Who Says the Plains Are Boring??It dawned on me as we crossed into Kansas on US-183. The sun was slowly setting in the west and the endless rolling hills of the high plains turned various shades of gold. I felt as I had suddenly crossed a line into an unfamiliar world...
In fact, I had. I had spent most of my life under the cozy confines of eastern America's woodlands. I had traveled to nearly every state and province east of the Missouri River but never was I far from the shade of a nearby Oak, Maple, Hickory, Beech, or Pine. The western plains were something different all together. I had assumed my reaction to crossing the endless plains would be the same as all those I knew had gone before me. Utter boredom. In fact I was amazed by what I saw, or rather the amount I could see. No mountains but yet the smallest hills revealed sweeping panoramas like few places in my relatively hilly (compared to Kansas!) home state of Michigan. I was enthralled...
The next day we headed south from Goodland, Kansas to summit one of the most ridiculed high points in the United States. As we crossed the 20-ish miles of open fields I began to notice splashes of color here and there. We were in a hurry so no stops were made before we reached the trailhead at the base of the southern ridge. Still enjoying the immensity of the surrounding plains I began to look down at my feet a bit. Wouldn't you know it, here and there were a number of wildflowers that, to me, were completely unknown!
Mount Sunflower was beautiful. I enjoyed it far more than I expected. The fact that it was all so new to me was its greatest attraction. I don't think I could visit it again with the same sense of wonder. In tribute to this, my first visit to the plains, I am sharing this album of some of my little "discoveries" while trudging my way to and from the summit of Sunflower. For certain this is but a small sampling of what the plains offer and it is unlikely any of the plants I found could be called rare. But to me it was all new and beautiful so here they are...
A Taste of the High Plains...
We left Goodland, Kansas and followed State Route 27. This, to me, was so amazingly different than the east. Local traffic must have thought I was nuts to be shooting pics like I was...
We could have driven to the top but what fun would that be? It was a pleasant morning, temps were comfortable, and there were no marauding cattle to be seen, so we decided to make a go of it...
The Top of Kansas - 4,039' - The summit conditions were, well, pretty much the same as down by the road. People might make fun of it, but Mt. Sunflower has views that few peaks out east could rival. I found it beautiful...
Buffalo Bur(Solanum rostratum)
I just about grabbed this nasty little plant before I noticed the evil little barbs all over its surface. I now understand the "bur" part but couldn't tell you what "buffalo" had to do with them other than that they probably avoided them. Lesson learned: Most dry-climate plants are out to hurt you.
Buffalo Gourd - flower (Cucurbita foetidissima)
This interesting plant was growing all along (and sometimes on) the roads in the area. Once used by American Indians in making soap, the plant today is fairly useless.
Buffalo Gourd - friut (Cucurbita foetidissima)
Despite rumors to the contrary you can eat the fruit of a Buffalo Gourd...only if cooked and only if the fruit is very young. Once matured, opt for starvation if the need arises as it becomes very poisonous.
Bull Thistle(Cirsium vulgare)
A nasty, invasive plant of disturbed areas. It outcompetes all native species for space, water, and nutrients. I only included it here because it was the one flower I found that western Kansas shares with Michigan, yipee.
Coneflower, Prairie(Ratibida columnaris)
This plant was growing in large numbers all over the area. The plant prefers dry, gritty soil so western Kansas is this plants' nirvana.
Globemallow, Scarlet(Sphaeralcea coccinea)
This pretty little plant was scattered all over Mt. Sunflower. Once upon a time the native americans had numerous uses for the plant which included but were not limited to...sore throat remedies, antiacid, burn creams, and last but not least a remedy against diseases from witchcraft.
Prickly Pear Cactus
To all you westerners this little plant might seem quite boring but this was the FIRST EVER cactus I had seen growing in the wild. Hey, let the easterner have his moment...
Poppy, Prickly(Argemone mexicana)
Finding one of these buggers with intact flowers was a feat in itself. The flowers of the Prickly Poppy are ridiculously fragile. I eventually settled on this one which was growing down by the road. As the prickles should warn the entire plant is toxic and is particularly dangerous to livestock.
Primrose, Pale Evening(Oenothera pallida)
This unpleasantly odiferous plant is quite common on the high plans and as such was found in great quantities in the area around Mt. Sunflower. Historically the plant was used to treat a number of ailments, nowadays it is pretty much avoided.
Skeleton Plant, Rush(Lygodesmia juncea)
I have given this little wildflower the award for most unique name, though after seeing the plant it is entirely fitting. Despite its ugly moniker I thought the plant quite beautiful.
Sunflower, Plains(Helianthus petiolaris)
What would a trip to Mount Sunflower be without actually seeing a sunflower?! Well, actually, I didn't find any on Mount Sunflower but actually about a half-mile down the road. Still, I had to include it. If there was a wildflower poster-child of the plains this would be it.
Wallflower, Western(Erysimum asperum)
From what I've found this plant is found everywhere yet used for nothing. It is an early bloomer (March-April) and apparently lasts for quite a while. I found it growing in widely spaced clusters all around Mount Sunflower. I didn't find it to be the most attractive wildflower.
Well, that's it...I told you it wasn't many. Still, they were (mostly) all new to me and I was surprised at the diversity in just the small area surrounding the summit. Hope you enjoyed!