Am I turning into a Midwesterner? Scary.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and nature to me was towering red cedar trees draped with moss, and rocky beaches covered with sea anemones and urchins. These things are not present in Minnesota, and I miss them. Bland fields of corn and soybeans are boring, completely lacking in majesty and complexity. I used to dream of retiring to some battered old seaside town in my old age, escaping the dreary farm fields of the Midwest.

It’s not happening.

But after nearly 25 years of living here, it’s beginning to grow on me. Focusing on native arthropods has helped, and the realization that this place shouldn’t be about corn is also liberating. The prairie is deeply interesting…it’s just that cornfields are not the prairie. They’re the antithesis of prairie. Getting down close and peering into a mess of wild plants while looking for spiders is enlightening.

Also, I’m really liking this guy. The enthusiasm is infectious. We’ve got a vigorous stand of native prairie plants growing right outside my lab window, and it’s got me thinking that, when the fall is a little further along and the pods start to dry out, I might harvest a few seeds and pot a few at home, or scatter them in my yard.

That bit of restored prairie looks so much nicer than the impoverished lawn surrounding my house.


  1. garnetstar says

    Hey, I’m about to start turning my lawn into a native meadow too! I’m damn sick of cutting grass and raking up leaves, and of the flat expanse of grass. I want the lovely nature and wildflowers and my cats want to walk in the lovely long grasses.

  2. wzrd1 says

    For crops, corn is kind of meh for me. Tomatoes, not the beefsteak crap, but plum and San Marzano types, soybeans are excellent, greens are great and find a spot for potatoes. Leave the rest fallow to recover, rotate on a regular basis, but let nature recover the fallow fields.
    It’s a system that’s worked for thousands of years. Then, some invented factory farming and the quality of both life and food dropped into the shit tank.

  3. wzrd1 says

    I do wonder though, are soybean leaves edible?
    I do share that trait with the farmer, waste nothing that one can harvest.

    Which reminds me, gotta source some broccoli rabe, it’s in season now.

  4. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Not sure about the soybean leaves but apparently a good amount of the kudzu plant is.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    “Prairie grass” – “wildflowers” – It all sounds so picturesque.
    But do realize that they are talking about weeds.

  6. weylguy says

    Ken Burns’ excellent two-part 2012 series The Dust Bowl should be mandatory watching. Corn, wheat and barley supplanted million-year-old prairie grasses in the 1920s and 1930s, and look what it got us.
    Screw the spiders. Retire back to the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Myers.

  7. fusilier says

    @Reginald Selkirk #6

    I hereby sentence you to read and report on A Sand County Almanac.


    James 2:”24

  8. birgerjohansson says

    All cultivated plants started off as weeds.
    Millennia of cultivation have changed them so much some of them are now dependent on their human symbionts to reproduce and spread.

    (I recommend reading the SF novels Semiosis and Interference. Stevland in particular is a cool character. That reminds me, I should send copies to PZ and his students)

  9. pbdg says

    The point made about ‘weeds’ in post 6 is just nonsense. A weed is just an unwanted plant in the wrong place. No plant is a weed, in and of itself. It becomes a weed because of the attitude of humans. Some plants are ‘weedy’, that is, if you have them in one place they are likely to end up in places where you don’t want them. But again that’s based on a human choice (and the local environment) and doesn’t make the plant a weed. Mint is a good example. In a pot, with its roots confined it’s a fantastic herb and I have lots, but in the ground it spreads to cover the local area.
    But it’s actually much more than just an argument about terminology. Many praire plants are beautiful and not weedy – which means that the loss of praire has significantly reduced their numbers in the wild and planting a praire with them will be significantly beneficial. Even the relatively common species can be beautiful and not ‘weedy’ – Praire Smoke is a stunning praire plant which is also a good garden plant. The rules in so many places in the US about short ‘well-kept’ lawns are grotesque (as many guns as you like OK, but tall grass in your lawn, a heinous crime) and appalling for biodiversity. More praires and fewer manicured lawns would do wonders.

