Confluence, our Water Ways in art

The Blanchardville Public Library’s summer theme is “Library’s Rock”  which makes the art exhibit depicting the hydrologic cycle perfect. Ten community artists came together (confluence) to create a beautiful and educational exhibit illustrating elements of the hydrologic cycle — our “water ways.”

Land use and water quality

All land uses have an effect on water flow and water quality; some are positive, some are negative. In healthy ecosystems receiving little human disturbance, most rainfall soaks into the soil rather than running off the ground, stream flows are fairly steady, and water quality is good. In built-up areas with pavement and buildings or agricultural areas where land is bare rainfall causes runoff and poorer water quality. In fact, land use practices are the most important water quality factor.


Runoff is the water draining off the land; it is a natural and necessary part of the landscape. Water will follow the rules of gravity and move from a higher point to a lower point. If the water is filtered through native plants’ roots, it is important for recharging our groundwater. Negative runoff situations arise when the land becomes bare. When the water runs off hard surfaces and accumulates contaminants. In urban areas, these hard surfaces are pavement and concrete. In rural areas, solid surfaces are created by bare land. Other runoff occurs in cropped lands via drain tiles or land tilled too close to a stream. These negative situations are mitigated with good conservation farming practices, maintaining native wetlands, planting native plants along streams, and ensuring stormwater is filtered before it enters our waterways.


Karst is a topography characterized by carbonate rock (limestone, dolomite, gypsum) that easily dissolves in rainwater forming cracks, sink holes and even large cave systems. Water quickly moves through the cracks in karst and enters the groundwater. These cracks act as direct conduits for pollutants to enter our groundwater, wells, springs, and streams. There are many regions in the world that have karst geology, southwestern Wisconsin is one of them so are areas of Mexico, Germany, and Florida to name a few.

Lafayette County is sensitive to water pollutants because of our karst landscape. Whenever material above the aquifer is permeable, pollutants can readily sink into groundwater supplies and our drinking water supplies. Good conservation practices can ease the statistic that croplands are responsible for 96% of nitrates leached into groundwater.

Karst landscape is particularly easy to see in the winter. Where the road cuts through the earth you can see the beautiful icicles! This is the water seeping through the rocks, then freezing.


Groundwater is the water found underground in the cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. It is stored in and moves slowly through geologic formations called aquifers. Groundwater is a necessary resource; it supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of the rural population.

Groundwater is also a limited resource. It’s difficult to think this is possible when we currently average 34.5” every year, but only about 25% of all rainfall in the U.S. becomes groundwater. In the past that average has fluctuated from 21-44”annually.

Agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater resources. In the United States 64% of groundwater is drawn down to irrigate crops.

Well, Bethany Storm, Mixed media

Well Depth and Construction

The safety of the water in your home is dependent upon proper well location and construction.  The well casing needs to extend into a confined aquifer, which must be quite deep in our karst landscape. As you can see from these diagrams, if the casing doesn’t extend deep enough, your water could be receiving contaminants from one half to one mile away from your home. The well should be located so rainwater flows away from it. Rainwater can pick up harmful bacteria and chemicals on the land’s surface.

Surface Water

Surface water is freshwater you see on the top or surface of the landscape. It includes rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs; these are vitally important to our everyday life. The amount and location of surface water changes, varying in response to climate and human activities.

Surface water represents only about 3% of all water on Earth. Freshwater lakes account for a mere 0.29% of the Earth’s freshwater. Lake Baikal in Asia has 20% of all fresh surface water; another 20% is stored in the Great Lakes.  What a precious resource we have near us!!

Runoff and erosion have negative effects for surface water and eventually our groundwater. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff causes the algal blooms on our lakes, subsequent deaths of animals, and a loss of tourism dollars. Excess nitrogen in the streams where livestock drink can cause disease. Pesticides are dangerous too and are found in surface water 97% of the time near agricultural areas and 61% of the time in other landscapes.

