A passion for wildflowers

by Karen Lowe, Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites member

If you want to indulge your passion for wildflowers and enjoy the sound of a variety of birds, I recommend a visit to the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site at Rome City. Overlooking Sylvan Lake, her Cabin at Wildflower Woods has been accurately maintained to represent the author’s years here. Built with the proceeds from the sales of her many books, the cabin and surrounding land reflect her interest in the preservation of natural habitats for flora and fauna.

Members enjoy thier tour of Gene Stratton-Porter’s Cabin in Rome City. The author is in the yellow jacket.

The site managers gave an impressive tour of the cabin. The beautiful cherry woodwork was fashioned from trees which were on the property. Several examples of Stratton-Porter’s photography are on the walls. Some of the furniture is original, such as a cherry chest, carved by her father, Mark Stratton, and given as a wedding gift. Her piano, which she brought from her Limberlost home in Geneva, is in the library, which also contains her Victrola. The library is lined with built-in shelves filled with the many books that interested her. The cabin has four fireplaces, the most impressive one being in the parlor. This massive fireplace, called the Friendship fireplace, is made from a variety of interesting stones, including the colorful pudding stone, which she liked so much that she also had it surrounding a spring out in the garden. A large picture window, which Ms. Porter called the million dollar window because of the view of the lake, dominates this room. The conservatory has much natural light coming in through the many windows, and is designed to serve as an aviary as well. This is much like her conservatory at the Limberlost which she designed to bring in moths.

The second floor of the cabin has a sleeping porch that looks out on the lake, and can be accessed from Ms. Porter’s bedroom. There is a fireplace and half-bath in her room. The built-in storage units include a huge cedar closet in the hall, used to store blankets and winter clothes.

Equally impressive was the tour of the gardens. There are both wildflower habitat and what she called her “tame garden.” She left extensive information as to how this garden was laid out and planted, and the managers, with the help of master gardeners and other volunteers, have painstakingly worked to recreate these plans. In one of the gardens there are globe thistle, butterfly weed, milkweed and other plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. A garden designed for sun-loving flowers contains black-eyed Susans, cone flowers and ladies’ mantle.  Another area is for Indiana native flowers: wild oats, wood poppy, May apple, bluebells, bloodroot, wild ginger.

There is a fascinating variety of wildflowers throughout the property. In bloom during our visit were large flower trillium, rue anemone, Dutchman’s britches, violets, shooting stars, Jack- in-the-pulpit, nodding trillium. As we strolled through the gardens, we heard many birds, and saw a few, such as a downy woodpecker and a nuthatch snacking on suet cakes. A mute swan was gracefully gliding across the lake, and we heard the call of geese, the twitter of the tufted titmouse, and the louder voice of a pileated woodpecker.

Gene Stratton-Porter died in California in 1924. Her wish was to be buried under her favorite tree here in the Wildflower Woods, which was the chinkapin oak. Many years after her death, her wish was fulfilled and there is a sculpture and lovely headstone for her and her daughter Jeannette off one of the footpaths.

Postscript: As usual, Chrissy Vasquez arranged a great members’ tour to Rome City on April 14, which included a comfortable bus (driver, James), informative literature, snacks and videos pertaining to the subject of the tour. A meal was provided at the site as well and each participant was given a package of wildflower seeds and some postcards which show rooms in the cabin. Consider becoming a member of the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites!

The Turner Garden

Contributed by Donovan Miller, Master Gardener and Museum Volunteer

Just in front of the museum, above the parking garage and out along Washington Street is the Turner Garden, a small green space you may never have noticed. But as you drive down the parking ramp, catch a glimpse of flowering plants above and beside you. This is the Turner Garden presently designated as “Wildflower Meadow.”

Over the spring and summer a group of volunteers began renovation to update the plot. The goal is to replicate a Midwest prairie — typical of the grasslands of the Great Plains. Devoid of trees, this area will feature native grasses and forbs (prairie flowers) in an approximate ratio of 50/50 grasses and flowers. The project is being attacked in sections with an eye to completion in four years.

The plan to make changes in the garden arose with the recognition that two species of plants, Rosinweed and Bee Balm, were becoming dominant in the plot. Without attention it appeared that we would gradually see only a tall yellow flowering plant, Rosinweed, and the violet of Bee Balm. Though attractive native plants, these were crowding out the brilliant orange of Butterfly Weed, the white flowers and bluish foliage of Wild Indigo and many other natives. Installation of the first section is now complete. Note photos for a contrasting view before and after renovation.

An inviting wood-chip path has been cut through the growth to give up-close access to the plants, insect and bird life. This time of year the goldfinches and other seeding-eating birds are in profusion. The pollinating bees and other insects are everywhere to be viewed at a safe distance. Come take a walk, see all the color and fauna activity along the path. You may catch a glimpse of a mouse scurrying across the path. Lift your eyes to the museum roof where a resident red-tailed hawk may be waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting rodent. In the center of the city, at the Indiana State Museum, lives this vibrant slice of nature … a true respite from the bustle of the city.

Nature’s Palette, Always in Style

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site



Somewhere, there are people who are paid to predict (or create) which colors will be ‘hot’ for the coming year. Apparently there are people who are color blind in the fashion sense — unable to decide for themselves what color to wear or decorate with. There are even websites to consult when in doubt.

