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Nebraska’s Obscure Prairie Milkvetches

Milkvetches are small, less eye-catching wildflower species that sadly go unnoticed. Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist Wildflowers are like wildlife in that the big, showy species, such as sandhill cranes, mountain lions, roses and gayfeathers, get all the notice and attention, while small, less eye-catching species sadly go unnoticed. A prime example of this are Nebraska’s 24 native milkvetch (Astragalus) species. Most are rosette-forming plants with colorful, clustered flowers that inhabit dry rock outcrops and clay badlands in …

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October Morning on the Niobrara

Botanist Gerry Steinauer shares photos taken of a fall day near the central Niobrara River. Photos and story by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist In an early October day last year, dawn arrived cool and crisp on the central Niobrara River. Although the sun was still below the horizon, its rays painted the eastern sky a light blue and the scattered clouds muted reds and purples. When the orb peaked above the skyline, the bluff tops were first to be illuminated, then …

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The Scissors Grinder

An Annual Cicada Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist During the dog days of late summer, the reverberating call of the scissors grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus) begins late in the afternoon and continues into dusk. Emanating from high in the trees, individual calls initiate softly and build to a loud, shrill, “WHEE-oo WHEE-oo” crescendo lasting about 20 seconds. Sometimes, it’s a lone call; other times, it’s a cacophony, an apparent horde singing in a shrieking chorus. Some find the …

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Catfishing the Niobrara

One Man’s Lifetime of Fishing By Gerry Steinauer, Botanist Paul Allen’s rugged, weather-worn appearance has been earned from decades of running cattle on the Niobrara River breaks of Boyd County. In line with his cowboy persona, his manner is down-home and friendly, his laugh is hearty, and he slides easily into storytelling. Yet, there are contradictions to the cowboy stereotype: His past includes stints as an elementary school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer; in a land of beer and whiskey …

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Foraging for Wild Plums, Cherries and Berries

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist I began foraging as a youngster in small-town Millard in the 1960s. On July mornings, my sister Teri and I would hoof it down to Grandma’s house to pick luscious raspberries from fence line bushes, and when playing along the local creek, my friends and I often snacked on plump, ripe mulberries. Now much older, I still pluck wild fruits whenever the opportunity arises and strategically stock our shelves with enough jars of …

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Flames on the Niobrara

The story of a prescribed burn By Gerry Steinauer, Botanist My introduction to the central Niobrara River Valley came in 1984 when, fresh out of college, I interned on The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve located east of Valentine. My job on the recently-acquired preserve was to design and build nature trails, help move cattle between pastures on horseback, and fix windmills and fences, along with other miscellaneous ranch duties. On evenings and weekends, I explored. For a kid from …

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Rediscovering Hairy Clematis

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer With no formal training as a writer, my Nebraskaland articles usually require hard work — including days pondering a storyline, late nights writing and re-rewriting, as well as extensive travel to obtain photos. Recently, however, the storyline and photos for an article on the rare hairy clematis (Clematis hirisutissima) fell into my lap. The Plant Although hairy clematis is common throughout much of the western United States, it is rare in Nebraska. Here it …

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Deceptive Dayflowers

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist As their name implies, each dayflower blossom is fleeting. New flowers that open to greet the rising sun close about noon and wither by dusk. The lovely blue flowers are as delicate as they are short-lived. When rubbed between one’s fingers, their petals quickly disintegrate into a watery ooze. Belonging to the spiderwort family (Commelinaceae), two dayflower species, both growing up to a foot tall, inhabit Nebraska. Slender dayflower (Commelina erecta) is a …

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Nebraska’s Monkey-flowers

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist To find roundleaf monkey-flower (Mimulus glabratus), do not look high in the trees. Instead, head to the cold, clear water streams of central and western Nebraska. The plant’s favorite haunts include the slow shallows of spring-fed Sandhills streams and the sandy-bottomed pools of spring-branch canyon streams flowing into the central Niobrara River. Avoid streams where agricultural runoff has muddied the waters: You will be hard pressed to find it there. Often growing partially …

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Discovering Slime Molds

Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer Two years ago, while morel mushroom hunting in a creekside woodland near Aurora, I saw a pink, dime-sized “ball” sprouting from a log. Baffled, I concluded it was a strange puffball mushroom. I snapped a photo and texted it to my go-to guy for mushroom identification, Chance Brueggemann, woodland ecologist at Indian Cave State Park. His response: “It’s wolf’s milk, a slime mold.” I wasn’t sure what a slime mold was. I assumed they …

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