sagittata—salt marsh morning glories
Iris (5 species)—Louisiana irises
Juncus (3 species)—rushes

Krigia dandelion—potato dwarf dandelions

Lamium amplexicaulis—henbits
Lantana camara—lantanas
Lechea (3 species)—pinweeds
Lespedeza (2 species)—lespedezas
Liatris (5 species)—blazing stars
Lippia nodiflora—frogfruits
Lobelia (3 species)–lobelias
Ludwigia (3 species)—primrosewillows
Lythrum alatum—loosestrifes

Manfreda virginica—American aloes
Mimosa hystricina—sensitive briars
Monarda (3 species)–beebalms
Muhlenbergia capillaris—muhly grasses

Neptunia (2 species)—yellow puffs
Nothoscordum bivalve—false garlics, crowpoisons

Oenothera (4 specios)—primroses
Oligoneuron nitida—shiny goldenrods
Orybelium/Psoralea (2 species)—snakeroots and scurfpeas
Oxalis (3 species) –wood-sorrels

Panicum (4 species)—switchgrass and panic grasses
Paspalum (4 species)—paspalums
Passiflora (2 species)—passionvines
Pedicularis canadensis—louseworts
Penstamom (2 species)—beardtongues
Phlox pilosa—prairie phloxes
Physostegia (3 species)—obedient plants
Pinguicula pumila—butterworts
Pityopsis graminifolia—golden-asters
Platanthera nivea—snowy orchids
Pluchea (2 species)–camphorweeds
Polygala (5 species)—candyroots and milkworts
Polytaenia nuttaliana—prairie parsleys
Pontedaria cordata—pickerelweeds
Prunella vulgaris—selfheals, heal-alls
Pteroglossapsis ecristata—giant orchids
Pteridium aquilinum -–bracken ferns
Pycnanthemum (3 species)—mountain mints

Ranunculus (3 species)—buttercups
Ratibida pinnata—pinnate prairie coneflowers
Rhexia mariana—meadow beauties
Rhynchospora (many species)—beaksedges
Rubus (2 species)—black and dewberries
Rudbeckia (4 species)—black-eyed susans
Ruellia (2 species)—petunias
Rumex (2 species)—curly docks

Sabatia (4 species)—pinks
Saccharum giganteum—sugarcane plume grasses
Salvia (2 species)—sages
Schizacharium (3 species)—little bluestems
Schrankia ( see Mimosa)
Scleria (3 species)—nutrushes
Scutellaria (2 species)—skullcaps
Senecio glabellus--butterweeds
Silphium (3 species)—rosinweeds and compass plants
Sisyrinchium (5 species)—blue-eyed grasses
Solanum (2 species)—horsenettles and nightshades
Solidago (5 species)—goldenrods
Sonchus sp.—dandelions
Sorghastrum nutans—Indian grass
Spartina (2 species)—cordgrasses
Spiranthes (3 species)—ladies tresses
Sporobolus (3 species)—dropseeds
Stachys floridana—Florida hedgenettles
Strophostyles umbellata—pink fuzzybean
Stylosanthes biflora—sidebeak pencil-flowers
Symphyotrichium (5 species)—asters

Tephrosia onybrychoides—hoarypeas
Thalea dealbata—powdery thaleas
Tradescantia (3 species)—spiderworts
Tragia (2 species)—noseburns
Tridens (3 species)—tridens
Tripsacum dactyloides—eastern gama grasses
Typha latifolia –cattails

Valesinaria sp.—stadium lights
Verbena (2 species)—vervains
Vernonia (2 species)—ironweeds
Vicia loudoviciana—Louisiana vetches
Viola (2 species)—violets

Xyris (3 species)—yellow eyed grasses.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine.

Reducible complexity

Marc Pastorek photo eunice-10-30-2014

Aerial photo of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice taken October 30, 2014 by Marc Pastorek. The bottom left white area (southwest corner) is the parking lot, while the white line encircling the perimeter is the paved trail with benches located at each corner. This 10 acre plot contains a 25 year old restoration effort by the Cajun Prairie Habitat Preservation Society with more than 250 species of native plants.

