Late Spring Savanna
While the prairie is just barely waking up, savannas have been blooming since late March–early April. A member of Northern Kane County Wild Ones invited our group last week to see her amazing savanna just west of Elgin.
My property is a rolling 6 acre Oak savanna. It primarily contains mature White Oak and Red Oak with some Shagbark Hickory, Black Walnut, various hawthorn and cherry. I have worked actively for the last 20 years to clear a disturbed woodland thick with cherry trees and honeysuckle, with the only flower present seeming to be garlic mustard, to open the forest floor to sunlight. It is now rich in a diverse blend of native plants – most of which volunteered when given sunshine. The woods are host to many butterflies, dragonflies, bees, and various insects. The birds visiting include rose breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, orioles, hummingbird, scarlet tanager and woodpeckers.
Spring ephemerals include Bloodroot and Shooting Star; other spring bloomers are Jacob’s Ladder, Red Trillium, Wood Anemone, Robin’s Plantain, Violet Wood Sorrel, Wild Geranium, May Apple, Early Buttercup, Bellwort, and Early Meadow Rue.
Moving into summer, plants include Solomon’s Seal – True, False and Showy, Carrion Flower, Culver’s Root, Ohio Spiderwort, Jack in the Pulpit, Thimbleweed, Blue-eyed Grass, Wild Bergamot, Giant Yellow Hyssop, Cup Plant, Joe Pye Weed, Bedstraw, Purple Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, Wild Columbine, Wild Ginger, various goldenrod and aster, ferns, grasses, and sedges.
I consider myself a fortunate person who had friends that took time to mentor me on the ways of native plants and restoration. Without them I know that I would not have the property I have today. It has been much hard work and the work continues, as we all know, but the results are the reward.
Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis) is common in woodlands, but always welcome. Its small white umbel flowers give a lacy look to the understory. The compound, fern-like leaves have a pleasant licorice scent when crushed.
The property is dotted throughout with Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon media)
and Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum).
Clumps of Ostrich Fern (Pteretis pensylvanica) (above) and Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) were seen here and there. Both of these ferns form colonies, and without competition, they can get away from one in a home garden. During the 20’s and 30’s Ostrich Fern was extremely popular as a foundation planting along the north side of a house. My mother’s name was Fern, so we did indeed have ferns growing along our foundation.
Common or White Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) was found in the sunnier area near the road. Other species of Blue-eyed Grass do have blue flowers, but Sisyrinchium albidum has, as the specific epithet tells us, white petals. It does, however, have a blue eye as seen above. It is not a grass–it gets its name from its tall, thin leaves that resemble grass.
I had never seen either of the next two plants–there’s always something new under the sun.
Violet Wood Sorrel (Oxalis violacea), a relative of Common Wood Sorrel or Sour Grass, was also found in the sunnier area. Only growing 4-6” tall, its soft violet flowers rise above its clover-like basal leaves.
Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) grew in the same area.
I have searched the internet in vain to find out why this Erigeron is called Robin’s Plantain. Do the basal leaves resemble those of Plantain (Plantago)? Somewhat, yes, but what does it have to do with robins? I have no idea–if any of you know, please share.
The daisy-blossom flowers of Robin’s Plantain are much larger (1 1/2’” diameter), showier, and bloom earlier than those of its fleabane cousins. Soft stems, 6-18 in. high, topped with yellow-centered, white to lavender-blue flower clusters rise from the hairy basal leaves. It sends out stolons that form colonies, making it a superb groundcover. In nature it is found mostly on dry, partly-shaded banks. It doesn’t appear to be available in commerce, a pity–plants that grow in dry shade are always welcome, especially one as attractive as this.
We’ve circled the amazing property and are now back to the house. The front yard savanna is spangled with more Shooting Stars and Wild Geranium.
If you have trees on your property, I urge you to re-create a savanna as Brenda has done. The roots of the savanna grasses, sedges, ferns, and forbs keep the trees hydrated and enrich the soil, while the foliage and flowers keep the soil cool, attract a myriad of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects, and are extraordinarily beautiful.