Pecatonica, Fish
Something’s Fishy: Underwater swimmers of the Pecatonica, Nana Showalter, Steel sculpture

Fish of Lafayette County

Smallmouth bass and trout fishing are popular in our warm waterways. Our lakes support panfish such as bluegill and crappie along with the occasional northern pike. Fishing for brown trout is popular and the Lafayette County area has several restored coldwater streams.

Twilight on the Pecatonica, Roberta Barham, Wool

The word Pecatonica is an anglicization of two Algonquian language words: Bekaa (or Pekaa in some dialects), which means “slow”, and niba, which means “water”, forming the conjunction Bekaaniba or “Slow Water”.

The Pecatonica begins in Iowa County, runs through Lafayette County into Illinois where is joins the Rock River about 15 miles north of Rockford, IL.

It’s final destination is the Gulf of Mexico via the Mighty Mississippi River.

Hydrologic Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle
Hydrologic Cycle, Elsie Berget, Paper

The hydrologic cycle is the way water moves through our world. Water falls to the ground in the form of precipitation which either evaporates into the atmosphere, soaks into the ground, or runs off into surface waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. The water that infiltrates into the ground is either picked up by plants and organisms that transpire it into the air or it becomes groundwater. Groundwater is stored in an aquifer. Some water spends hundreds of years beneath the surface in deep aquifers; other groundwater is drawn back to the surface through manmade wells. Shallow aquifers feed into our surface water through seeps or springs in the ground. All the water that evaporates enters the atmosphere, becomes clouds and the cycle continues.

The main elements of the hydrologic cycle are:

  1. Evaporation
  2. Precipitation
  3. Transpiration
  4. Runoff
  5. Infiltration

hydrologic cycle
The hydrologic cycle — as with all things, it must work together to be effective!


Precipitation is water released from clouds. It is visible to us in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, or hail and is the primary method for water in the air to be delivered to earth. Most precipitation falls as rain. In our area, we expect an average of 34.5” of rainfall each year. Clouds are small droplets of water too small to fall to the ground. They create a vapor that appears as white fluffy objects in the sky. How many types of clouds can you name?


Evaporation is the process by which water changes from a liquid to a gas or vapor. Studies have shown the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers provide nearly 90% of the moisture in the atmosphere via evaporation, with the remaining 10 percent being contributed by plant transpiration. Once evaporated, a water molecule spends about 10 days in the air.


Transpiration is how we describe plants’ breathing. Plants’ roots draw water and nutrients up into the stems and leaves; some of this water is returned to the air by transpiration. Transpiration rates vary widely depending on weather conditions. During dry periods, transpiration can contribute to the loss of moisture in the upper soil zone, which can have an effect on food-crop fields.

An acre of corn gives off about 3,000-4,000 gallons of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons per year. Keeping the numerous oak savannas in Lafayette County healthy would be very good for us!!


A watershed is the land where all the water drains off of it before entering into a particular water body. Watersheds can vary in size and are determined by topography (the peaks and valleys). In southwestern Wisconsin, we are located in the Upper Mississippi watershed. Everything we do on our land here travels to the Mississippi River and eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico either from overland flow or through underground channels. Major watersheds like the Upper Mississippi are made up of many little watersheds. In fact each creek or pond has its own defined watershed.

What watershed do you live in?

The watersheds of Lafayette County

Flow, Chip Hankley, Digital image on paper.

This image represents 30 years of flow data from the USGS Pecatonica River monitoring station between Blanchardville and Argyle. The station collects a reading every hour. This image was derived from almost 800,000 individual readings. The patterns in the image reflect the annual cycles of water in the river: spring melt, winter ice, and summer lows.

Topography 1: Topography refers to a data set that represents the land surface elevation. This is a graphic representation of the topography between Blanchardville and Argyle that uses a continuous grid of data. Each “cell” in the grid contains a ground elevation and has a ground dimension of 5 feet by 5 feet. The area shown is approximately 12.5 square miles, and is composed of over 174 million “cells.” The graphic shows the dendritic pattern of drainage and ridge tops that is characteristic of our watershed.

Topography 2: Topography refers to a data set that represents the land surface elevation. This is a graphic representation of the topography between Blanchardville and Argyle that uses lines to represent continuous elevation (or contours). Topographic contour maps are the cartographic means that most people are familiar with.

