BRUSHY CREEK - What the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Biologist Bill Johnson was about to show visitors to Brushy Creek State Recreation Area Saturday morning is rare.
It's not just a piece of prairie, but a piece of it that's never been plowed or grazed on by livestock.
"Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the original prairie remains here in Iowa," Johnson said during Saturday's Prairie Hike.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Framed by the bright yellow flowers of a Compass Plant, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Biologist Bill Johnson leads a group on a hike through a section of remnant prairie Saturday morning in the Brushy Creek State Recreation Area. Johnson said that only one-tenth of 1 percent of the original prairie in Iowa remains.
It's named accurately, because that piece of land is a remnant.
"We didn't plant this prairie," Johnson said.
The DNR did, however, move some of it once.
"They dug it up with a 'dozer, put it into a truck and moved it to the top of the hill," he explained.
The move to higher ground was done when the state began filling the lake in Brushy Creek more than 20 years ago. It saved many plants from being drowned.
As the group began exploring the area, Johnson stopped and introduced them to some of the plants. One of the first was the Rattlesnake Master. While it does nothing for snakebite, as was once thought, it does have some useful qualities.
"The resin in the plant has a kind of aloe vera quality to it," Johnson said.
Another useful plant is the willow. The bark of the small brush was used by Native Americans to treat toothache. That led to research which isolated the chemical now found in aspirin.
For Ron Parker, of Humboldt, this was new information.
"I didn't know it was a small plant," he said. "I always thought of the bark of the willow tree."
Johnson said they're in the same family, but that it was the small brush that was responsible for the aspirin discovery.
Not all the plants on the prairie are helpful; a few are best left alone.
One of the them, wild parsnip, makes poison ivy look good.
"It'll leave blisters on your skin," he said. "It'll take about a year for the scar to heal."
Other prairie plants are simply pretty.
An example, the compass plant, grows to about 6 feet in height and features large, bright yellow flowers. It also lives up to its name.
"They usually orient themselves north to south," Johnson said of the flowers.
While there is an entire palette of colors found blooming in the prairie habitat, one hue, found on the butterfly milkweed, is rare.
"It doesn't have that white juice and it's one of the few orange flowers on the prairie," Johnson said.
The prairie is a largely self-sustaining habitat that needs no fertilizer, he said. It takes care of itself.
"You don't have to fertilize it," Johnson said. "The legumes, such as clovers, produce nitrogen nodules that feed the grasses."
It even has a moocher or two, such as the louse wort.
"It's a parasite," according to Johnson. "Its roots attach to the surrounding plants."
Getting to the prairie involves some walking. Visitors can drive as far as the equestrian trail on 260th Street on the west side of the lake, then follow the horse trail south. The prairie is on the left towards the lake.
Visitors are always welcome.
"You can come out and see the prairie anytime," said Johnson.