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In summer, it’s the wildflowers that steal the show on the tallgrass prairies of Kansas | KCUR

MANHATTAN – The Flint Hills offer a sight not found anywhere else: vast stretches of open prairie stretching over low, steep hills, with no trees or shrubs breaking them.

In late summer and fall, prairie grasses can grow up to 6 to 8 feet tall. But in early and mid-summer, the grass is short and wildflowers become the star of the prairie.

It’s a cool morning on the Konza Prairie Nature Trail near Manhattan. The sky is overcast, the sun just beginning to break through the clouds. Drops from last night’s rain glisten on the wildflowers as the early sunlight hits them; a light breeze makes them sway.

The last time we were here, the flowers were covered by last year’s grass. But today there is no tall grass to be seen.

“There is tall grass here, but it’s only about six inches tall,” said Jill Haukos, education director at the Konza Prairie Biological Station and our guide for the day.

Jill Haukos has been the Director of Environmental Education at the Konza Prairie Biological Station since 2012.

Anne-Luise Stephens

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SMEs 89.1

Jill Haukos has been the Director of Environmental Education at the Konza Prairie Biological Station since 2012.

In summer, wildflowers can be admired when the grass is still short. We move through trees along King’s Creek into open fields.

“So you can see that as we move down, we have a transition outward, and as we get past the next hill, we’ll see fewer and fewer shrubs and more and more flowers,” Haukos said.

The path begins to climb and the landscape changes imperceptibly.

“We are now leaving the area where the prairie was previously plowed,” she said. “And this is now all native prairie.”

We pass patches of yellow sweet clover, thornbush heather – with a thistle-like lavender flower – and the dark purple ice-grey verbena.

“It will bloom all through July, probably into August,” Haukos said. “It’s our summer beauty. So it tells us that summer has started on the prairie.”

And there’s more: purple coneflowers, pink wild roses and bright orange butterfly milkweed.

“The butterfly milkweed is having a great year,” Haukos said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen whole hills covered in orange.”

We move further up into the high prairie. Some very athletic people are actually running the trail – over the hills – something we wouldn’t have believed if we hadn’t seen them.

“Good training here because we’re about to go up a hill,” said Haukos. “We have hills in Kansas and especially in the Flint Hills.”

This one is steep. It takes a while.

“Welcome up there,” said Haukos. “How beautiful is it?”

The Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kansas, is home to more than 600 plant species.

Anne-Luise Stephens

/

SMEs 89.1

The Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kansas, is home to more than 600 plant species.

The view is breathtaking. The hills stretch out before us, splashes of purple and orange among the many shades of green. The path continues for miles, but we are content to just take it all in.

The prairie is constantly changing, with new flowers coming into season every few weeks. We’re already planning to return in August when the sunflowers dominate the landscape, and again in September when the tall grass takes over.

Less than 4% of the tallgrass prairie remains, and most of it is private land. Haukos hopes people will visit, learn about and enjoy the beauty of the prairie now… and protect it in the future.

“I want people to connect with this unique, beautiful and critically endangered ecosystem,” said Haukos. “And to see its beauty. To stop and look. To form a real connection with it.”

This story was originally published by KMUW 89.1 in Wichita, Kansas.