Topography 3, Chip Hankley, Digital image on paper

Topography 3: This image uses a technique called hillshading to show changes in terrain. In this image, hillshading is combined with color to highlight relative changes in elevation. This is a detail of a portion of the river valley between Blanchardville and Argyle. The combination of the two techniques clearly shows the steep cliffs and the multiple floodplain terraces.

Freshwater ecosystem

Freshwater ecosystems – such as wetlands, lakes and ponds, rivers, streams, and springs – are a critical part of the global water cycle. The water in these ecosystems is our surface waters; the ones our watershed catches and directs to our drinking water source.

Freshwater is also imperative to the survival of humans. We cannot stay alive without fresh water, yet we are facing a number of threats to our supply: 1) runoff from agricultural and urban areas, 2) draining of wetlands for agricultural uses and development, 3) overexploitation (i.e. high capacity wells) and pollution, and 4) invasion of exotic species.

All freshwater ultimately depends on the continued healthy functioning of organisms interacting in the aquatic environment. These organisms include fish, aquatic insects, amphibians, turtles, water fowl, and mammals such as otters and beavers. Freshwater is home to 40% of the world’s fish species. At present, more than 20% of these fish species are extinct or imperiled.

Fish living in our creeks and streams need clean, fresh water to survive. Lafayette County is home to one of the best smallmouth bass fishing places in the U.S. Yellowstone Lake is also a source of pride and brings in tourism.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

Insects are great indicators of safe, clean water because they are not highly mobile; they reside in the water for long periods of time. Insects offer a method of testing water less often and more accurately. Many of them are not tolerant of pollution and will die off when the waters become contaminated.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

Ducks and waterfowl are indicators of the environment. If they’re in trouble, we’ll soon be in trouble. They rely on wetland areas for food and nesting. The primary threat to waterfowl is the loss of wetland quality and function by agricultural activities that aren’t complying with conservation practices.

Freshwater ecosystem
Healthy Freshwater Environment, Elsie Berget, Fabric and Paper

There are three basic types of freshwater ecosystems:

  • Lentic: slow moving water, including pools, ponds, and lakes.
  • Lotic: faster moving water, for example streams and rivers.
  • Wetlands: areas where the soil is saturated or inundated for at least part of the time.

What types of freshwater ecosystems do you have near where you live?

Streambank Erosion

Cutting the Banks, Jim Hess, Drone photography
As topsoil erodes from higher elevation it collects along the streambanks which funnels water flow to continue cutting into and eroding the banks.

Where water is not slowed down it erodes the land, sending the topsoil to the streams where it builds up our stream bank sides or silts in our lakes. Our hilly Driftless Area landscape is conducive to erosion. Losing soil and nutrients to streams isn’t good for the farmers or the environment. Soil is precious and losing it hurts a farm’s productivity.

Feathered for Ebb and Flo, Marci Hess, photography
When streambanks are restored to their healthy and historical nature water can move in and out without erosion.

Streambanks historically were feathered out to allow water to ebb and flow. The steep-sided banks we often see in our streams are the topsoil from the ridge tops and hillsides that drained to the valley streams and built up along the edges. Once the streambanks are built up with this excess topsoil, water cannot gently flow but rather is blasted through the channels. This creates more and more erosion. With every turn of the stream the water grooves out more and more soil; eventually the hollowed out bank crumbles. This topsoil becomes nutrient-laden sediment, clogging our streams and lakes, and de-oxygenating the water. Insects and fish cannot thrive and the ecosystem begins to fail.

Wetlands and infiltration

The negative effects of runoff and erosion are prevented by the deep roots of native plants. Wetlands adjacent to streams are important and positive for healthy, safe, and clean water. The root systems of native plants reach deep into the soil, many of them stretching 12-20 feet downward. Nonnative plants do not have long roots. The root length allows more microbes to exist in the soil; these microbes are responsible for absorbing the additional nutrients from crops and livestock waste and pesticide runoff from urban areas.

