by Wayne Pauly from Dane County Parks ACTION Adult Conservation Team Newsletter (All folklore stories)
As European settlers arrived in this area, they described the landscape as “luxuriant rolling prairie”. Historic accounts note the fields of beautiful flowers, mostly blue, without reference to season. One is left to decide if the writer saw pasque flowers or lupines in the spring, or gentians and asters in the fall. Much would depend on the soil type and location of the site being described by the observer. Prairie plants, particularly the showy forbs (flowers) such as pasque flower, lupine, puccoon, birdsfoot violets and butterfly weed, only grow on dry, well-drained sites such as those found where you are standing in Walking Iron Park. Specific prairie plant communities are found growing in conditions limited by soil type, climate, drainage and topography.
Pasque Flower Prairie is original, unplowed prairie sod. The land supports not only the many plant species seen over the growing season, but also uncommon and rare insects known to be an important part of a healthy, thriving prairie ecosystem. Pasque Flower Prairie is a rate prairie remnant and allows those who visit Walking Iron Park to get a glimpse of what the land looked like when first seen by the settlers. Visitors are requested not to pick any wildflowers. Flowers are the only seed source the prairies have, and have ever had, as they continued to spread and evolve over time.
Occasional oak trees are a common site in oak savannas, such as the one north of the trail passing through Pasque Flower Prairie. Recently the prairie on this site was threatened by the growth of hundreds of small oak trees and the invasion of pine and red cedar trees. In the past, tree seedlings were damaged or killed by fire. Eaten by animals or, more recently, mowed off as a prairie management technique. The immediate result seemed effective but resulted in producing a multiple-stemmed shrubby plant called an oak grub. Subsequent growth of the grubs shaded the ground and threatened to destroy the prairie.
Volunteers working at this site over several years have hand-clipped and treated each stem of the grubs to prevent resprouting and further growth. Periodic burns will aid in further control of the grubs and other invasive plants at the site. Burn areas are staggered from year to year to protect the population of prairie-dependent insects that overwinter here, as well as maintaining a constant source of plants necessary for survival.
The timing of the burns, frost and rainfall throughout the season will change how the prairie looks from year to year. During years of sufficient moisture Plasque Flower Prairie is resplendent with bloom, and species “never” seen before may appear and flower. There will be very few pasque flower blooms during a dry or cold spring. In addition, it is interesting to note the difference in the vigor and variety of prairie species on the north and south sides of the hiking trail through Pasque Flower Prairie.
In the spring look for violets, pasque flowers, bright yellow puccoon and the whispy seed filaments that give prairie smoke its name. The fall landscape also progresses through a blue-yellow phase of fall asters, goldenrods and deep blue gentians before reaching the subtle, and final, amber shades of the tall ad short grasses.