PLANT PROFILES: Melanthium and More

A few weeks ago a prominent botanist stopped by to photograph Bunch Lily [Melanthium virginicum] in flower at the Shoal Creek Conservation Area. It was a bit too late for that.

-Henry “Weeds”€ Eilers

The one stalk that we found was in good fruit, turned a chartreuse green color, still attractive in their own way. The basal grassy looking rosettes of numerous nearby plants had for the most part already turned yellow and brown. Literature does list the flowering season as extending from June into August. Some years there were many dozen plants in our population in flower in late May and June. Recently I saw an image of a Missouri prairie with the 3-5′ tall spikes of creamy white flowers stretching to the horizon; a most lovely sight indeed. For us here in Illinois that is a lost landscape indeed. At one time the Bunch Lily must have been widespread. Today the largest populations occur in a private restoration in Schuyler County and here at the above site. A few plants have been observed off and on over the years along a railroad prairie remnant in Macoupin Co. They should probably be relocated to a protected area as these right-a ways are increasingly ‘managed’ by using herbicides. It is most fortunate that this beautiful species occurs in several small colonies in the Horn Prairie Grove Preserve, perhaps the only place in our so called ‘Prairie State’ were it is officially protected. I have long had an affinity for this species. In 1959 I found and dug a single flowering plant along a county road in Brown County. At that time it was just a very pretty and unusual plant no idea as to its identity. It grew in my prairie garden for 20 years and then for almost 30 years in our ‘pond prairie’ at the nursery. A few years after the sale of the property I saw it there in standing water. The beavers had backed up water into the prairie and turned it into a wetland! With the kind permission of the new owners I was able to recover this plant and it still grows in my garden today along with progeny from the other western counties. Talk about longevity; amazing indeed. Bunch Lily can be grown from seed. With prior stratification germination has been good. First year seedlings are very small and frail, subject to much loss, as I seem to recall. It is much better to just scatter the abundant seeds. Most of the time they were just part of restoration mixes for our conservation area. They have shown up in some rather surprising places such as open woodland slopes and in a recovery project for a public water line that goes through a flat-woods area. On our Southern Illinois till-plain soils these areas tend to be rather wet during the growing season for this species  and that is what seems to matter. Lack of flowering the past few seasons has most likely been due to increased competition and shading from brush and briars. Melanthium has in the past responded well to fire management and as with so many other species no doubt has always needed fire on the landscape to thrive. During our recent INPS annual meeting I had the good fortune to see some great natural communities,  enhanced by the knowledge of some expert trip leaders. As has happened in previous events the lack of sufficient fire management is obvious and a recurrent theme of discussion. The severe reduction of professional staff in recent years is a serious issue indeed. My notes indicate that comparisons to the much more progressive State of Missouri regarding fire on the landscape go back almost 50 years. We will never have enough staff in Illinois. It is just not a political priority. Perhaps our responsible land management agencies need to use a different approach. Why not provide the staff with training and resources to manage burn crews recruited as a volunteer force from rural fire districts and the farm community? Burns are conducted during the dormant season, the winter, when many of these highly capable people are often underemployed. They may then also become burn advocates and put this expertise to use on their own lands, such as woods that are increasingly overwhelmed by invasive brush. Melanthium could be a wonderful poster child for this approach. What benefits a single species invariably benefits the whole plant community!

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