Mowing the Food Prairies

Today, we mowed the food prairies, our prototype herbaceous plantings at SFA.  I was hoping to wait till January 22nd to have a lab the first week of class and teach students about mowing naturalistic plantings.  However, with the warm weather the underplanted Narcissus × odorus had flower buds emerging from the soil.  This problem is one I outlined in detail in a previous post.  

I did get to show Anna Claire and Jevon, two of our Plantery student apprentices how mowing is accomplished.  For clearing the vegetation, I was inspired last year from a video Austin Eischeid posted to just raise a push mower on the highest setting and rev it into action.  

Jevon mows!

Jevon mows!

Anna Claire mows!

Anna Claire mows!

Some plants that lay over need to be pulled up to come in contact with the mower blades.

Some plants that lay over need to be pulled up to come in contact with the mower blades.

This year is our second mowing of the food prairies, and it went off without a hitch.  It took about 40 minutes to mow 650 square feet, but that includes some down time to refill the mower with gas.  

I prefer to mow when we can because the ground up residue provides a mulch that prevents weed growth for much of the rest of the growing season.  Even late into the fall of 2018 I was able to find ground up grass clippings from the January 2018 mowing.  

The finished product. Notice the nice layer of chopped plant residue. It is amazing to see 3 to 4 feet of biomass reduced to a few inches. The deep green clumps are  Carex cherokeensis .

The finished product. Notice the nice layer of chopped plant residue. It is amazing to see 3 to 4 feet of biomass reduced to a few inches. The deep green clumps are Carex cherokeensis.

And, we were able to find Narcissus × odorus buds still intact after the cut. Mission accomplished.  

Oh, and here’s a video from last year if you want to see the process. Yes, our students do really mow that fast.

Echinacea Named Tennessee

Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee coneflower) is beginning to bloom in our SFA student garden here in east Texas.  Plants that we started over two years ago as class projects have returned yet again and are flowering their little heads off.

I must admit, when  Echinacea tennesseensis  first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

I must admit, when Echinacea tennesseensis first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

It's one of my favorite native wildflowers, but I'm a bit biased, being a native from the great volunteer state.  You can easily identify this member of the aster family apart from the other nine or so species of Echinacea that are native to the US. Their inflorescences face east once mature, and the ray florets ascend to the sun instead of drooping like the petals on most other coneflowers.  This plant embodies such a great metaphor for life.  Start every day gazing at dawn and reaching toward the sky; I can get behind that.  Or, in front of that I should say as this trait does force us to consider where to situate it in gardens.  It must be planted on the eastern flank.  Siting it to the west will cause you to only see the backstage of the inflorescences and leave you unable to enjoy the full performance.  

Can you spy the east-facing  Echinacea tennesseensis  'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical  Echinacea  at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Can you spy the east-facing Echinacea tennesseensis 'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical Echinacea at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Of course, it's a bit of a miracle that we still have this delightful perennial with us.  Tennessee coneflower is only found in a few counties in Tennessee, and if heroic stewards hadn't stepped in to save it, our world would be less colorful.  It was discovered in 1878 by Augustin Gattinger, and less than a century later in 1961 its absence in field surveys led some researchers to claim it extinct.  Later in the 60's it was rediscovered; however, survival wasn't guaranteed as the land some populations inhabited was cleared to make way for trailer parks and housing developments.  We have people like the late Dr. Elise Quarterman to thank for advocating for this species's livelihood.  Efforts from her and others helped the plant become listed on the endangered species list, one of the first flora ever.  This attention led to areas where Echinacea tennesseensis occurred being protected, and with enough populations safe, the species was delisted in 2011, certainly a success story for horticulture and humankind's intervention.

The endemism is a peculiar subject.  Why is such a floriferous species isolated to just a few counties in Tennessee?  Sure, humans destroyed a few sites, but it seems that it never had the wide distribution that some of the other Echinacea genera enjoy.  The current hypothesis is that the species arose during the hypsithermal interval, a period of climatic warming and drying that occurred around 5000—8000 years ago.  Drier conditions opened the woodlands of middle Tennessee and allowed the colonization of prairie species like our Echinacea.  When the climate cooled and became more moist, forests began to reclaim the land, and this stress-tolerant species began to decline in numbers.  Walck et al. (2002) state that its narrow endemism is due to several factors—seed-based reproduction; large seeds that aren't animal or wind dispersed; self sterility; intolerance of shading; a lack of seed persistence in the soil, and few individuals making it to adulthood in the wild.  All these characteristics would have limited its dispersal from middle Tennessee.  

The xeric-adapted nature of established plants is quite apparent in the root systems. Earlier this spring I had to move some Echinacea tennesseensis, and I was very surprised to discover massive, deep taproots on plants that were only one year old.  Unearthing knowledge about roots (in a literal and figurative sense!) is always exciting, like discovering buried treasure.  I expected to see more rhizomatous roots like those on Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) that I've transplanted much of my life .  The soil had mostly sloughed off one taproot, so I rinsed it to get a better look.  Near the crown it was as thick as a plump carrot!   From there, the chthonic organ divided with depth, but the roots were still stout.  (Yes, most of the transplants survived in case you are wondering.)

I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on  Echinacea tennesseensis  likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on Echinacea tennesseensis likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

A close up of the crown of  Echinacea tennesseensis .  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

A close up of the crown of Echinacea tennesseensis.  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

I'm already applying this new anatomical knowledge to our propagation culture.  This spring, we currently have over 10 deep-celled propagation trays of Echinacea tennesseensis that my student team has grown.  Seeing the deep taproot was insight to not keep the plants in the trays for too long.  

While it is beautiful to see in the gardens, I hope one day to see this Echinacea named Tennessee in its provincial habitat.  Perhaps at daybreak with their heads basking in the new glow of the day and me basking in the existence of such a great species for our plantings.