Activity #3: Observation & Notes from the Prairie Journal (60 min)

This activity can happen at an onsite prairie or Field Trip to a Prairie.

Give the children the Notes from the Prairie Journal, a clipboard and pencil.

Children observe the structure of the prairie plants either at an onsite prairie or as a field trip to an established prairie.

“Take some time and look around. What do you see that is the same for all of the plants here? What do you see that is different in all of the plants here? That’s right, some have flowers and some do not, some are very tall plants, some are short plants, some may not have a visible water source, this stand does or does not have flowers that would attract pollinators.

Looking at the prairie, do you see that most of the prairie plants are very tall. Can
you predict why that might be?

Continue looking at the prairie plants, especially the Indian Grass and the Cup Plants. With what you know about animal survival, why are all these plants so abundant and why do these plants look so healthy? That’s right, they are living in groups which helps the plant pollinate, reproduce and survive.

I know I am full of questions for you today, but going over some of the things that will help you with your predictions and observations today. The science unit you are studying right now is about adaptation. You have been learning about adaptations that animals need to make in order to survive and today we are going to find out what adaptations plants make to survive in an ecosystem. So my last question to you today is: What is adaptation and where did you come across it in lessons out in the Living Classroom, which is all around you when you are outside?
That’s right, adaptation is the modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment or a heritable physical or behavioral trait that serves a specific function and improves an organism’s fitness or survival within its ecosystem. Adaptations are also highlighted in the Living Classroom Learning Lab lesson about pollination.

Let’s gather around here in front of the prairie, because I would like to tell you about one of the most amazing plants that has adapted to a harsh environment. The prairie receives very little rain with temperatures in the summer going as high as 100 degrees. The winters are the opposite with extremely cold temperatures and a lot of snow. The plant I would like to show you and talk to you about its adaptations is the Cup Plant. When I finish describing this plant, we will measure a Cup Plant and you will fill out your journal.”

Before gathering around a Cup Plant, remind the children that they will be working in very small space around a prairie plant. Children need to be careful, have only one group member studying the plant at a time and be extremely careful not to step on any plants.

Information about the Cup Plant:

“Cup Plant is one of the best wild flowers for attracting birds. It provides food, water, and shelter for them. Looking at these leaves, what do they remind you of? That is right, they look like cups and that is exactly what these leaves do. They form cups that catch rainwater. Songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds come for a drink, and in fall, goldfinches come to devour the seeds that are in the bright yellow flowers.

The Cup Plant is easy to identify. Its stem leaves are very large, 10 inches long and 6 inches wide, with opposite pairs joined together at the stem, forming a cup. Leaves are coarsely toothed, pointed at the tip, and feel rough. Its stems are square with 10 to 30 bright yellow flowers at its ends. This plant multiplies quickly. Did you hear an adaptation the Cup Plant makes in order to live in this ecosystem? Super, the leaves are cups! Why would that be a good adaptation for this plant? What else? That’s right, rough leaves are a protection from predators.”

Cup Plant Stalk
Cup Plant Flower

Continue asking the children what adaptations they observe.

Observable adaptations for the Cup Plant:

  • height: 8’ to 9’ with an extensive root system to find water
  • square stems to hold plant upright
  • yellow sunflowers on top is food for birds and pollinators
  • rough and toothed leaves to discourage predators
  • stem leaves that form cups in order to catch and hold water
  • pairs of the cup leaves alternate directions going up the stem in order to catch more water

Please open your journal and find the Cup Plant page. Fill in what we know already before we measure the plant. Take this meter stick and string and hold it up to the top of the plant, then take this paper clip and attach it to the string where the string meets the ground. Now take this yardstick and string over to the 3 meter sticks lying end to end and measure the length of the string from the top of the yardstick to the paper clip in order to determine the height of the plant.

There are four more prairie plants that we will look at today, From what we know already and our observations at the plant, I would like you to discover as much as you can about the plant that your group is assigned. There are five categories that you need to observe for your plant. They are: flowers, stem, leaves, height, and adaptations. Please remember to have only one person in your group observing the plant at a time and be careful not to step on any plants. There are some of these plants that are only one of its kind in our prairie. When the observations are complete, we will meet and go over our findings. Before you start, I will give you a clue. The names of most prairie plants have something to do about an adaptation
of that plant.