Among the more recent accomplishments of science are:

• The human genome project compels us that all life is related, e. g., we all have the same genetic code.
• Ecology demonstrates that all life is connected, e. g., a single human organism actually is made of as many as 1000 species of organisms.
• Reducible complexity, e. g., the eye as an organ as well as the prairie as a system (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity for a discussion). Irreducible complexity is a tenet of ‘intelligent design/creation science.’

This latter topic is the focus of this essay. The human eye and the prairie ecosystem provide excellent examples. For more details, consider https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity for a generalized introduction to the concept as a debate. First let us consider the eye.

The human eye is extremely complex. It functions as a window to the world in that it provides the data used by the brain to create images. I used to describe it as working much like a camera with a brain attached but now we have cameras with brains attached that use digital technology instead of early silver technology. The digital image can be further modified by the computer in the camera or moved to another more powerful computer for potentially millions of modifications. Thus these new cameras with their brains are even better examples for comparison to the eye.

In humans, a thousand different kinds of eyes can see and form images that our brains can interpret!!! Andreas Wagner’s book (2014) entitled ‘Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle’ emphasizes the law of unintended consequences in that it provides examples of molecules (DNA, RNA and proteins) evolving to form thousands of varieties with a significant fraction of them retaining the ability to perform a specific function while others develop new and novel ‘unintended’ functions. The eyes of humans take this concept to the organ level, and we see thousands of kinds of human eyes—each able to provide sufficient information to the brain to permit the brain to interpret images that can be used to ascertain what is being viewed. When examining the ability of the eye to provide information for the brain, the quantity and quality of the information can be measured in a number of ways. Statistically, these abilities can be quantified and qualified and distributed along a parabolic expression known as the standard normal curve. Thus while the thousands of kinds of eyes work to some degree, we can assume that the majority of them can be defined as normal using the methods that we use to measure them, i. e. the Snellen chart, Ishihara charts, etc.

How complex are our eyes? There are many muscles involved in making visual images: 6 muscles that move the eye, 2 muscles that open the lids, a circular muscle that constricts and dilates the pupil, and a circular muscle that changes the shape of the lens for focusing. Each of these muscles is controlled by a different part of the brain, and in some cases, the parts are radically different, e. g., the nerves that control the movement of the eye (3 separate cranial nerves, III, IV and VI in the somatic efferent system) versus the autonomic nerves that control the iris diaphragm encircling the pupil (both parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves in the autonomic efferent system). All of these muscles must be coordinated in their movement by the brain in order for the eyes to provide useful information to the occipital lobes for interpretation and image generation.

The normally functioning eye is measured in a number of ways. The most common is the designation of the emmetropic eye, which is defined with an acuity of 20/20—an eye that detects at 20 feet what a designated normal eye detects at 20 feet using one of the Snellen Charts. Of course, this measurement is like many other physiological measurements, where the range of measurements can be represented as a normalized curved with the emmetropic eye as the mean, which means there are lots of eyes that are not normal (both better and worse—the worse get all the press) and yet remain able to provide enough information to the brain to permit the brain to construct an image. It is in these anomalies (mainly the worse ones have been studied) that the eye clearly demonstrates reducible complexity. Literally a thousand variations exist in human eyes—we often refer to these varieties as things that can go wrong and do go wrong with the eye, and yet the eye is capable of doing its job; however, the job may be less acceptable and require remediation in our society.

Some of the anomalies include:
1. the eyeball is too long or too short (myopia or hyperopia)
2. the lens is too weak or too strong (myopia or hyperopia)
3. the lens or cornea is wrinkled or abnormally curved (astigmatism)
4. the lens is cloudy (cataracts)
5. the intraocular fluid is under too high pressure (glaucoma)
6. quivering of the eye (nystagmus)
7. abnormal cones (color blindness—a dozen kinds)
8. damaged retina
9. diabetic nerves
10. macular degeneration.

The eye is also supplied with lachrymal (lacrimal) glands that make tears delivered by lacrhrymal ducts and drained by lachrymal canals into a nasolachrymal duct into the nasal passage. Thus the eye is constantly being washed, lubricated and nourished. Dysfunction leads to dry eye symptoms and conjunctivitis. Internal fluid dynamics (aqueous humor and vitreous humor in their respective chambers) and the tear system are dynamic unto themselves, and in this they demonstrate that human eyes are actually several systems interacting over a lifetime.