  10. wzrd1 says

    pbdg, the biggest justification, if you want to call it that, is rats.
    Apparently, to legislators, rats eat grass when it’s tall and massively proliferate from that massive amount of grazing food.
    Or something.

  11. Jazzlet says

    wizrd1 @3
    I don’t know about soybean leaves, but pea leaves are edible, like most things the tender shoots are the best. In the UK you can buy pea shoots for salad in some superrmarkets, grown just to harvest the shoots not as an extra crop from the plants grown for peas. They taste like mild raw peas, pretty good. You can also eat the tops of broad bean plants (fava beans I think?), taking off the top flush of tender leaves is sometimes recommended as a way to reduce black fly infestations, with the added benefit of the leaves being good to eat, and available at a time when there are few other greens around. I can’t see why the same wouldn’t be true of some soy bean plant leaves as they’re all in the same family.

  12. pbdg says

    Thanks Wzrd1
    Of course rats are a problem as they’re in the wrong place! Did they have rat plagues in the praires before man came? A perfect example is from NZ where beech mast years (seeds from the NZ beech trees – magnificent wonderful forest trees who no-one would ever describe as weeds) lead to massive increases in rats and their predators which ten destroy native bird populations. The problem is not the mast which is a hugely important food for native birds, especially kakapo. It’s the presence of the introduced mammals! And the problem isn’t the rats eating the mast is what they do afterwards – same with the grass (which at the same time is providing seed to all the wonderful American sparrows and their ilk.

  13. hillaryrettig1 says

    “Prairie crayfish?” That’s a joke, right?

    Anyhow, a really excellent albeit enraging book is Prairie Fires by Caroline Frasier. It’s a bio of Laura Ingalls Wilder and hoo boy. Turns out that the whole “yeoman farmer” thing was a scam from beginning to end. The model just wasn’t sustainable economically, forget about environmentally. (And forget about the theft / murder of native people’s.) “Pa” Wilder went bankrupt several times. It was all a grift designed to lure gullible easterners west to develop communities that would help enrich railroad moguls and similar.

    A generation later, Wilder would write fraudulent, sentimentalized books extolling the virtues of individualism while having worked for decades for a federal-govt sponsored lending program.

  14. StevoR says

    @ PZ Myers : Do you know much about the Native American Peoples of Minnesota (Dakota? Anishinaabe a.k.a. Ojibwe or Chippewa?* See : and their use of their local native plants and environmental management? Are there any local groups around where you are that teach people about that?

    Living on Kaurna land ( with some overlap with the Peramangk People when it comes to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples here and been able to learn a litlte bit about their botanical knowledge and use of local native flora though a very lot more I don’t know. Do you have anything like the Living Kaurna Centre at Warriparinga ( ) where you are?

    From quick wikipedia search.

  15. kaleberg says

    A few years back I went to a wedding not far from your school. En route from MSP to Peter’s Sunset Beach Resort where we and many other wedding guests were staying, we passed acre after acre of corn and soy beans. It was impressive in a way, if only for the sheer scale of it. The whole land had been turned into a machine for growing crops. The US is a big food exporter, and all those acres – corn, corn, soy, corn, soy, soy – are how that food is produced, and there are people around the world relying on that soil absorbing raw ammonia and producing staple crops like corn and soy beans. Still, it was so immense, so overwhelming, that felt like something out of old fashioned science fiction. Only the Central Valley in California with its acres of crops in the middle of the desert seemed more surreal.

    The wedding was held in a wooden church at the edge of a corn field. Like a lot of roads we traveled in the area, the road to the church was lined with corn, so we couldn’t see very far ahead. The wedding bus stopped, and there was the church set in a patch of forest isolated by acres of corn and soy. There were big old trees growing there. Somehow, this patch of land hadn’t been absorbed by the machine, perhaps because enough people considered the church grounds sacred. There was an old cemetery out back, and we could see that there was a stream running along the back edge of the grounds. There were old gravestones from the 19th century there, but the most felt glimpse of the past was of the stream, the forest and the grass.

