Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fall Color Around the Prairie

I happened to be off last Saturday which happened to be the last day the Mt. Cuba Center was offering the Meadow Studies class for the year. I figured I wasn't doing anything so why not drive an hour to Delaware (after registering online of course).

They offer Meadow Studies as a one day course 5 times a year. I went to the first two, missed the next two, so this is my third. Overall I'm happy with them but they weren't what I had expected. Emphasis is more on how they maintain it each year and what plants are showy at the particular time of year. The second half of the class is a nice tour mostly of the meadow itself but also other plants they have elsewhere on the property that might fit the theme of a meadow setting.

The autumn is easily the peak of a grassland meadow's grandeur. The fall colors are setting in, the seed heads glinting in the sun, and gusts of wind create visible waves of movement. It's not the largest prairie in the world, but it's still impressive in it's own right.

Their meadow is mostly composed of Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, and Yellow Indian Grass. Before the tour began we were give the option to collect seeds in a paper bag. I thought this was a great idea, but if only the course were focused more on installing a meadow. This would have been a great starting point. 

Hair Awn Murhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris, features fluffy pink stalks which seem to float over the plant.

Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis, slowly transitions into it's fall color. It ends up being a brighter yellow than most other grasses, but in the mean time it puts on an almost tie-dyed effect.

Most of the wildflowers have finished their show for the year and take a back seat to the grasses which now tower over most of them.

Rose Hips to one of our native roses are hidden in clumps of grass. Birds will likely eat them over the winter. 

A few years back, the Mt. Cuba Center did a study on Asters species and cultivars to see which were garden appropriate, disease resistant, had nice form, long bloom period and such. The eastern Silver Aster, Symphyotrichum concolor, was one they tried out. I don't think it's one they recommend thought. I could be wrong but it certainly wasn't doing much for me. Generally anything flowering at this time of year is a plus but the plant is a little unimpressive.

I noticed how Liatris-like it is with all it's flowering coming out so close to the stem. The full plant was actually several stalks, just like a clump of Liatris, all coming out of the ground. It was very neat but I was mostly disappointed nothing was pollinating it.

The Georgia Aster, Symphyotrichum georgianmum, was another one blooming now, though clearly a few days past it's peak on most plants. I'm sure this is closer to being a species they'd recommend. Though I don't think it's native to Delaware it's surprisingly hardy.

Georgia Asters that were growing in full sun were absolutely loaded with bees and flower flies (seen above) which mimic bees. The one above is doing a great job.

Narrowleaf Sunflower, sometimes called Swamp Sunflower, or Helianthus angustifolius, was also flowering. They favored the narrowleaf common name because it grows fine in non swampy conditions along side several species of Joe Pye Weed, Wild Senna, Prairie Onion, and so on. The leaves have a very rough feel to them.

This is actually the cultivar 'Mellow Yellow' which has paler yellow flowers. The true species is as bright as the sun and impossible to miss from across a field. 

The plant has a slightly messy look to it, but I've found that's the case with most perennial sunflowers. Lord only knows how the annual varieties keep from falling down. I guess when you only have one year to live it pays to get it right the first time.

 
Lastly they had multiple specimens of Arkansas Blue Star, Amsonia hubrichtii, showing off their fall color.

This particular species has very thin Pine-like leaves. Common Blue Star, Amsonia tabernaemontana, has more normal looking leaves but the same fall color. I think people prefer Arkansas Blue Star more because they look puffy and cloud-like. While I don't recommend sleeping on one, maybe plant something prone to falling over right next to it. 

While walking back up to the house I noticed a Hawthorn Tree that probably had more berries than leaves on it. The birds will be well fed this year.

Before leaving everyone was given a plant of Tufted Hair Grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, which is a nice cold season grass that can be planted at this time of year. Warm season grasses do all of their growing over the summer and aren't very successful when planted after soil temperatures get below 60F. So I understand why they gave us a cold season species.

One Saturday well spent.

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