Thursday, September 19, 2013
Three Kinds of Prairie Blue
Nature news from the Shaw Nature Reserve, where I took a morning walk yesterday with a group called Wednesday Walkers, a self-selected group of people with time for about a two-mile walk, led by a nature instructor, along one of the many paths in the Reserve's 2800 acres of mixed prairie, forest, wetlands, rocky cliffs and glades. We chatted and asked questions as we walked. I heard that 2013 had been an excellent year for bluebirds. Volunteers maintain the Reserve's many birdhouses (pictured: Apartment #74) and count the eggs and babies. In 2013, exactly 203 chicks were hatched in the Reserve's bluebird boxes; 180 of them were bluebirds. "What were the rest?" I asked. "Finches and sparrows," was the answer.
As we walked, sun beating down on a shadeless path cut through stiffly waving five-foot native prairie grasses, someone asked, "What kind of grass is this?"
"Bluestem. If you look way down the stem, toward the ground, the stems are blue." Wow! (Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is, by the way, the state grass of Missouri.)
"And what are these?" I asked when I saw strange but somehow familiar black walnut-sized pods among the five-foot prairie grasses.
"Wild indigo." Snapping the stem when the wild indigo is young yields blue juice that can be used to dye cloth, a discovery the Indians shared with the European settlers. The seed pods aren't really black; they're dark blue, and they look familiar because florists use them in autumn arrangements and wreaths.