Nonnative plants do not have the same nutrient-absorbing abilities as our natives. Their root structure is short; this means they are dependent on water supplied by precipitation. Native roots extend far into the soil where they can extract water in times of drought. This increases their importance as they can continue to filter surface water when other plants have died. This filtration service is the most significant method for purifying our drinking water.


Native plant root systems
Roots: Natural water filters, Sarah Aslakson, Mixed media

Native plant root systems are extensive. They prevent erosion, filter the surface water, and feed the microbes, which provide fertility. Dissolved nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, chemically bond with soil. Instead of eroding into our streams and groundwater, these nutrients are available to feed the plants.

prairie roots
Prairie plants have incredible root systems with numerous microbes that filter our additional nutrients polluting our streams and lakes.
Planting a buffer of native plants along waterways and wet areas is good for all our health!

Soil Microbes

When we talk about healthy soil, we are generally referring to the microbes and invertebrates living within it. These critters are what remove toxins and excess nutrients so they don’t erode into our waterways. Microbes are most prevalent in soil with native plants.

Forested Surface Water

Surface water
Nature’s Blessing, Susan Meier, Watercolor

In the U.S., about 180 million people in over 68,000 communities rely on these forested lands to capture and filter their drinking water.

Trees are ideal in an urban setting for “treating” stormwater runoff.


Sarah Aslakson – Sarah’s formal education is in collage and her interest in art lies with the natural world.

Roberta Barham – Roberta, a lifelong Wisconsinite is a fiber artist, using mainly wool in various formats. She has been cleaning, carding, spinning and knitting with wool for 35 years.

Elsie Berget – Elsie lives in Lafayette County. She has a BFA and works in various media including paint, fabric, and paper

Heidi Hankley – Heidi has always been fascinated by nature and she is grateful for its unending supply of inspiration.

Chip Hankley – Chip is kind of a nerd. He likes numbers and data. He also likes nature, patterns and color. He turns large data sets into pictures, and likes to figure out ways to make the pictures tell stories about the data.

Jim Hess – Jim is retired and stays busy volunteering with conservation groups and restoring his own land. He purchased the drone to help plan projects and provide before and after pictures.

Marci Hess – Marci loves highlighting the natural world through photography. Her avocation is restoring ecosystems to provide habitat.

Susan Meier – Susan has been painting with watercolor for about 10 years. I love many arts/crafts especially quilting/sewing and painting.

Nana Showalter – Nana is a local artist and metal sculptor, specializing in hot forged and fabricated steel sculpture. She works in the original Postville Blacksmith Shop and teaches classes in basic blacksmithing.

Bethany Storm – Bethany Storm spent her tenure working in the natural resources. In pseudo retirement, she owns and operates a nonprofit, sustainable homestead farm in Postville.

Insects and Milkweed

Authors: Marci Hess and MJ Hatfield

Insects and milkweed plants have been a topic of much conversation lately. It is wonderful that monarchs and their corresponding host plants, milkweeds, are getting the attention and grant money they deserve. Yet there are a number of insects that utilize milkweeds and depend on them for various reason; many of these are less well known by the general public. By planting, encouraging and appreciating milkweeds, folks will be helping these insects, too.

Do you know how many types of milkweed are in your area? Can you name them? [Test yourself first then check the list at the bottom of this posting for milkweeds in The Driftless Area.]

There are some unique characteristics of milkweeds making it an intriguing plant. Milkweeds contain cardiac glycosides which are toxic to humans and mammals. Insects can sequester these in their systems, making them unpalatable to their predators. This chemical is usually in a low enough dose it does not kill the bird or mammal but it will make them vomit. Often it only takes once for these predators to learn not to do that again! Defensive systems are pretty remarkable. Do you think the plant or the insect evolved this defense first?

Another characteristic and plant defense is the white, milky sap that exudes when a leaf or stem is cut. Longhorn milkweed beetles are able to feed on milkweeds and dogbanes despite the latex secretion oozing from the leaves when they are cut. The beetles sever the midvein of the leaf, disconnecting its flow to the rest of the leaf. Once this is done, the beetles can freely nibble on the leaf tips without fear of having their mandibles glued shut with this sticky protective substance (Eisner, 2003:284).

