Madison city walk to Picnic Point

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During a recent visit in Madison, Wisconsin, my brother and I went for a short, pleasant city walk to Picnic Point, which is part of the University of Wisconsin (UW) – Madison’s Lakeshore Nature Preserve.  Without question, the spectacular highlight of the day was a display of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) near the entrance to the preserve.

photo of cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

I have been to Picnic Point too many times to count, beginning with childhood summer visits with my grandparents, who lived in Madison.  In fact, I have visited Picnic Point – or viewed it from Observatory Drive on the UW campus – so many times that I apparently thought the view was too commonplace to photograph.  In order to have a photo for this post I borrowed one from the Lakeshore Nature Preserve web site.  Picnic Point is a narrow finger, less than 1 mile long, that extends into Lake Mendota from the west end of the UW campus.  It is a favorite place for students, residents, and visitors to come to enjoy a nature preserve setting.

photo of Picnic Point

Picnic Point

The walk started and ended in a residential area not far from Madison West High School, which my father attended when it was brand new in the early 1930’s.  On the GPS track the orange dot shows the starting point of the walk and the nearby blue square denotes West High.  The length of the walk was about 4.4 miles.

GPS track

GPS track

Madison is around 900 feet elevation and is somewhat hilly, though the hills are very moderate.  The total elevation gain on the walk was about 240 feet.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

This turned out to be a wildflower walk, since I essentially forgot to photograph anything else – and there were quite a few nice wildflowers, all Wisconsin natives.  Upon entering the preserve we immediately deviated from the main path that parallels the south shore by taking a small loop that climbs a slight hill (the bump on the elevation profile at about 1.5 miles).  As is evident from the aerial photo, the entire preserve is forested.  One of the flowers we found along the side loop – and elsewhere – was pale touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida), with pale yellow petals and a sprinkle of tiny reddish spots.

photo of pale touch-me-not

Pale touch-me-not

Nearby we also found spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis), which is so fully covered in larger orange spots that it looks orange.

photo of spotted touch-me-not

Spotted touch-me-not

We saw several specimens of tall, or American, bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum).  We would see this pretty flower on almost every walk we took during my week-long visit to Madison.

photo of tall bellflower

Tall bellflower

We were expecting to find some milkweed, and soon we did: swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  This flower head was being visited by a (mating?) pair of large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus).

photo of swamp milkweed with a pair of large milkweed bugs

Swamp milkweed with a pair of large milkweed bugs

Near the tip of Picnic Point we found some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), which is favored by several types of butterfly and is the food plant for Queen and Monarch butterfly larvae.  It is the only orange-colored milkweed I have encountered.

photo of butterfly weed

Butterfly weed

On the way back from the tip of Picnic Point we found some wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana).  I have seen other wild berry plants many times, but for some reason the strawberry looked exotic.  I do enjoy flowers that have a spray of reproductive parts at the center.

photo of wild strawberry

Wild strawberry

Near the entrance to the nature preserve there is a very nice planted area with numerous types of wildflower.  Here we found prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya).  The blazing stars bloom from the tip toward the base of the rather tall flower stalk.  This example, with a close-up on the right, is relatively early in the blooming phase, with only bracts developed, and rayless flowers to follow.

photo of prairie blazing star

Prairie blazing star

There were also clusters of blue vervain (Verbena hastata).  Compared to the similar rough vervain, the blue vervain’s flower stalks have distinctive pointed tips.  And in contrast to the blazing stars, blooming begins at the base of the flower stalk and proceeds toward the tip.  Of course, the blossoms themselves look different, too!

photo of blue vervain

Blue vervain

There were numerous clusters of Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) in this planted area, and we would see it again in other places during my visit.

photo of Culver’s root

Culver’s root

Some of the Culver’s root was right next to cardinal flowers.  The adjacent red, white, and green made an exceptionally pretty image.

photo of cardinal flower and Culver’s root

Cardinal flower and Culver’s root

I must admit that I was completely enchanted with the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).  In my experience it is unusual to find such an intense red color in a wildflower.  These beautiful flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds.

photo of cardinal flower

Cardinal flower

As we left the preserve we walked across the road to a nearby area that the University has been replanting in native prairie flowers during the last couple of years.  In this area we found a pretty yellow flower; the plant has opposite leaves and a so-called round cluster of 5-petaled blossoms.  So far I haven’t been able to identify it.  (And I think this picture was taken by my brother after my camera battery ran out!)

photo of yellow flower, unidentified

Yellow flower, unidentified

After making a loop around the edge of a shallow catchment basin, which was full of cattails and other wetland plants, we returned along city streets to the starting point for the walk.  This was my first of six days in Madison, the afternoon following a red-eye flight from the San Francisco Bay Area.  The walk was a perfect way to begin the visit and get acclimated to typical July Wisconsin weather.

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