Old Plainsman: Hurdling Drought and Drench

By Alyssa Nyberg, Restoration Ecologist at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands

Old plainsman played its cards well this year.

Early spring in Newton County was quite pleasant, with regular rains and warm temperatures. Old plainsman (Hymenopappus scabioseaus) was able to send up its two-foot tall flowering stalk in time to get pollinated by short tongued bees, beetles, flies and butterflies and set seed before the unexpected harsh dry days of late June arrived. It had made it, it had completed its life cycle, and just in time!

Also called Carolina wooly-white, old plainsman is a pretty plant of the Kankakee Sands dry sand prairies and sand dunes. At its base is a rosette of finely divided feathery grey leaves. When it flowers, it sends up a solitary, red-tinged stalk beset with wooly tufts and long hairs. Atop the stalk sites a cluster of 20 – 100 white flowers.

Old Plainsman. Photo by Trevor Edmonson, TNC

Old plainsman is a biennial– a flowering plant that takes two or more years to complete its life cycle of flowering, pollination, and seed set. Biennials can hold until the conditions are favorable – a year or two if needed – before sending up a flowering stalk, which takes a lot of energy and resources for a plant to do. After flowering, the plant will die back. It has done its job.

Some prairie plants are annuals, living only one year. In that short time, they must flower and set seed, in order to ensure that their genetics will remain a part of the prairie’s diversity. They are the prairie’s sprinters.

Perennials are plants which can return from their rootstock for three or more years, weathering the dry spells and the wet spells, and taking advantage of favorable conditions to flower and set seed. They are the marathoners.

I like to think of the biennials as the runners who do hurdles. They are designed to last only a few years, so they must run relatively fast like the sprinters, but can jump the hurdles of drought or drench, and wait for the following year if conditions aren’t right for flowering and successful seed set. Opportunists they are!

Old Plainsman is past flowering and setting seed. Photo by Alyssa Nyberg, TNC

Old plainsman is another one of our ‘fancy plants’ – a plant that would have historically grown in high quality, diverse remnant prairies—those prairies that have existed since the retreat of the glaciers and have never been plowed for agriculture. Old plainsman is quite rare in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois; in fact it is found in just two Indiana counties–Newton and Starke. Throughout the U.S. it is found in the southeastern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia Mississippi and South Carolina, as well as the central states of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Illinois.

Seed of Old Plainsman. Photo by Alyssa Nyberg, TNC

Walk (or sprint or jog or dash) through Kankakee Sands this July and you’ll find most of the old plainsman successfully pollinated and producing seed, surrounded by the lance-leaved coreopsis, butterfly weed, june grass, round headed bush clover, hoary puccoon, little bluestem, and spiderwort.

Come on out for a sprint, jog or stroll through the Kankakee Sands this summer and enjoy all the annual, perennial and biennial flowers of the prairie! _____________________________________________________________________________________

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is an 8,300-acre prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information about Kankakee Sands, visit www.nature.org/KankakeeSands or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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