Hikers rarely get lost at Crossroads at Big Creek. We have great trails, and if our visitors get off the trail, it is a simple matter for folks to get their bearings by listening for highway noise. Pioneers had no highways. Actually, there weren’t a lot of roads in Door County when the first European settlers started arriving, so most of our pioneers traveled by boat or skirted the shoreline. But the pioneers who crossed the Great Plains were not so lucky.
Highway noise sounds a bit like prairie wind. But the sound of that wind did little to help the pioneers. If they got off their trails, they had few landmarks and grass that towered over a man’s head. Being off the trail and disoriented would have been a bad thing. Legends has it that if a pioneer got lost, he or she would use a compass plant to get reoriented. I truly don’t know if these tales are true, but certainly, even in the tallest of tall grass prairies, pioneers could have found compass plants.
The Compass Plants Silphium laciniatum L. is in the sunflower family and it towers above the surrounding prairie plants. The leaves are humungous, coarse… almost sandpapery…but what makes them distinctive is that the large leaves point north or south and the upper or lower leaf surfaces face east or west.
When the leaves start to grow, they grow every which way, but apparently, after a couple weeks , the huge leaves twist themselves in order to reduce the solar radiation from the midday sun. This is not unique. In fact, turning toward the sun has a name: “heliotropism.” For example, the branches of arbor vitae adjust themselves into an almost vertical orientation to avoid the summer sun and also the surprisingly strong rays of winter sun reflected off snow. The buds of domestic sunflowers respond to the sun so that by the time they are in full bloom, they all face east.
Those who want to see and feel the Compass plant and other prairie wildlflowers can hike our trails any time. Naturalist hikes “In Search of Compass Plants” will be offered on Friday, September 6 at 10:00 and and at 4:00 Tuesday, September 10. Sunday afternoon at 4:00, a Family Nature Scavenger Hunt will focus on Insects and Leaves.