[Note: This essay originally appeared in the Pekin Daily Times online in July 2012.]
Yesterday (July 13, 2012,) we finally had rain for the first time in a long while. I know this because when I returned home from work, the bird bath, which had been dry, contained a small puddle of water. It wasn’t much rain, but maybe it provided some relief for struggling plants.
Not only have plants suffered from lack of water, but this year Japanese beetles have been more numerous. And Japanese beetles feed on flowers, fruits, and leaves. This year, more than ever, I noticed the many brown, skeletonized leaf remnants left behind after the beetles had eaten off all the green.
The plants have no options, though. Unlike animals, which can flee to better circumstances, a plant must stay and take whatever abuses the environment can offer. And that might include lack of water, lack of nutrients, flood, fire, disease, being eaten, wind damage, lightning, freezing rain, and heavy snow. If it is ill-adapted, at the very least it will fall behind in the competition for resources with other plants that are better adapted. In the worst case, the plant will die.
Around my home the Japanese beetles seem to prefer sassafras, linden, grape vines, and non-native Siberian elms more than other species. So this year, while all of the plants have had a setback because of the drought, these species will be further stressed.
Early in the fall, I will set my woods and prairie on fire to help restore the native plant communities. This will further stress the Siberian elms and sassafras, which have been encroaching upon the prairie. The native oak and hickory trees, which are well adapted to fire and drought, have been left alone by the beetles; and so these species will be given a slight advantage. The oaks and hickories are a natural part of the prairie and savanna communities that I am trying to restore.
I find these types of interactions endlessly fascinating, especially when unanticipated circumstances arise. But when lightning next strikes, I’ll take it like a man…and seek shelter.
Postscript: While re-reading this essay, I had somewhat forgotten about last year’s extreme drought and hot summer temperatures. For comparison, this year in central Illinois, we have had abundant spring and early summer rains, so much so that the Illinois River experienced a record high flood in April. Japanese beetles have been scarce; temperatures have been rather cool for summer; and even though we’re now in the regular summer drought period, vegetation growth has been very healthy, almost lush. Unfortunately for my prairie restoration, a year such as this will allow additional tree encroachment onto the prairie, which I may have to compensate for by having another fall fire. Or I may not, just to see what happens....