I choose my color schemes on my daily drive to work, and at home enjoying the view from my porch. I follow nature’s seasonal palette rather than fashion’s fickle trends. I’m not sure where the color consultants get their inspiration, but indirectly, it probably comes from the same source as mine.

Anyone who has looked at photographs from National Geographic or Discovery magazines will recognize that even the most outlandish colors were first found in nature. Hot pinks, florescent greens, electric blues — Mother Nature just smiles and thinks, “Been there, done that.”

Fashion color preferences are cyclical. Every few years, ‘naturals’ are the latest cool thing (again). Sometimes we fall under the illusion (or delusion) that we have created these colors or color combinations, but we are really just copying or interpreting what has always been around us.

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A Blinking Black-eyed Susan

I’m a big sports fan, but only in the biological sense. In biology, a ‘sport’ is a mutation. Red Delicious apples may be the most famous sport — they all originated from one tree with a tasty (and profitable) mutation.

black-eyed_susansA lone Black-eyed Susan planted itself amidst a row of Peonies at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Now that the Peony blooms have faded, the Black-eyed Susan’s yellow-orange blossoms really stand out. As I went to take a closer look I got a surprise. Two of the flowers were definitely different. Both were ‘wide-eyed’ and one had a wide, flattened stem as well.

If only I were a plant propagator, and could turn this weird wildflower into the next  All-America Selections® winner. Our financial worries would be over — assuming that gardeners would want to grow Blinking Black-eyed Susans. I’ve seen stranger looking plants in the seed catalogs each year though, so there might be a market for them.

This native wildflower is a biennial, so guess I’ll have to wait two years to see if the mutation carries over to the next generation. I don’t know much about how mutations work — perhaps a knowledgeable plant biologist could spare me the suspense of waiting to find out.

More likely, in two years time some other natural wonder will have caught my interest and I’ll have forgotten all about that wide-eyed Black-eyed Susan. Watching wildlife is a sport I’ll likely never tire of, and it doesn’t really take extreme examples to make nature interesting. Just a plain old (and pretty) Black-eyed Susan will do.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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In Search of Shrinking Violets

This informal wildflower foray was before Kay's time. The undated photo from the early 1930s shows friends of Mrs. Steele's hiking along the Peckerwood Trail, one of five trails at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

This informal wildflower foray was before Kay's time. The undated photo from the early 1930s shows friends of Mrs. Steele's hiking along the Peckerwood Trail, one of five trails at T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

If you’re like me, you classify violets as blue, yellow or white. If you’re wildflower authority Kay Yatskievych, you know that violets are far more varied. Her book Field Guide to Indiana Wildflowers lists 22 species, plus subspecies — and they can hybridize as well. She’ll be quick to tell you that they are her favorite wildflower.

Kay has led very popular and well-attended hikes on opening day of Brown County’s Annual Spring Wildflower Foray. This year marks our 24th Foray, and we’ve added an extra hike at T.C. Steele State Historic Site to give flower-seekers one more chance to benefit from Kay’s plant expertise.

Kay has a quality not always found in experts. Although she literally ‘wrote the book’ on Indiana wildflowers, she is eager to share her knowledge in a way that is interesting and informative. Even if you are just a beginner at wildflower identification, you’ll find Kay easy to understand and patient in answering your questions.

I first met Kay sometime around 1986 while working at Brown County State Park and was amazed by her curiosity and persistence. Using field guides can sometimes be frustrating. If I couldn’t locate a flower in the guides I’d just assume it was my fault. Kay figured there needed to be a better book, and like the little red hen she just decided to write it herself.

She was instrumental in developing the annual species count which soon grew into the Spring Wildflower Foray that we look forward to each year. Most people don’t get too excited about statistics. Kay does. She has lists — and more lists. She tallies lists from all 20 plus hikes offered during the Foray, and compiles them for Saturday’s evening program.

Her summary of the wildflower count is worth listening to. If a flower that’s not listed in a previous count was found, the announcement is greeted by cheers. Kay seems to enjoy it even more if she can’t identify a plant immediately, but she always has it figured out by the end of the Foray.

If you haven’t been on one of Kay’s wildflower hikes yet, don’t be a shrinking violet — make this year your first — April 24, 25 and 26. If you are a returning Foray-er, you’ll find even more opportunities to ‘quiz Kay’. Either way, you’ll find her enthusiasm contagious and the violets more colorful. (Did you know there is even a Green Violet?)

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Angel Mounds says goodbye to weeds!

The fire!

The fire!

Yesterday we conducted our annual/biannual burn of the mounds at Angel Mounds State Historic Site. We were able to take care of three of the mounds (A, E and G) with great success on a total wipeout of the “bad” plants (we hope). While they were at it, DNR Fire Headquarters staff burned about five acres of the fields around the site in an effort to rid us of broom sage and give our wildflower plantings a chance to take off well this spring.

The results.

The results.

After a burn, the site takes on a post-apocalyptic appearance, especially right after the fire goes out because the ground is “steaming” with the last of the smoke. I’m sure the neighbors wondered why huge plumes of smoke were blowing through the neighborhood. Fortunately, the wind dissipated the smoke quickly and we received no irate phone calls.

We are planning on more for next year, tackling one of the largest fields where the temple mound is situated.

Mike Linderman is the sectional archaeology manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site.