Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Flint Hills of Kansas

The Flint Hills of eastern Kansas harbor the largest remaining pieces of the Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. They are one of the few remaining places where the human eye can encompass the great ocean of grass so frequently and eloquently described by early American travelers and settlers.


Here, the wind, the openness and the omnipresent sky all commingle and instantaneously transport you away from modernity to a timeless place where you feel, thankfully and willingly, abandoned. Dream-like, you sense the ghosts of bison and feel that subtle, tenderly ancestral, thrill of open country.

Formed by the shallow seas of the Permian (280-240mya), limestone, riddled with insoluble chert concretions, gives the hills their distinctive “plateau” shape. The residual chert gravel and stones have rendered the region unfit for row-crop agriculture. It is this feature that has spared the region from the ill fate of the plow. Secondarily, the regional climate is too dry for most exotic cool season grasses.


Today, millions of acres of relatively quality prairie are under the management of the regions cattle culture. These private landowners, mostly ranchers, are interested in two things; grass and cattle. After decades of fighting “weeds” which they proudly but half-jokingly define as “anything that isn’t grass”, the humble Flint Hills ranchers are coming to terms with concepts such as biodiversity, heterogeneity and the intermediate disturbance hypothesis. In other words, they are beginning to digest science and conservation. Many are adding management elements to encourage forb diversity as well as grassland bird habitat. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and Konza Prairie are assisting in the transition, with a “lead by example” philosophy, like it or not.


Along the highways and bi-ways of the region, classically western Tallgrass Prairie species are abundant. Here are a few of the more common and charismatic forbs of the Flint Hills from a trip there earlier this week.
This is Solidago missouriensis. It is a more western component of the Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion. It loosely resembles S. juncea but has narrower leaves that are strongly triple-nerved. The fascicles of leaves in the axes of the stem leaves is also a reliable character.

Petalostemum multiflorum is mostly restricted to the Flint Hills of Kansas where it is common. It does occur outside the Flint Hills region, but it is increasingly less abundant. It has white flowers and spherical to hemispherical flower clusters which differ dramatically from P. candidum and P. purpureum. It also has a more diffuse growth form.

Helianthus rigidus (H. pauciflorus) is a common and attractive species of the Flint Hills. It has extremely thick leaves with a very scabrous texture. The involucre is unique and reminds me of a beer bottle cap. It occurs very sporatically further east into the prairies of western Missouri.

Euphorbia marginata has the common name "Snow on the Mountain". I am assuming this is due to the white varigation along the bracts surrounding the flowers. It is a common native of the western Tallgrass Prairie and increases with soil disturbance. When one enters extreme western Missouri and eastern Nebraska and Kansas, it suddenly becomes an abundant member of road ditch communities. I often wonder why it hasn't spread further east. It is one of my favorites.

Like all the Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion, the "big four" grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switchgrass) are common in the Flint Hills. However, the Flint Hills also have grass elements of the Mixed and Shortgrass Prairies further to the west. Bouteloua hirsuta reaches an average height of about 12 inches and has small spikes that remind me of eyebrows. Like its bigger cousin, Bouteloua curtipendula, it has pustulate hairs on the margins of the leaf blades.


Buchloe dactyloides
is another small grass in the Flint Hills. It only reaches a few inches tall and seems to be most common in areas with shallow or compacted soils. It is adorable!!

Of course, this is but a taste of what a few hours roaming the Flint Hills can provide a wandering botanist. Upon leaving the Flint Hills, I again remembered the resilience of our natural world. Each species existing as a functional element, a puzzle piece specifically shaped for a purpose within the community. Each species a unit of stability, functioning within a system of ebbs and flows and changing as the parameters of the system are redefined. It is sad that the human footprint often "redefines" the system faster than it can cope. But it will catch up, long after the human candle is extinguished. Thus I cling to my hope that Salvia azurea and its powder blue blooms will continue to stretch above the grasses of the prairie and flag down hungry pollinators for years to come.