Prairie Spring

The short grass prairie in South Dakota and Wyoming is incredibly green and lush right now, due to a lot of recent rain.  Driving and walking through it was a feast for the eyes.

Even in the Badlands, there is some green.

Even in the Badlands, there is some green.

badlands prairies

The root of White Beardtongue, or white penstemon (named for the five-lobed flower) was chewed by Sioux Indians as a remedy for toothachie

The root of White Beardtongue, or white penstemon (named for the five-lobed flower) was chewed by Sioux Indians as a remedy for toothache.  It is a favorite browse of deer, sheep, and pronghorn antelope.

Pink (sometimes purple) Beardtongue is a favorite of deer, sheep, and pronghorn antelope in the prairie.

Smooth Beardtongue or Blue Penstemon is “practically worthless” as forage for cattle, according to my South Dakota wildflower book. But mule deer like it, and it’s very attractive.

Various species of vetch (members of the pea family) are common in the short grass prairie and are grazed by both cattle and wildlife to some degree (depending on their toxicity).

Groundplum milkvetch, or buffalo bean, is found where grazing pressure is low, like the prairie dog town.  Immature fruit taste like sweet green beans, Ripe fruit turns dark purple (like plums).  Rodents cache the pods in their underground food storage, and deer and bison munch the leaves.

Groundplum milkvetch, or buffalo bean, is found where grazing pressure is low, like the prairie dog town. Immature fruits taste like sweet green beans, Ripe fruit turns dark purple (like plums). Rodents cache the pods in their underground food storage, and deer and bison munch the leaves.

Field Milkvetch

Field milkvetch grows close to the ground; it is one of the more palatable (to grazers) of the vetches.

Field milkvetch grows close to the ground; it is one of the more palatable (to grazers) of the vetches.  It was quite common in the Prairie Dog towns.

Creamy poisonvetch, or alkali milkvetch, has attractive flowers and red stems, but an unpleasant odor and contains toxic alkaloids.  It also concentrates selenium from the soil, so it is a good indicator of selenium-rich soil.

Creamy poisonvetch, or alkali milkvetch, has attractive flowers and red stems, but an unpleasant odor and contains toxic alkaloids. It also concentrates selenium from the soil, so it is a good indicator of selenium-rich soil.

Scarlet (but looks orange) globemallow (a member of the hibiscus family) is one of the most drought resistant forbs on the prairie.  It increases in abundance with grazing pressure, unlike other forbs, and can thrive in more arid habitats.

Scarlet (but looks orange) globemallow (a member of the hibiscus family) is one of the most drought resistant forbs on the prairie. It increases in abundance with grazing pressure, unlike other forbs, and can thrive in more arid habitats.

Presence of prickly pear cactus is indicative of drought and highly overgrazed prairie.  Sometimes this spiny-leafed vegetation is so thick cattle can't find a place to lie down.  Prairie dogs will munch on it though.

Presence of prickly pear cactus is indicative of drought and highly overgrazed prairie. Sometimes this spiny-leafed vegetation is so thick cattle can’t find a place to lie down. Prairie dogs will munch on the leaves and fruit, though.

Yucca, also called soapweed or Spanish bayonet, also grows in more arid prairie.  Multiple stout flower stalks covered with creamy white flowers can reach four feet. In addition to seeding itself, it can also spread by underground rhizome.

Yucca, also called soapweed or Spanish bayonet, also grows in more arid prairie. Multiple stout flower stalks covered with creamy white and pink-tinged flowers can grow up to four feet high. In addition to seeding itself, it can also spread by underground rhizome.

Young yucca plants are favorite browse of grazers, but the plant can recover from this.  Native Americans used the fibrous leaves for weaving baskets and juices from the root for soap lather (hence, its name, soapweed).  Leaf points are so sharp that they could be used, when still attached to a fibrous thread of the leaf, for sewing garments.

Yucca is also an interesting plant because it is pollinated by just one species, the yucca moth, which after performing this plant service, lays its eggs on newly developed pods.  The larvae complete their development on some of the yucca seeds, but leave most of the seed crop from the plant.  Their mutualistic relationship is so tightly interwoven that neither species can complete its development without the other.

2 thoughts on “Prairie Spring

  1. Hi Sue. I wondered if I could use your prickly pear cactus photo in a project I’m working on that features Minnesota prairie images.

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