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Thursday, May 13, 2004 04:59 am

Prairie Notes 5-13-04

Our restored prairie is finally coming to life out here at Prairierth Farm. Golden Alexander appeared after a few good spring showers, and the foxglove beardtongue is about ready to show off its little white bell-shaped flowers. Native Americans discovered that plant had medicinal value for "weak heart," and modern science still uses its essence to treat heart problems. The scientific name of the plant is digitalis.

I'm already looking forward to summer, when I can get lost in the eight-foot-tall bluestem and Indian grasses and imagine looking out over the endless prairie that my ancestors must have seen when they came to Illinois in the 1830s. I doubt they would have understood why I love that single acre of the fertile landscape they worked so hard to turn under with the plow.

Prairie plants can make fascinating additions to your personal landscape. Once established, they're quite hardy and require relatively little care. Consider selecting plants for both texture and color. The compass plant, whose leaves face north and south, shoots up a tall, thick stem laden with yellow flowers. The stalk contains a clear, sticky sap that pioneer kids used to make chewing gum. Prairie dock grows leaves as large as a bushel basket. Rattlesnake master is, well, interesting. The leaves look like yucca, the thistle-like flowers grow in a golf-ball shape. American Indians brewed a tea from the plant as an antidote to rattlesnake venom. For color, there are yellow and purple coneflower, spiderwort (blue), butterfly weed (red), wild quinine (white; another one of those medicinal plants), and Indian paintbrush (red), just to mention a few of the more than 300 species of grasses and forbs (flowers) native to Illinois. The grand prize would have to be the Western prairie fringed orchid. If you find one of those, I'd like to hear about it!

Well, right now there are fresh radishes, lettuce, asparagus, and a few morels on the table. Life is good.

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