Cerambycidae, milkweed, red milkweed beetle, Tetraopes tetrophthalmus
Leaf nibbled by Tetraopes tetrophthalmus (Red milkweed beetle)

“The cerambycid genus Tetraopes is the most diverse of the new world milkweed herbivores and the species are generally host specific, being restricted to single, different species of Asclepias, more often than most other milkweed insects” (Farrell 2001). Tetropes produce one generation annually. Eggs are laid at the base of the stem or cut into the stem. Either way, the larvae migrate to the roots, boring into the plant stem if the eggs weren’t laid there.  The adults feed on the leaves, flower buds, or blossoms.

Along with the Tetraopes tetrophthalmus, some of the other Tetraopes species you might find are, Tetraopes annulatus and Tetraopes femoratus.

Cerambycidae, milkweed, Tetraopes annulatus
Tetraopes annulatus


Cerambycidae, milkwee, Tetraopes femoratus
Tetraopes femoratus

Another beetle whose larvae participate in the vein cutting prior to feeding is the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis). Common names can be misleading as this beetle is not host-specific to swamp milkweed.

Chyrsomelidae, milkweed, Labidomera clivicollis, Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle
Labidomera clivicollis (Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle) preparing to feed

The Milkweed Stem Weevil (Rhyssomatus lineaticollis) feeds on the stems of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and oviposits there as well. An interesting comment I read on BugGuide is the scar length the female cuts for ovipositing is an “accurate predictor of the number of eggs laid by the adult female.” Can you imagine being able to measure the slit and count the eggs laid by a 6mm insect?

Curculionidae, milkweed, Milkweed Stem Weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis
Milkweed Stem Weevil, Rhyssomatus lineaticollis

Milkweed leaf-miner fly (Liriomyza asclepiadis) larvae feed on the foliage of milkweed. As the name implies, they “mine” between the outer layers of a leaf, leaving colorless mines that often turn brown. Leaf-miners are interesting because one can usually tell who the insect is by the characteristics of the mine and the type of plant being mined; even the frass pattern is unique enough to offer an ID for leaf-mining insects. Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney have a great book, Tracks and Sign of Insects, which show pictures of various leaf-mining activity. More photos of the larvae and the blotchy leaf-mining pattern of the Liriomyza asclepiadis can be found on BugGuide.  

Diptera, agromyzidae, Liriomyza asclepiadis, milkweed
Liriomyza asclepiadis larvae

Diptera, agromyzidae, Liriomyza asclepiadis, milkweed
Liriomyza asclepiadis adult

 Some of the more commonly found insects are the milkweed bugs in the Lygaeidae family. The small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii) and the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). The following pictures show two stages of the nymph growth and highlight their clustering habit.

Hemiptera, lygaeidae, Large milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, milkweed
Large milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, sucking on an Asclepias tuberosa stem

Hemiptera, lygaeidae, milkweed, lygaeus kalmii
Lygaeus kalmi

Hemiptera, lygaeidae, Large milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, milkweed
Large milkweed bug nymphs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, inside and outside of the milkweed pod.

Hemiptera, lygaeidae, Large milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, milkweed
Large milkweed bug nymphs clustering, Oncopeltus fasciatus

In the Hemiptera order there is an aphid that uses milkweeds, the oleander aphid or milkweed aphid (Aphis nerii).

Milkweed aphid, Aphis nerii, hemiptera, aphididae, milkweed
Milkweed aphid, Aphis nerii

Seems no matter what plant we pick, there’s a moth or two that use it! The moths sequester the secondary metabolite (compounds not directly related to primary functions) of the milkweeds making them unpalatable to bats. Dogbanes have this same chemical; the Euchaetes egle (Milkweed Tussock Moth) is munching a dogbane leaf in the photo. The bright colors of the caterpillars warn predators of their bad taste, but the adults warn with clicking sounds (Simmons and Conner 1996). Tussock moths are not to be handled without protection; they have urticating hairs between the soft ones which can irritate your skin. Cycnia collaris is a tiger moth who feeds on milkweeds; its caterpillar is a brilliant orange while the adult is white with a bright yellow edge.

