Compass plant has been one of my favorite prairie plants even before I was fortunate enough to find a flowering specimen along a Missouri roadside in 1967.
Compass plant has been one of my favorite prairie plants even before I was fortunate enough to find a flowering specimen along a Missouri roadside in 1967. I was en route to collecting data on summer food plants of white-tailed deer as part of my Master’s program at the University of Missouri. I had read Aldo Leopold’s delightful piece, “Prairie Birthday” in his classic book, Sand County Almanac. Not only does he weave an historically compelling man and nature story of a lonely plant in a Wisconsin cemetery, but connects our minds with needing contact with a thing or a person in order to develop an appreciation for it/them.
On page 48 he writes, “The erasure of a human subspecies is largely painless – to us – it we know little about it. A dead Chinaman is of little import to us whose awareness of things Chinese is bounded by an occasional dish of chow mein. We grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from western Dane County (Wisconsin) is no cause of grief if one knows it only as a name in a Botany book.” Over the years, this has been one of my favorite passages from Leopold’s book and a touchpoint when I think of the critical importance of environmental and cultural education. Growing up on a Missouri dairy farm, I was fairly insulated from the larger world until I spent a summer in California when I was 15 and met real people of Chinese ancestry. The chow mein that we occasionally had for dinner took on an expanded meaning; curiously it came in 2 cans taped together – one for the dry noodles and the other for the meat and vegetables. While a University wildlife professor, I often read the above passage to my students; probably affecting me more than them since their world is vastly different multiculturally (I hope) than mine was. I now have a Costa Rican daughter-in-law and news from that part of the world is much more meaningful now than when the country was simply a place on a map that was near the Panama Canal!
In 2013, I had occasion to give a paper on prairie management in Manhattan, Kansas. Compass plant is fairly common along country roadsides so I dug up a couple plants. Like Leopold, I was impressed by the root system. Like purple coneflower, it seems to be larger when you’ve reached the limit of your shovel. I transplanted the most robust plant to the native plant garden on the Crookston campus and a smaller plant to a little prairie restoration near our home outside of Crookston.
Over the years, my home transplant has managed to produce 5 or 6 of the dissected leaves which tend to directionally align themselves, thus giving the plant its common name. But never did it attempt to flower until this year when it produced not one but 2 flowering stems, one reaching 7 feet. Hooray! I can’t help looking at it and its prairie neighbors and not be reminded of the prairie grandeur that was, and the wonderful writings of Leopold that painted so many historic and awesome landscapes in my mind’s eye.
With this as a backdrop, take a read of Leopold’s prose in a Sand County Almanac and let your mind wonder amid prairie landscapes that we will never see in the immensity of day’s gone by. But we can still preserve a remnant here and there in prairie gardens, conserved conservation prairies, and occasionally at the landscape scale in Western states.