Divide the class into four groups and send a group to one of these four prairie plants: Prairie Dock, Compass Plant, Big Bluestem, and Rattlesnake Master.

Information about the Compass Plant

Compass Plant Leaves

“Compass plants look much like wild
sunflowers and can reach heights of 9 to
12 feet. Clusters of bright yellow, daisy-like
flowers bloom on the upper part of
the plant during the hot summer months.
The deeply cut leaves, which resemble
oak leaves, can reach lengths of 12 to 18
inches.The plant has huge divided leaves
which turn in a north-south direction. It
became the early pioneers GPS, global
positioning system, or their compass, and they named it the Compass Plant. The direction of the leaves help the plant conserve water and avoid direct sunlight. The plant attracts many pollinators especially native bees and the monarch butterfly.”

Compass Plant Flowers

Information about Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem Plant Leaves

“Big Bluestem is a tall grass native to the
Great Plains. It is the star component of
the Big Four native grass species that
characterize the tall grass prairies of
central North America. The other three are
Indian grass, Switchgrass, and Little
Bluestem. Big Bluestem can grow from
3 feet to almost 10 feet with a root
system that goes down at least 9 feet.
The stem turns blue or purple as it
grows. The seed heads have three
spike-like projections resembling a turkey’s foot. That is why its nickname is Turkey Foot. Big Blue Stem provides cover for at least
24 species of songbirds and nesting sites or seeds for sparrows, wrens, and
meadowlarks. Big Bluestem is the state grass of Illinois.”

Big Bluestem Plant Flowers

Information about Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master Plant Leaves

“Rattlesnake Master is a unique forb, or flower, that grows between 3 to 6 feet tall and has 3 to 20 white spiky golf-ball flower heads which
are truly unique. These flower heads are packed with tiny white flowers surrounded by
small projections that are sharp and pointed. When the wind blows, the flowers rattle. The sound reminds people of a rattlesnake’s tail when it is rattling and, of course, that is how the plant received its name. The plants have a large rootstock. This is an adaptation that allows for water to be stored in these roots. Its
leaves are serrated. If a rabbit went to take a
bite, its mouth would be cut. If you ran your
hand down a leaf, it would be cut, too.
Rattlesnake master is a member of the carrot
family. If you break or crush a leaf, the aroma will give it away. It is a favorite of bees, beetles, wasps, and butterflies.
Native Americans brewed a tea from its roots and used it as a treatment for many
maladies, especially a toothaches or cough. It was thought to be an antidote for
rattlesnake venom, but that proved to be not true. Native Americans would use the
fibrous leaves of this perennial plant for weaving sandals and baskets.”

Rattlesnake Master Plant Flowers

Information about Prairie Dock

Prairie Dock Plant Leaves

“Prairie Dock has leaves like a small elephant’s ear and flowers as high as an elephant’s eye. Prairie Dock is a truly unique plant. Its sandpaper leaves are 18 to 20 inches long.
The leaves’ coarseness turns rabbits away. By late summer, Prairie Dock sends up a very tall stem with small yellow sun flowers that
can last for a month or longer. The plant and its stem can reach a height of 10 feet and it can live for 100 years! See if you can find a Prairie Dock plants! How do you think it got here if someone did not plant it? Prairie Dock attracts honeybees and bumblebees. Goldfinches eat and disperse the seeds, helping the plant self-propagate. Another name for Prairie Dock is Rosinweed due to the resin that seeps out from injured parts of the plant. Prairie children used the resin for chewing gum. It tastes like a mixture of carrots and pine. Hairs on the plant cast shadows on the leaf, cooling the leaves and the plant.”

Prairie Dock Plant Flowers

Jigsaw Groups to Report Findings on their Prairie Plants. Have each group report out their findings. If anything big is missing from the children’s observations, the teacher adds the missing pieces.