Thursday, June 5, 2014

La Petite Gemme Prairie

We just completed the annual invasive species trek over the La Petite Gemme Prairie just west of Bolivar.  Recently featured in the News-Leader, this is our favorite prairie because of its location close to Springfield and its approachable size.  It has 37 acres of virgin land, never touched by plow or planting and all visible from the top of the hill.  A subdivision now along the eastern border is out of sight unless you climb to the top to see a single rooftop.
Sherpa spraying Sericea lespedeza
Barb led the patrol as guide and destroyer while I followed as the Sprayer Sherpa.  The prairie is in beautiful shape thanks to the efforts of Richard Datema, the management services of MDC and the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  They have controlled the woody invasives with selective spraying and prescribed fire.  Our mission was primarily killing Sericea lespedeza.  Along the way we attacked a few scattered multiflora rose stragglers, some new Japanese honeysuckle, and invasive clover.  These are so infrequent that it requires searching hard for them.

Dickcissel pair watching over their prairie
Meanwhile, I get to enjoy the prairie scenes until ordered to spray another victim.  It was 80 degrees and partially cloudy, perfect for a "good walk spoiled" only by the sprayer.  We were greeted by a pair of dicksissels which we could hear before spotting them, clinging precariously to stalks of plants not designed to carry their load.

Bee nectaring on prairie rose
Sensitive briar
Walking in a prairie is different than any other hiking.  Unless you follow a game trail, you wade through dense vegetation one to two feet tall with a remarkable variety of species.  There were prairie rose scattered everywhere, hosting nectaring bees and other insects.  Sensitive briar, Mimosa nuttallii is scattered among the tall vegetation, inviting you to touch the leaves and watch them fold up in defense to what they perceive as a predator.

We found the first coneflowers opening up, their pale pink petals appearing white when photographed in the cloud filtered light.  Delicate blue prairie spiderwort was scattered along our trek, its developing stages producing shapes transformed from every angle, only the color remaining consistent.

Meadow Parsnip
Meadow parsnip, Thaspium trifoliatum, was scattered through the prairie, a member of the carrot family likely soon to be supporting a a family of black swallowtail caterpillars in their journey to adulthood.  We tend to think of butterflies as important pollinators but tiny flowers require a number of delicate pollinators such as short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, and beetles. 

Just a few years ago I considered prairies boring, just a field of knee high stuff.  La Petite Gemme has the whole package from rolling upland to a wet drainage producing a diversity of life and an unseen food web that can't be appreciated unless you wade in.  The Missouri Prairie Foundation invites you to hike through the forbs and grasses.  A word of warning - you may just get hooked!

Photo album on Flickr

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