Sunday, October 12, 2008
By mid-October, the tall, charismatic grasses of glades, prairies and woodlands have matured to a uniform khaki. Gleaming burgundy and pale green back in July, big bluestem now looks like Indian grass, like gama grass, like side oats gramma, with only the tripartite seedhead distinguishing them from the rest. Most blooming plants have already set seed, offering only a blackened stem and desiccated seedheads to anyone wanting to discover how rich and diverse a certain area is, leaving June's colorful floral display to the visitor's imagination.
But nestled between the clumps of grass, mostly on glade edges and prairies, downy gentian blooms from September through November. Low to the ground, this exquisite flower is one of the last ones to bloom in the Ozarks, reportedly even surviving early frosts. Spotty populations are common in the Ozarks, particularly in areas managed with fire. Thanks to the tremendous rainfall this growing season, I've seen clumps of blooming downy gentian repeatedly this fall, though its allure never fades; I crouch down to stare deeply into the iridescent blue flowers every time I see them.
Just as there are indicator plants whose presence suggest past and present grazing history (like coral berry and Eastern red cedar), the absence of certain plants also indicates grazing pressure, whether historical or current. Likewise, the presence of certain plants indicates a healthy balance between fire, grazing, hydrology, and every other factor that determines biodiversity in the landscape. Downy gentian happens to be a choice plant for grazers and browsers, so areas with too many large herbivores in the landscape may either lack populations of the elegant flower or have largely diminished populations of them. (And, conversely, areas rich with downy gentians likely have other conservative species) Coneflowers, prairie clovers, gentian, native Euonymous shrubs and countless other (now conservative) plants possess certain qualities that make them highly desirable to large herbivores. Where grazing pressure is high, these plants -called "ice cream plants" to some- are grazed to the nub, making their populations less viable every season.
Knowing that cattle intensely grazed every inch of the Ozark Highlands within the past 100 years, it's hard to tell whether the spotty populations of downy gentian are naturally occurring or just what the cattle left behind. Nevertheless, the plants hang on, blooming intently for the next month...even after a frost.
Posted by Allison Vaughn at 9:35 PM