Thursday, October 6, 2011

A romp through Shanghai Prairie (part 2)

In my previous post about visiting Shanghai Prairie in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I discussed the background of the restored priaire and showed you some of what's growing there, including grasses and some fall-blooming flowers.

I didn't have the chance to show you everything, so here are some more photos from my visit on September 12, plus tips for how to incorporate these native plants into your own garden.

The prairie has subtle undulating elevations, due to the area previously being strip-mined. This means both plants that prefer wet soil (lower areas) and plants requiring very dry soil (higher areas) grow there.

Gray or old-field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) has green-gray fuzzy leaves and likes dry or well-drained soils. It doesn't mind clay soil, does well on slopes, and gets about two and a half feet tall.

Stiff or stiff-leaved goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum, formerly known as Solidago rigida) can get up to 5 feet tall. It prefers full sun and dry soil. The foliage is pale green with thick leaves extending perpendicular to the stem, and the flowers are a bit more showy than other goldenrods with more of a poofy shape than upright stalks.  

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) prefers moist or wet soil and part sun. It can handle full sun if it's in  extremely wet soil. It can reach 3 feet and attracts bumble bees. I like its blue flowers in the late season when most other blooms are yellow, pink, or white (in my garden, anyway). Alas, my soil is not wet enough to grow it, but if you have a bog or wetland, or are simply willing to water frequently, give it a try. Great blue lobelia is endangered in Massachusetts.

Nodding ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) is a native orchid. It grows only 8 to 12 inches tall, which is fairly unusual among the many taller plants in a prairie, and it's easy to miss it if you aren't specifically looking for it. It grows in consistently wet soil and prefers full sun.

Even this bad photo of American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) will help you ID this native woody vine in comparison to the invasive variety, oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Oriental bittersweet has flowers/berries in clusters of 2-3 in the leaf axils all along the vine, whereas American bittersweet has flowers/berries in clusters of 6 or more solely at the ends of the vine. The ripe berries of both are red, but the capsules, or protective covers over the berries, are yellow for oriental bittersweet and orange/red for American bittersweet.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an invasive plant that outcompetes other species in the prairie fen. Fortunately, it hasn't spread too much at Shanghai Prairie, with only this one major clump. (Random, unidentifiable human shown only for size reference.)

Like many other invasive plants, purple loosestrife is a "nitrogen fixer" that alters soil composition by releasing nitrogen and raising soil nutrents. There are instances where this is a good thing, like farmers planting cover crops (such as red clover and winter wheat) and tilling them into the soil before they go to seed to improve the soil for growing food crops. However, in prairies and other natural habitats, nitrogen is a bad thing. Native plants generally require poor soil conditions and do not grow as well in nitrogen-enhanced soil. (So if you grow prairie natives in your garden, it is not only not necessary, but also detrimental, to fertilize them!)

Lol, I'm suddenly picturing myself in a booth labeled "Plant Advice, 5 Cents." Ha!

Also fortunate for Shanghai Prairie is that purple loosetrife beetles (Galerucella spp.) are present. They eat  the leaves of purple loosetrife and help keep the population in check. The beetle was approved by the USDA in 1992 as a biological control, after research confirmed its host specificity at numerous test sites. In other words, it was determined the beetles only eat purple loosestrife leaves, not those of other plants, not even other (non-invasive) loosestrifes. 

The beetle has been released at trial sites in Michigan since 1994. They were not released into the Shanghai Prairie, but appeared on their own from nearby sites.

I can almost imagine a bunny holding one of these rabbit tobacco (Gnaphalium obtusifolium) flowers and smoking it like a cigar, except that in my mind, rabbits wouldn't smoke! The plant is sometimes also called sweet everlasting and it is supposedly fragrant (smelling like maple syrup), but I didn't bend down to smell it. The plant gets up to two feet tall and likes dry or well-drained soil.

Smooth or smooth-leaf aster, Symphyotrichum laeve (formerly known as Aster laevis; remember, the aster family got a huge naming overhaul!) prefers full sun but can handle some shade. It gets 2-3 feet tall and prefers dry to moderately dry soil. It does not mind clay. Its leaves are smoother, with an almost waxy feel, than those of a similar aster ...

...the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). The New England aster also gets taller, to 4 feet and above, and its flowers tend to be darker purple, than smooth aster. It also prefers full sun, but can handle some shade, and seems to deal with different kinds of soils. If you have these in ornamental beds with shorter plants, and want more uniform heights, you can cut them back on July 4 the same time you cut back mums. Mine self sow here and there and I like them towering over other plants.

The humble-looking Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) is actually a rare and threatened species in Michigan, present in only two counties. It is an indicator species of a high quality oak woods. This one was growing in the wooded hillside near Shanghai Prairie. You cannot remove threatened species from their natural locations.

Hope you enjoyed your armchair romp through a prairie fen! If you are interested in seeing the prairie in person, you can attend upcoming volunteer workdays to help remove woody invasives:
- Sunday, October 16, noon to 4:00 p.m
- Saturday, October 22, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Please wear long pants and sturdy closed toe shoes. To register and get directions (on campus of St. Joe Mercy Hospital), call volunteer steward Aunita Erskine at 734.668.6354 or email aunitafl at umich dot edu.