Friday, September 1, 2017

Prairie daze! A magical preserve north of Fort Collins

If you're patient, you'll see this stone again--only in better scale--at the end of the blog. Some days are such that you would like to put them in a glass sphere, and keep them on your shelf to pull back down on winter days and linger over them again. Yesterday was just such a day!

There are mountain people, there are lovers of the sea. And then there's us prairie folk. I suppose I'm nearly half mountain, and with my Cretan ancestry, there has to be a tug of the sea. But more and more of my soul and solace find a special home on the prairies, the steppes. The landscape that created humankind, and which we have abused so insensibly over the millennia. I take that back--millennia are much too short a measure. We've been profoundly impacting the world's plains for well nigh 4 million years, since we emerged as hominins and the chief parasite of ungulates. Imagine my delight when I finally found a place where the plains are truly honored.

Our little troupe of hominins consisted of Crystal Strouse--botanist who monitors the preserve, our three Argentine summer interns (this was their last field trip of their sojourn): Irene Edwards, Ramiro Lincan and Lucas Vignera. Rebecca Huft, Associate Director of Applied Research brought two graduate students, Liam Culinane and Katherine Fu, and Bryan Fischer (peering over Crystal's shoulder below) who is Seasonal Gardener for Mike Kintgen both of whom joined the trip. Pamela Smith unfortunately seems to have escaped my camera: she was very present and the one who contacted Crystal and got us permission to visit restricted areas of the preserve: Pam worked here for years and has obviously left a piece of her heart buried in this prairie.

Crystal is a remarkable guide: she has studied this prairie for years, and loves every blade of grass and forb and creature on the place. Her generous spirit imbued the whole enterprise with a wonderful sense of discovery and joy.

I have shared a workplace with Rebecca Huft for nearly a decade, but this was our first chance to travel and chat at length: the wonderful by-products of field trips like this. The thistle in the foreground is Cirsium flodmanii, an exquisite and rather local thistle rather widely distributed in the northern Great Plains--but rather spotty in distribution. Apparently, it will hybridize with some of the Eurasian thistles, perhaps adding to their virulence by heterosis, and disappearing as a distinct taxon in the process. This phenomenon--well documented in Phragmites--is one of the many little-remarked upon tragedies of globalization.
Liatris ligulistylis: FINALLY!

The object of the trip: if you've followed this blog you'll know I was despairing of not seeing certain native plants in the wild. Jim Tolstrup, director of the High Plains Environmental Center (which we shall re-visit anon) took pity on me and started the chain of events that led to this field trip--all in less than a week!

We eventually saw some husky specimens--maybe not quite like the monster plants at Denver Botanic Gardens York St. and Chatfield Farms, but pretty cool--as you will see. The first of three meadows we explored had mostly smaller plants--but still winsome.

Another picture of Crystal--my new friend: see great new plants and meet wonderful new people all in a day: woo hooo!

One of the special plants we found was this, Oenothera coloradoensis--(formerly a Gaura) a winsome and globally rare plant being monitored by Denver Botanic Gardens' research staff. This was a banner year with tens of thousands of individuals blooming and in evidence. Other years there are hardly any--and this is perhaps the best (and most secure) site where they grow. Not perhaps a plant that the average Joe would swoon over, but then we Plant Nerds are not you average Joe!

Another petite Liatris from the first site..

Prairies can look so uniform from a distance--This happens to be a uniquely vast stand of Sporobolus heterolepis--one of the most beautiful of native grasses (trust me!). Generic nimnuts complain about the I-80 and I-70 drives across Kansas and BOOOORing, they say. The same idjuts who will sit through golf or baseball games (my candidates for ultimate dullness). Or worst of all--"reality" television or Fox T.V.--Citadels of emptiness.. If you actually get out of your car at a prairie and poke around, you might be surprised what you find. Of course, some godawful percentage of the prairie disappeared overnight in the 19th Century and there's still prairie busting going on in Colorado. I agree that a corn field can be pretty dull.

You may get tired of seeing this blazing star!

Notice the subtle patterns of various grass types. It grows on you! Believe me!

A minature clump of Helianthus nuttallii
A compact form of this would be a great addition to a border...but the typical giant is pretty awesome as well..

We've now arrived at the second site, with many larger plants and terrific mix of wildflowers.

Everyone wanders on their own and finds all sorts of interesting things...

Ramdom shots...

A larger specimemn from our second stop...

It was a treat to have Mike Kintgen along--Curator of DBG's alpine collections. He has a terrific grasp of lower elevation plants as well, don't be fooled by his title. He'll be completing his Master's Degree this winter...

What is that white speck in the near distance?

Let's move in a tad closer...

Aha! An albino flower! We eventually found three or four more--very exciting on many levels!

But it's really hard to beat that incredible purple pink form of the type.

One of the great mysteries of the trip: a strange ranunculad that didn't seem to match up with anything we could imagine, save one plant that is only known 300 miles away in Colorado...

One last loving look at this remarkable place...

Pam Smith took a picture of the party--and a party it was! A day that will linger in our hearts and minds. Thank you Crystal and Pam. And thank the wise citizens of Fort Collins who are the ones responsible ultimately for the purchase of this enormous tract of pristine and virtually weed free plains. With 10,000 people moving to Colorado a month (far more than we can sustain over time), these bits and pieces of the true, untrammeled West will become ever more precious. Fort Collins is one of our most progressive and intelligent communities, and Soapstone is a worthy crown jewel among the Fort's treasure chest of attractions!


  1. Treasure chest indeed. One could wander endlessly looking at these jewels. I am glad you got to see the illusive liatrus blazing in purple and white.

  2. Thank you for this virtual trip. I agree, prairies are everything but boring! I'm a native Kansas girl myself.


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