NOTE: This story originally aired July 30, 2020.
Jennings Environmental Education Center has a self-guided walk through the prairie that takes visitors to 20 different wildflowers. No registration is required. Morning is generally the best time to visit, as afternoons are quite hot on the open prairie.
Jennings is also sponsoring a guided 90-minute Prairie Bloom Hike on July 25th at 2pm. Free. No reservations required.
Jennings prairie is a completely different ecosystem from anywhere else in the state. There are tall grasses and very few trees. It’s flat and hot and bison once grazed here. The most striking feature is the brightly colored flowers everywhere you look. Peak bloom goes through the first week of August, so there’s still a little time left to catch it.
“It is a short season,” said Miranda Crotsley, the program coordinator at Jennings. “So it makes it really special to come out this time of year and see it in bloom.”
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The star of the show is the blazing star. It’s a tall, bright purple, spikey flower with hundreds of small, tiny star-shaped flowers within the flower head. You’ll see it scattered throughout the landscape at Jennings. The plant can store water in dry conditions, a key feature of plants that can survive in a prairie. Blazing stars stick up above many of the other plants, making them very attractive to pollinators.
“They’re spreading the pollen of that blazing star around and helping it to go to seed, which we like to see because that spreads more of it,” Crotsley said. “That means more blazing stars in the prairie.”
Hundreds of Other Natives
The prairie is much more diverse than just blazing stars. About 225 native plant species have been identified in the 20-acre habitat. There are four different tall yellow flowers that are often confused for one another: tall sunflower, false sunflower, tall coreopsis and whorled rosinweed. All are spectacular in the prairie right now – they’re easily seven or eight feet tall, some as tall as 12 feet. They rise above the other plants like eager kids in a classroom with arms stretched high screaming “pick me, pick me!” And bees do pick them. If you visit the prairie in the hot afternoon, you’ll see them buzzing around everywhere.
Bumblebees are the ones that rarely sting, and there’s one flower in the prairie they are especially attracted to – Culver’s root. It’s a white candelabra of a flower whose roots spread underground. Its seeds are too tiny for birds, but bumblebees love their plentiful nectar.
“They’re just full of nectar and happy on the Culver’s root, you can actually reach out and pet them,” explained Crotsley. Yes, pet them. Bumblebees are very gentle, according to Crotsley. They are also super fuzzy and quite soft (I know because I petted one).
Butterflies, Moths and an Endangered Rattlesnake
The wildflowers and grasses in the prairie provide a habitat for many different butterflies and moths, as well as other insects that provide food for birds, amphibians and small mammals like weasels and moles. The amphibians and small mammals, in turn, provide food for a very special prairie inhabitant – the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The massasauga is endangered in Pennsylvania and listed as threatened by the federal government. The Jennings prairie is one of the few places in the state where it’s found. It is small — adults are about 17 inches — and timid. While it’s venomous, there is no record of anyone dying from a massasauga bite in Pennsylvania. You are very unlikely to see one on the trails.
So Why is a Prairie Here in the First Place?
It starts with a glacier. The last glaciers moved out of this area approximately 10-12,000 years ago. At that time, just a little north of here, there would have been a glacier that was probably three-quarters of a mile thick.
“If you can imagine staring up at a hawk soaring into the sky, and it gets to that point where you just can’t quite see it anymore, that’s about three-quarters of a mile high,” Crotsley said. “That’s how high those glaciers were in this area.”
Glaciers had a dominant effect on the landscape, not just in the places where glaciers covered, but the land surrounding them. The land, that would later become this prairie, was under a prehistoric lake, formed from the meltwater from the glacier.
“As everybody who’s ever stepped in a natural lake of any kind knows, you step into a bunch of silt and muck and everything else,” Crotsley said. When the lake drained, all of that silt and muck and everything else was left behind. “This area has a very thick layer of clay beneath it. We have just a few inches of topsoil and underneath that, at least 20 feet of clay.”
Once the climate became warmer and drier, plants and seeds, carried from the Midwest by wind, water and animals, started germinating, extending prairie ecosystems into Western Pennsylvania. Eventually, forests replaced all but a very few prairies in the state. Development and farming destroyed all but this one, which is now protected within a state park.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased the land in the 1940s. Today, the plants — and one or two trees — growing in this prairie ecosystem have adapted to the harsh conditions. They have shallow roots that don’t need much soil and can survive periods of drought, soil saturation and fire.
Expanding the Prairie
The park has a prairie expansion project effort underway that would nearly double the habitat for eastern massasauga rattlesnakes and birds like golden-winged warblers, American woodcocks and red-headed woodpeckers and Baltimore checkerspot butterflies. The expansion project involves removing trees bordering the prairie, many of which were killed off by the emerald ash borer.
“We always knew this area was probably part prairie at one time,” Crotsley said. “But seeing that happen when the canopy opened up, really made us realize that we could potentially expand the habitat.”
Visiting the Prairie in Full Bloom
The prairie trails at Jennings Environment and Education Center are open every day from sunrise to sunset.
Right now, Jennings has a self-guided walk through the prairie that takes visitors to 20 different wildflowers. Crotsley said it’s not just about identifying the wildflowers, but also about understanding the connections these beautiful blooms have to everything else in the ecosystem and how important they are.
But do yourself a favor and go early in the morning when the dew is hanging off everything. Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and a mask.
No registration is required, but visitors wishing to receive the guide electronically may contact email@example.com or call 724-794-6011. The printed guide is available sunrise to sunset July 25-August 2 beginning at the prairie side parking lot bulletin board.
Visitors should bring water, sunscreen, closed-toed shoes, and bug spray. A mask is recommended, as social distancing on the prairie trails during this time may be difficult. Morning is generally the best time to visit, as afternoons are quite hot on the open prairie.
This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here.
Top Photo: Andy Kubis for The Allegheny Front