The diversity of flowering plants on the southwestern Minnesota prairies this past weekend was amazing. Higher than normal spring rainfall might have contributed, and the cooler than normal spring may have pushed some of the early summer bloomers into an overlap with the later summer flowers. In any case, there was a lot of advertisement for pollinating insects going on. Some examples:
Looking toward the top of this prairie hill, there are at least a dozen species blooming: lead plant (purple spikes), butterfly weed (orange), prairie coneflower (yellow), and tiny white flowered whorled milkweed (in front of lead plant) to name a few.
Culver’s Root bears tall white spikes of tiny flowers whose nectar is attractive to bees. It was apparently named for a pioneer physician who recommended an extract of its root to induce vomiting. Why did early settlers need to do that?
Compass Plant may grow to 6-8 feet, and its large yellow flowers attract all sorts of bees. When it grows in dry, open areas, its leaves often orient in a north-south direction, hence the name. Pioneer children broke the stems, allowed the resinous exudate to dry, and then chewed it like gum. Unfortunately it is highly palatable and can be eradicated by grazing cattle or browsing deer.
Lead Plant is really more of a woody shrub, with finely dissected, gray green leaves and deep purple flowers in long clusters. Its presence was mistakenly associated with the presence of lead in the soil, but the name stuck. Indians called it “Buffalo-bellow Plant” because it bloomed when the buffalo were rutting.
Gray headed Coneflower spreads easily by underground rhizome, so it may occur in bunches of stems on the prairie. It does especially well on disturbed sites, and is often found on roadsides.
The small, delicate Whorled Milkweed is often overshadowed by taller plants. Like all milkweeds, its leaves contain glycoside poisons toxic to some vertebrate predators of insect larvae, but the nectar in the flowers is attractive to bees and butterflies.
Common Evening Primrose is indeed common, and can even become invasive in disturbed areas. Its seeds contain an oil that apparently was useful for reducing menstrual cramps and skin lesions.
Even Swamp Milkweed grows in more mesic sites on the prairie, in this case, a draw on a grassy slope that collected water at its base.