  16. robro says

    I’ve shared my spiel about native plants and natural habitats. Just earlier this evening my partner commented that while we have bird feeders, the number and variety of birds we have now is partly the result of native plants she’s put in that attract the birds with food and shelter from predators, mainly other birds.

    Following kaleberg @ #20, I drove through the Central Valley many decades ago with my mom and dad. She grew up on a sharecropper farm in southwest Georgia, so lots of cotton, corn, peanuts and so on in her life. My dad also grew up around north Florida and south Georgia. Anyway, we drove west-to-east across the valley through a cotton field that was…oh maybe 10 miles? more? There were similar sized fields of soy beans and corn and other crops. You could say we were all impressed.

    Of course, all that farming also damages an enormous area that is fragile and vulnerable. Earlier this year a good portion of it was underwater thanks to the winter rains.

  17. Chris Whitehouse says

    Wow, it’s a wonder that his magnificent Chicago accent didn’t immediately set that field on fire.

  18. wzrd1 says

    pbdg @ 15, I’ve actually had to deal with a one rat infestation, which literally was killing off all mice of recent infestation.
    There was an abandoned building on the corner that the city was sort of addressing, when the trolley rails needed major work on. That thunder dispersed the rodents.
    While I was addressing the mouse invasion, my wife delivered one of our children and soon returned home.
    Suddenly, we heard a more massive scurrying and well, due to a dropped ceiling, had access to droppings. A rat.
    Damned thing followed her, literally, from room to room.
    Tried traditional baits and traps, to zero effect, indeed, glue traps that I usually avoided were employed and we actually found paths to bait in mid-trap paved with mouse bodies that had their spines severed.
    Ended up baiting a spare tidbit of ceiling tile with peanut butter, then having my wife enter the room, the tile centered on a lighting grid panel and I actually had to shoot the damned rat.
    I’ve also raised and cared for rats.
    They’re brilliant, problem solving brilliant and decidedly not an herbivore dedicated to tall fucking grass.
    They’re omnivores, like me and equally opportunistic. Least effort for maximal gain, but at least I have a better sense of taste than they do.
    Oh, full disclosure, I don’t eat frigging grass either.
    Downside, I actually do have an SF recipe for rat soup. No, that’s not a joke.

    Now, due to an injury that’s awakened me and considering said injury, I’ll begin at 3 AM to plan my daily meals. Largely, around something that doesn’t involve my tongue in swallowing.
    So far, I’m at soft vacuum, hard vacuum and interstellar space.
    So, softer foods, as what awakened me was reinjury of my tongue, due to a molar fracture that literally carved a quarter inch hole in my tongue.
    Fucking GERD!
    Someday, it’ll allow a full night’s sleep, likely when the sun finally goes out…

  19. charley says

    A friend of mine did a spectacular job of converting his yard from grass to native prairie, but it took years. First, he tarped the grass with black plastic until everything died, then removed it to allow remaining seeds to grow, then tarped it again to kill those. After planting the native seed mix it took a few years to get a stable, diverse mix of plants. In the meantime, neighbors complained, and he did a lot of weeding. Once established, it was beautiful and admired by neighbors. If you just throw native seeds into your yard they aren’t likely to compete well with non-native species.

  20. wzrd1 says

    Silentbob, I loved the original US profile on plants. Most still existing were edible.
    Europeans then corrected that and turned an accepting ecosystem to a poisonous one.
    Source: SF medical school, available by field manual online.

  21. brightmoon says

    I’m growing purslane in a pot as I’m in an upper floor and only have a balcony . It’s edible with a sort of spinach-y pleasant mild sour taste. It volunteered in one of my houseplants a few years ago and i transplanted it to its own pot . I sprinkle a few stems on supermarket salad greens .

  22. Chelydra says

    Worth noting that many people in the botany community online have had bad experiences (including people I personally trust) with the Crime Pays but Botany Doesn’t guy Joey Santore. These range from not giving due credit to people that provide locations and plant IDs for his videos to misogyny, anti-LGBTQ commentary, and goading his followers to doxx someone, threatening to get them expelled from a PhD program for making a mildly critical meme about him. I highly suggest not promoting him or his content.