Cycnia collaris, lepidoptera, erebidae, milkweed
Cycnia collaris caterpillar

Euchaetes egle,(Milkweed tussock moth, lepidoptera, erebidae, dogbane, apocynum
Euchaetes egle (Milkweed tussock moth) caterpillar munching on a dogbane (Apocynum sp) leaf.

Euchaetes egle,(Milkweed tussock moth, lepidoptera, erebidae, milkweed
Euchaetes egle caterpillars skeletonizing a milkweed. These are earlier instars (developmental stage) than the single one of the dogbane leaf.

Pollinators of milkweeds are diverse ranging from bees, wasps, flies, ants, to beetles. To ensure they are pollinated sufficiently, milkweeds have a mechanism in their flowers allowing them to capture and trap an insect for a period of time (Jolivet, 1998:189). This trapping is caused by a sticky substance and results in the pollinia sac attaching to the insect. The larger insects can carry this sac to the next plant, completing pollination. Small insects can suffocate if they cannot get free from this. Many of these smaller insects are careful and only dip their tongues into the blossoms like the small sweat bee, an Augochlora species shown below. Have you found an insect caught inside a milkweed blossom?

Geometrid, milkweed, lepidoptera
A geometrid moth stuck on a milkweed blossom

Augochlora, hymenoptera, halictidae, milkweed
Augochlora species

We did not include the monarch (Danaus plexipllus) in this article because most of you are familiar with them. The Xerces Society has many good resources about this butterfly and its relationship to milkweeds; one in particular is an article in their 2011 newsletter, Wings. A PDF can be accessed via this link:

We’re hoping this kindles some excitement and you’ll enjoy exploring milkweeds in more detail.


Eisner, Thomas. 2003. For Love of Insects. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Farrell, B.D., 2001. Evolutionary Assembly of the Milkweed Fauna: Cytochrome Oxidase I and the Age of Tetraopes Beetles. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 18(3): 467–478.

Jolivet, Pierre. 1998. Interrelationship Between Insects and Plants. Washington DC: CRC Press.

Simmons RB, and WE Conner, (1996). Acoustic cues in defense and courtship of Euchaetes egle Drury and E. bolteri Stretch. Journal of Insect Behavior 9: 909–919.


Asclepias viridiflora, A. hirtella, A. lanuginosa, A. tuberosa, A. ovalifolia, A. incarnata, A. syriaca, A. purpurascens, A. amplexicaulis, A. exaltata, A. verticillata, A. sullivantii, A. meadii, A.speciosa, and A. quadrifolia.

How to ID Sedges

Sedges often remain a mystery for many of us. This year, the Prairie Bluff chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts had an outing at Abraham’s Woods for the purpose of learning how to ID sedges. This morning workshop was lead by Nate Gingerich and John Larson.

Sedge ID
Nate Gingerich explains sedge characteristics to Chris Roberts and Kim Karoh with John Ochsner in the background.

Sedges are mainly found in moist soil in full sun although there are also many species that enjoy woodlands and dry bluffs. You’ll find them in flower mostly during the months of April, May, and June. Sedges are differentiated from grasses by a number of characteristics, but the simplest one is the stem. A sedge stem is triangular and solid; a grass stem is round and hollow. There are some sedges that are annuals but all the of the Carex species are perennial. Whether you can ID the sedge or not, the good news is that you are very unlikely to encounter a non-native sedge species.

Some of the important things to take with you when you go out to ID sedges are:

  • A 10x loupe
  • A good field guide or two
  • Know the terminology and structural parts of a sedge. This takes times but it makes working through the dichotomous keys much easier!
  • Have a good metric ruler. Many of the IDs are dependent upon an accurate measurement. A millimeter or two can change the ultimate identification.
  • Take a plastic bag. This will keep whatever you collect fresh. When you do take specimens from the field, be sure to take 2 or 3 leaves and seed heads from the same plant.
  • Know the habitat. It helps to know where to look for sedges and also when you collect a portion to ID, make a note of the habitat. Sedges are mainly in moist soil but there are some that grow in woods and on dry, rocky bluffs. Knowing where the sedge is found can narrow down the ID.

