Spring Surprise on the Tallgrass Prairie

I have no frame of reference for spring on the tallgrass prairie. Everything is new to me. It is amazing to see what starts to come up before all of the grasses wake up and make things a lot harder to find. Diminutive herbs take advantage of sunlight while they can. What I also like is how well certain species stand out against a backdrop of last year's dry stems. This is how I was able to find wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides). 

The first time I laid eyes on this species, I was actually looking for birds. The spot I was in is known for harboring pheasants. I could hear the males calling but I was having a hard time locating these colorful birds. As I scanned the prairie for shots of color, something else caught my eye. From where I was standing, it looked like a green stick covered in foam. I couldn't quite make out enough detail. I knew it had to be a plant but the search imagine simply wasn't there. I had to investigate. 

Gingerly I tip toed out into the grasses trying to avoid stepping on emerging vegetation. Luckily some deer had already beat a path pretty close to where this mystery plant was growing. When I was only a few yards away I quickly realized what I was seeing. It was a small patch of wild hyacinth. From a distance it was hard to resolve the outline of the tightly packed flowers. From up close, however, it is one of the most stunning spring displays I have ever seen. 

They were covered in ants. As it turns out, these flowers produce copious amounts of nectar. Whereas ants offer nothing in the way of pollination, myriad other insects like flies, bees, butterflies, and wasps visit these blooms in search of a sweet, energy-rich meal. This plant seems to have no trouble getting pollinated. This is a spring species, emerging from an underground bulb not unlike the hyacinths you buy at nurseries. It has slender, grass-like foliage that isn't always apparent mixed in with all of the other vegetation. 

I was a little surprised that such an obvious plant could exist unharmed so near a deer path until I did some research. Like many of its relatives, wild hyacinth is quite toxic to mammals. As such, the deer were smart to pass it up. After years of seeing nothing but its introduced Asian relatives, I was quite happy to be meeting an eastern species native to North America. 

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