The retina (sensory part) of the human eye is an intricate structure made of 6 layers with rods and cones and a variety of nerves served by a rich blood supply. This complex tissue is highly susceptible to a number of kinds of insult. Through a complex process of photoreception, electrical impulses are generated by the photosensitive cells (rods and cones) and neurons and sent to the brain where they are sorted and used to create an image. The brain works with what information it gets and relies heavily on accumulated information to create images that obscure our blind spot and permit images to have focal points and 3 dimensions. Although we usually depend on both eyes working in concert to generate 3- dimensional images, a single eye’s image does contain information, e. g., relative image sizing, that permits the brain to create a 3-dimensional image. When examining the embryology of the eye, the formation of eye sacs and optic nerves directly off of the brain stem is obvious.

Color vision is a remarkable development as rod-like cells were coopted to function as cones in color photoreception. While some humans lack color vision altogether, most humans have some color vision; however, males often are red-green colorblind or color weak. However, these individuals have what I call a superpower in that they can do things that we normal humans cannot. For example, some of them can see what would be camouflaged to those with normal vision—a handy talent if you are looking for enemy encampments in aerial photographs or looking for animals or plants relying on camouflage to thwart predators. Further, while humans see visible light (ROYGBIV), other animals have different color spectra. Mosquitoes see colors in the infrared spectrum (otherwise perceived by our thermoreceptors), while bees see colors in the ultraviolet spectrum (all those yellow flowers in the prairie are actually ultraviolet blues with distinctive markings in their vision. But butterflies take the prize since they are credited with seeing not only the visible spectrum of humans but also both the ultraviolet and infrared spectra. Just color vision itself provides a wealth of information on the evolution of vision, and I really enjoy topics where physics, aka the study of electromagnetic waves, is intertwined with biology.

The point is the eye and the brain evolved together as a unit. Numerous papers have been written to illustrate the intimate way that they work together as well as literally thousands of examples across the animal world where eyes and brains have co-opted parts of the skeletal and muscular and glandular systems in order to accomplish their functions. Literally thousands of kinds of eyes are known, and that is not even mentioning the thousands of kinds of eyes that are found in humans. Thus the complexity of the human eye is evident and evidently the result of thousands of variations on the evolutionary theme of an eye both within our species and across the millions of animal species, with the differences between human and chimp eyes almost imperceptible and for the most part hidden within the tremendous variation of the human eyes.

The prairie is even more complex as it contains thousands of species of plants and animals (in the air, soil and water), each representing a distinctive evolutionary line as well as possessing thousands of reducibly complex organs. The prairie is a community of organisms not dissimilar to our bodies, which are now known to be ecological communities. The prairie itself appears to be a reducibly complex structure in that we can literally take it apart piece by piece all the while appreciating many of the contributions of each piece. All these pieces are interacting all the while filling ecological niches that are literally entwined in space and time. The prairie is literally destroyed when it is plowed—a literal ripping of ecosystem into shreds. Our attempts to restore this habitat literally involve reintegrating these pieces into a network and waiting to see if they will interact and begin the reconstruction of the ecosystem. Our restorations are meager compared to the original ecosystems, but they appear to work in ways that are similar to the original ecosystems—unless it gets too dry or too wet or too hot or too cold or some other extreme or combinations of extremes—then the system shows signs of stress, and fragile species literally disappear. With enough stress, e. g., an explosion of exotics, the restorations begins to function less and less like the original ecosystem. This simple comparison does not link the need for pollinators and other animals into our discussion, but their presence and roles are likewise reducibly complex.

Reducing complex phenomena is a central function of science. Whereas in medicine, the focused effort is on finding every single signaling molecule in order to give potential therapies for treating diseases, we, in ecology and prairie restoration, are involved in understanding the intricate links between organisms and between organisms and their environment. Only then can we begin to make headway in our goal of rehabilitating habitat. In both medicine and ecology, we are just beginning to make discoveries that will permit us to make better decisions. Understanding that all living things are related and connected is a start, while appreciating that the reducible complexity in nature is a result of the co-optation of seemingly unrelated structures is a central theme in the evolution of life and communities of life within ecosystems.

Posted by M. F. Vidrine