Once we worked through a few IDs using the dichotomous keys, we found there are a few specific areas that need to be a focus. Here’s the list of some of the key elements that need attention.

  • Basal leaf sheath – what color is it? Green or brown/purple? This is often better determined in the field than on a specimen removed from the field.
  • Back side of the leaf sheath – look for distinctive veining
  • Top of front side of leaf sheath (summit of leaf sheath- look at shape and texture. Is it firm, flimsy, clear, green, spotted, etc?  Does it end in a concave, convex, or straight line?
  • Spike shape and configuration. Particularly try to determine how male and female flowers are arranged- are they on separate spikelets or are they combined in the same spikelets, and if combined which are on top and which are below?
  • Stigma numbers and shape
  • Habitat and location – it helps to know what county or part of a state the sedge is found
  • Plant growth – it is clumping or not?

A few resources include:

  • Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges by Andrew Hipp
  • Spring Flora of Wisconsin by Norman Fassett
  • Sedges: Carex by Robert Mohlenbrock
  • Sedges: Cyperus to Scleria by Robert Mohlenbrock
  • Woodland Carex of the Upper Midwest by Linda Curtis

Think Like a Seed

Our management plan is simple: remove the invasives and increase diversity. One way we increase diversity is by propagating plants and planting them into various areas. How many we plant out in a year varies. It depends on my success rate at getting the native seed to germinate and then how many plants survived the overwintering process. Every year is different.

Growing these plants has taught me a great deal about them. Not only about the individual plant but about how to think like a seed. Seeds have many ways to stimulate and delay germination. In the restoration world, we are amazed at how certain plants are abundant during certain years. If we are tracking the weather (temperature, rainfall, etc) we might find a few clues about why those plants are enjoying that particular year. It’s not all weather related though. Anthropogenic reasons must be included especially knowing what type of disturbance might have occurred. At our place, storms also create disturbance when trees are toppled.

Understanding how to propagate requires an understanding of how the seeds germinate and a base concept of seed dormancy. Dormancy is how a seed protects itself from sprouting up at times when it isn’t conducive to their continued existence, such as in the middle of a cold, snowy winter. Seeds are regulated by chemicals, hormones to be exact, that determine their dormancy requirements and their germination requirements. This physiological dormancy allows for flexibility, which is advantageous since nature is not predictable.

The first rule for germination is to create the environmental conditions required for the seed to germinate. Initially, I had to learn what it takes to penetrate the seed coat to get moisture inside to the embryo; they must take up liquid faster than they lose it. This very basic rule is the most important. It is why the substrate that you put the seed into for germination is critical and it drives the pre-germination process, too, explaining why most native seeds require a cold, moist period of time rather than simply a cold one. There are a number of seeds that need more intensive procedures, such as alternating from warm to cold to warm with each temperature period requiring a certain number of days. Chemically altering the seed coat can be effective as well. I have successfully used Giberellin Acid (GA-3), a natural plant hormone, to induce germination. Not every seed responds to this though. To know which do, check out the Deno books in the Resource section of Propagation – My Set up and Methods. There are a few other sources listed here that I reference, too.

Just about every aspect the seed determines their germination requirements: small seeds, location of the seed on the plant, and time of seed maturation. The environment under which the plant grew will affect the seed: temperature, light, day length, drought, and soil nutrients. There are many variables that determine germination and dormancy. I think this is why I’m always surprised, amazed, awed when I’ve successfully gotten a seed to sprout!

Here’s a few of the books that I reference often when I have questions about seeds:

Fenner, Michael and Ken Thompson. 2005. The Ecology of Seeds. Cambridge UK: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Loewer, Peter. 1995. Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History, and Lore. Portland, OR: Timber Press.

Young, James A. and Cheryl G. Young. 1968. Collecting, Processing, and Germinating Seeds of Wildland Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press.