Published: Aug 27, 2006 04:14 PM
Modified: Aug 27, 2006 04:13 PM
As the season wanes, many roadsides are becoming embroidered with our late summer and fall wildflowers and native grass plumes. I am not speaking of scarlet California poppies, lavender Asian lespedeza and pompous pampas grass, but rather the vast group of native plants that remain from our once extensive Piedmont prairies, savannas, and open woodlands.
Our highways and other managed rights-of-way provide a fortuitous refugium for a suite of shade-intolerant herbaceous plants originally adapted to fire and grazing, where the bush-hog now serves as a barely adequate substitute.
Prior to European settlement, much of the Piedmont landscape was shaped by fire from lightning strikes, Native American burning practices, and buffalo grazing.
Evidence for this view of the Piedmont comes from the maps and writings of early explorers (and modern interpretation by insightful botanists). French cartographer Guillaume DeLisle, in his 1718 map, labeled much of the North Carolina Piedmont as "Grande Savane," outlining a vast expanse of open grazing land. Naturalist and surveyor-general of North Carolina John Lawson wrote in his 1709 "A New Voyage to Carolina": "In February and March the inhabitants have a custom of burning the woods ... an annual custom of the Indians in their huntings, of setting the woods on fire many miles in extent."
And in approximately 1763, naturalist Mark Catesby noted in his journal that, "There are many spacious tracts of meadow-land ... burdened with grass six feet high," and that "The buffaloes ranged in droves feeding upon the open savannas morning and night." These early writings describe a Piedmont landscape completely different from the image many of us have of a continuous forest from the coast to the mountains.
In addition to admiring the striking assemblage of plants on prairie-like roadsides, we can actually create or encourage this landscape community on our own property. All you need do is locate a sunny area with generally harsh conditions! And fall is the best time to plant these beauties so that they can become established before they face their first sizzling and unpredictable summer. After establishment, these drought-adapted plants should not require watering.
You may actually already have on your property a Piedmont prairie refugium in an open area that you've cared for with benign neglect! To encourage your Piedmont prairie-like vegetation, mow these sites annually, but do so before May 1 or after August 1 in order to allow ground-nesting birds to complete their breeding cycle. You must also control for invasive exotic plants such as Asian lespedeza, tall fescue, Johnson grass and others.
To get a feel for the species mix and the required site conditions (aka design guidelines), simply find a nice stretch of rural Piedmont roadside to admire or visit a local natural area that contains a regularly mown or grazed open meadow (not infested with fescue). Two such local natural areas with prairie-like zones overseen by the Botanical Garden are the Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Penny's Bend Nature Preserve, both open to the public and scheduled for guided tours this September. Check the Botanical Garden's Web page for hike registration details and for general access information, or call the Totten Center reception desk.
Included in the list here are some typical species of the Piedmont prairie-like community that are available from many native plant nurseries. Please visit the Botanical Garden's web page for our "Recommended Plant Sources for Native Plants." Many of these plants are now available at our daily plant sale and even more will be offered at the Botanical Garden Annual Fall Plant Sale on September 30.
Celebrate our past by imagining a buffalo herd thundering through a waist-high grass sward interwoven with asters, sunflowers, goldenrods, and blazing stars. And let our natural history guide your fall plantings and the way you regard that patch of weeds within which resides the remains of our Piedmont prairies and savannas.
For information, call 962-0522 or see the Web site at http://www.ncbg.unc.edu
Johnny Randall is assistant director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden.