Friday, October 12, 2018

Giving Rare Seeds a Good Start

More Than Perhaps You Wanted To Know
But Then, Perhaps Less Than You Need To Know
If You Want To Competently Restore An Ecosystem

(This is a draft – being edited – comments appreciated.)

Rarely Asked Questions 
(and Possible Answers, not pretending to be the last word – in this evolving discipline of the restoration of quality plant communities)

RAQ1: Why is it important to plant seeds in the right place? 

PA: Some people say we wrongly “play God” in deciding which seeds to plant where. And in theory, the most natural method would be to plant all species everywhere – and let God or nature decide which would prevail. But our most important seeds are rare – and harvesting rare genotypes from the wild, as we do, diminishes the place they’re taken from. Take too much too often – and we do damage. This is especially true of the seeds of now-rare, formerly dominant conservative species. 

So, we don’t want to waste them. Also, the seeds of wetland plants won’t propagate on dry ground, and although middle-moisture seeds might survive for a while in somewhat drier and somewhat wetter habitats, they’d be replaced by more fit species in time. The same could be said for species of sun or shade. Thus, if our goal is to conserve rare biodiversity, we can’t ethically waste.

Reassuring note: This account – drawn mostly from experience at Somme Prairie Grove – won’t concern itself with the complexities of less common soils like sand, clay-pans, etc. but will stick with prairies, savannas, and woodlands rising from the typical black soil of the tallgrass region. Also, this post is a “draft” prepared for a North Branch Restoration Project training exercise for stewards and Seeds Workday Leaders. We’ll learn enough through feedback to update these ideas after the exercise?

RAQ 2: Should we plant the same species in bare ground (where brush was cut) … compared to a grazed out old field that just needs more diversity?

PA: This is an important question, worth being aware of, but the answer is complicated. Many of the most important species won’t do well on bare ground, so we save them for “turf” mixes. But detail on this tangled question is relegated to Endnote 1.

RAQ 3: How do I recognize where I should stop broadcasting the prairie seed mix and start doling out savanna seeds?

PA: The first answer is that you’ll want to overlap those mixes a bit – as we’re just not that smart as to know for sure, and, indeed, the species mix naturally. 

The second answer is that it depends on how far apart and how big the trees are in your savanna. A rule of thumb: if full sun shines on a piece of ground for two thirds of the day or more, plant prairie seeds. But there’s much more on this, below. 

RAQ 4, and last: In restoring an oak woodland, should all the invading shade be removed before I plant my first seeds, or should the process be staged? 

PA: Our knowledge of how to restore biodiverse woodlands is even more primitive than with prairies and savannas. Some approaches lead to an understory of briars, poison ivy, and such rank vegetation that seems to head in the opposite direction from quality. With a lot of effort, it seems to work well to open the canopy enough for oak reproduction, plant diverse species for that level of sunlight, and let ecological processes take it from there. But other approaches may also show promise. (More on this in Endnote .) 

Some Visuals That Might Help

Many restoration principles can be expressed simply, but recognizing how to apply them on the ground in a specific place is the real challenge. Don’t expect to be perfect at it. In fact, just go ahead and assume that you won’t be right all the time and in every detail. But thinking about the principles ought to help. And field exercises help the most. The visuals below were designed to help prepare for field exercises. 


The graphic above seems to say: “Put the Prairie Mix in the prairie and the Savanna Mix in the savanna.” No, sorry, that’s not the way.  

Probably the seed mixes shouldn’t be called “Prairie,” “Savanna,” and “Woods.” 
Probably they should be called something like “Full Sun,” Part Sun,” and "Dappled Shade.” 
For more on this unfortunate terminology, see Endnote 3.

This graphic gets us closer to reality. Most open savanna should be seeded with the “Prairie” mix. But immediately under and around and especially to the north of isolated large trees (considering how the sun’s rays slant at our latitude), plant the “Intermediate” mix. In the darkest parts of the savanna, blend in some “Woods” mix. 

There is no “maple forest mix” on this map, because the North Branch had little of the maple/basswood or maple/beech forest (and those fine natural communities are a good deal less threatened than oak communities, so there’s been less research as to restoration techniques or conservation goals or priorities). The restoration we’re considering in this exercise is for oak woodland and oak forest, which have much brighter understories than a maple forest. 

Notice, above, that the seed mixes to be planted in a savanna may be mostly the Open (“prairie”) mixes, and a woodland may have open meadows and many areas (depending on the spacing of the trees) for the “Intermediate” mix. In fact it is in these areas that the bur and white oaks reproduce. 


This final graphic is “as good as we’ll get” in this post – and perhaps a “good enough” approach for this simple site. It adds wetnessto shadein our decision-making. On the North Branch we deal with few areas of “dry” soils or even “dry-mesic” soils, so we’ll focus here on “mesic” and “wet-mesic” soils. 

(Note on the ugly word “mesic.” It’s just fancy jargon for “medium” moisture. That is, it’s half way between dry and wet. I apologize for it. But it’s so widely used in conservation, that we may be stuck with it. See Endnote 3, in the unlikely event that you want to think more about jargon considerations.)

Thus we’ll decide where to plant the six different seed mixes that we need here:

MP: Mesic Prairie  
MI: Mesic Intermediate
MW: Mesic Woods  
WMP: Wet-Mesic Prairie 
WMI: Wet-Mesic Intermediate  
WMW: Wet-Mesic Woods  

How do we define our shadiness term “Intermediate” here? It’s an area that sometimes has full sun but is shady 40 to 60 percent of the time – whether because one big tree puts it in full shadow for part of the day, or because the overall tree canopy has enough holes in it that any given piece of ground gets sun for 40 to 60 percent of the day. 

The graphic may seem complicated, but on the ground it’s not so bad. You’ll find it quickly becomes second nature to check where you are in relation to trees: a) far from, b) near, and c) under. Recognizing whether you’re in mesic or wet-mesic or wet soils is trickier. You can often tell from the existing vegetation. (See Endnote 4.) For example, white oaks indicate “mesic” and swamp white oaks indicate “wet-mesic” or “wet”. But you can also often tell (especially as you’ve become more familiar with your site) because on the day you’re seeding, the mesic areas will be light brown and the wet-mesic will be dark and damp. 

Also, a person who’s studying this insanely closely may notice that the “LESS WRONG” graphic treats some areas differently from the “BEST FOR NOW” graphic, as to whether an area deserves “Prairie,” “Intermediate,” or “Woods” seed.  

One Last Point 
(Oh! Please, no! Not more!)

Well, just a hint of one last consideration. When broadcasting seed, consider the species already growing there – unless it’s bare ground where brush was just cut.  If an area is dense with tall goldenrod and briars, don’t invest too much rare seed there yet. 

The highest-quality seed mixes should be broadcast into thin old-field turf (made, for example, of bluegrass, daisy, carrot, and early or gray goldenrod). This approach has been proven by long experience on the North Branch, Poplar Creek, Spring Creek, Flint Creek, and Orland preserves. More on this in Endnote 1. 

What’s your experience?

If you do this work, please keep careful records and share what you learn.

Endnote 1

Inter-seeding deserves more than an endnote, but this most-important and best way to plant diverse conservative seedat least deserves a quick summary here. 

For mesic prairie area, especially receptive is a diverse turf of “old field” species like Canada bluegrass, poverty oats, timothy, wild carrot, and ox-eye daisy. Even if you don’t know these species, you can probably recognize this kind of area as one where you can see through the plants down to soil all summer long. If the shade is too dark, prairie seedlings will die.  

In sandy soil at Nachusa, the stewards recommend planting all the species with the first seeding, and that seems to work there. At Fermilab, Dr. Betz recommended starting out with “first wave” species like big bluestem, Indian grass, and prairie dock – adding conservatives later. Most people today don’t recommend that approach.

At Somme we have mostly used two sets of mixes, one for bare ground where brush was recently cleared (although we often sow no seeds the first year to give us time to spray out invasive seedlings and re-sprouts). Sometimes in such situations we sow non-aggressive grasses that first year, to hold the soil and allow us still to spray broad-leaf herbicides). 

The second major mix is for higher-quality established turf. In an “old field” of daisies, bluegrass, poverty oats, and even smooth brome, we get good results from broadcasting the very “highest conservatives” including prairie clover, dropseed, Leiberg’s panic grass, shooting star, the phloxes, and everything good. Over the years, they out-complete and replace the weeds. (However, if the bluegrass or brome is so dense that it heavily shades the ground by summer, it is necessary to burn it for a year or a few before planting.)

In bare-ground woodlands, we hold back on such species as hepatica, betony, shooting star, and rue anemone until there’s a turf to hold them. We have less experience with woodlands.

In rank areas of tall goldenrod, sawtooth sunflower, Canada thistle, etc. we suspect there’s an appropriate mix to break promote diversity, but we’ve done little careful research on alternatives. In such areas, leadplant, dropseed, prairie dock, and Culver’s root (among many others) succeed well.  

Endnote 2

Fallen tree leaves act differently from the previous year’s old-field vegetation. We have found that few seedlings of most species can make it up through dense woodland leaf litter. So we try to plant such areas only after the leaves have been burned off. In some years, wind blows leaves into piles and leaves some areas bare, so we then seed those bare areas. 

Diverse woodland understories seem readily established in burned areas if sufficient seed can be broadcast. Mesic species that do especially well for us (and seem especially compatible with other conservatives) in the early years include elm-leaved goldenrod, golden Alexanders, nodding fescue, starry campion, and wide-leaved panic grass. Prime wet-mesic species include zigzag goldenrod, great blue lobelia, Virginia rye, and many sedges. Indeed, sedge species seem to foster diversity in woods from dry to wet. Since our seed teams can’t always identify all the sedges, we ask that they just gather what they find and label the bag with the habitat (wet prairie, dry open woods, etc.).  

Endnote 3

Conservation needs public support. Jargon alienates people. 

I tried to get the annoying word “mesic” out of this summary. Why not just speak English and say “medium”?! But in this case, that leads to the seed mix called “Medium Intermediate” – which is ridiculous. 

If anyone thinks it’s worth the challenge of trying to clarify terminology, I suggest possible alternate names:
For wetness: Wet, Wettish, Medium moist, Dryish, Dry.
For canopy cover: Full Sun, Half Sun, Dappled Shade, Deep Shade (or Full Shade).
Or perhaps: Full Sun, Part Sun, Light Shade, Full Shade.

(Note: Deep Shade or Full Shade would apply to maple forest. On the North Branch, we don’t have such a mix.)

It’s good for all stewards to know what “mesic” and “wet-mesic” means, so  you can read the technical literature. But we also need language to use with the general public and new volunteers.

Endnote 4

Since the quality species you’re seeding are likely not already present, you often you have to judge the wetness of an area by the weeds or invaders. 

Indicator plants for seeding mesic prairie:
Ox-eye daisy
Wild carrot
Canada bluegrass
Early goldenrod

Indicator plants for seeding wet-mesic prairie:
New England aster
Sawtooth sunflower (but don’t plant if it’s too dense)

Indicator plants for seeding wet prairie:
Swamp milkweed
Blue vervain

In Intermediateareas, there’s rarely any vegetation beside brush. Check the Intermediate seed mix lists to find possible indicator species, if any are present. 

In woodlands, often the spring ephemeral species survive.
Indicator plants for seeding mesic woods:
Prairie trillium
Cut-leaved toothwort

Indicator plants for seeding wet-mesic woods:
Swamp buttercup
Fringed loosestrife
Mad-dog skullcap

Indicator plants for seeding wet woods:
Cardinal flower
Swamp buttercup

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Thoughts That Lie Too Deep For Tears

  Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
 Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
    To me the meanest flower that blows can give
  Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
                                          William Wordsworth

Why do I feel this way - on early July mornings in the ancient savanna?
I have no prayer of sharing it fully with you.
But I'm eager to reveal what I can.

Truly, I'm in love with these daybreaks.
A time to take photographs - and notice successes, and needs.

This is a world that almost didn't still exist.
We work hard to help it recover full diversity, health, and the expression of itself.

If you're interested in the names of the parts: those curling leaves are big blue stem, here sprawling under orange butterfly milkweed. The grayish foliage on the left (topped by flowerbuds for next week) is leadplant. (I'm in the moment as I look, but I'm also in the future as those buds proclaim soon purple and orange and swarming neat pollinators.) The fine grass is dropseed - royalty of prairie quality. Huge wide leaves are prairie dock - busy putting up seven-foot flower stalks. The pale green, barely starting to unfurl down in front, will later be heath aster, one of the last flowers of autumn.)

Black-eyed Susan joins the world together by living both on roadsides and in the finest savannas.
Prairie lily is so rare and conservative that we despaired of ever restoring it.
Then for a few years, with a lot of work, we saw one or two per year.
This year there were dozens, widely spread, on the way back.
Most bloomed earlier and are now fattening seeds.
But perhaps the star of this photo is purple prairie clover - fine leaves topped by a cluster of buds, on the right. This rare clover will more obviously be the star in two weeks, as you'll see below.

New Jersey tea. Blooming on both sides of one of our trails. 

If you haven't been to Somme, this is how our trails look. You might think this path semi-invisible, but it's easy to follow - and most places aren't this overgrown. We very much need the seeds of the New Jersey tea, so we let them sprawl wherever they want, until the seeds are ripe. 

Thus, when we walk these footpaths, we're in the ecosystem. We don't just see it. The ecosystem touches us as we touch it. Butterflies and beetles land on our shoulders. (We wear repellent to keep ticks and chiggers off our legs and ankles. How did the Native Americans do it?)

The bugs above are three hairstreak butterflies. They too are drawn to New Jersey tea. (The third hairstreak is facing us, and thus a thin gray line, if you look close.)

Big yellow compass-plant flower is, technically, many separate flowers. The male flowers (in the middle with the curly stamens) provide only pollen. The female flowers (yellow rays around the edge) will each make one fat seed.

Compass-plants are taller than we are. Their roots go way deeper than the flowers are tall. Not every year do they bloom. The roots store more and more energy until the plants sense that the time is right, and then most bloom at once. 2018 seems a good year for them here.

A rare photo (from a fleeting moment of misty rich light and blue sky). I walk mornings with my camera on misty days. Cloud-filtered light makes the best flower photos. So I rarely snap a patch of blue sky. I love cloudy days. Some want blue sky. This photo is for them.

Here the harsh direct light is only on a lead plant and wild quinine, while the sun isn't up on everything lower. Other plants here: prairie dock, black-eyed Susan, rattlesnake master, bastard toadflax, bush clover, wild bergamot, purple prairie clover, Leiberg's panic grass, Culver's root, gray dogwood, and fleabane. Rich.

Okay, harsh light. But seemed worth documenting. Overpopulated deer eat down lilies, orchids, gentians and others until there's little left. This is Michigan lily (differs from prairie lily in that the petals are curved almost into a circle and the flowers face down). Eight big flowers represent a major blessing. This six-foot, healthy plant suggests the deer aren't so over-populated here as they once were. (Back then, no lilies bloomed. After deer control started, in the 1990s, we began to see little two-foot plants with one flower each. We welcomed them back.)

A few days later, the lead plants are now starting to put out that purple, along a dewy trail. Most of the vegetation along this trail descends from seeds we held in our hands and threw to the wind. Birds and butterflies found their ways back, as home recovered. Bless them all.

Canada milk vetch with butterfly milkweed and leadplant.
We looked far and wide to find their first seeds. Now they're common here.

But take a couple of steps back and check out the process. Here the dry stems of last year's tall grass show that this part wasn't burned this spring. The growing buckthorn shrub on the left tells the same story. Without regular burning, every grass and wildflower here would be blotted out. Also gone would be the birds, frogs, and pollinators. We thank the Forest Preserve staff for a fine burn program.

How do we feel about parasites, like the orange one above?

Could I write:

    To me the meanest parasite that grows   
                  May sometimes give thoughts too deep for tears?

The yellow-orange patch above is a parasitic morning glory called dodder. Where certain plants are "over-abundant" (in the opinion of the dodder), it sucks up some of their energy and makes way for more diversity. In addition to fire and animals (grazers, pollinators, predators, etc. etc.) - other "creative destruction" processes are part of the mystery and magic.

Here, closer to the trees, dodder and fire and working together and against each other. Fire burned the scarlet oak (see burned older stem and this year's vigorous re-sprout). It did not burn the little bur oak in the middle distance. Dodder will thin out the dense mountain mint and tall goldenrod. Every year what we see is increasingly diverse with rare plants and animals, competing and being symbiotic.

Under a large tree, a "new" species for Somme is proliferating. Starry campion vigorously competes with the somewhat "thuggish" sawtoothed and woodland sunflowers.

Now the woodland sunflower has started to bloom, but the (until recently, very rare) starry campion continues to give it a run for its money. Some species seem to take a while for their genetics to adjust to a new home. Then they explode.

Many of the white oaks have burned lower branches (see brown leaves on right). With more sun, the compass plants, prairie clovers, and tall grasses will advance.

Prairie dock with its long leafless flower stalks seems to be happier among the trees than its closer relative, compass plant. Over the decades, they sort themselves out. And when a tree finally dies, the sun comes back, the plants re-sort, and it all starts over again.

Further back under the trees, tall bellflower (blue, upper left) joins the fray.

A clearwing moth. Holding still, thus the rare animal photo from me. Birds sing and pollinators flit around every shot. I care for them, am aware, feel enriched, but mostly others must take their photos for you. (I'm capable of only so much.) Thank you, to all the animal photographers.

Now purple prairie clover blooms in full. Swarming (blurrily here) with little rare stingless bees and other pollinators. Characteristic of high-quality prairie and open savanna.

In some places, the purple is joined by the even rarer white prairie clover. The white seemed for many years like it might not adapt to Somme at all. There were just a handful of plants, in some years none found at all. We continued to look for new populations that might have more robust gene pools.

Our emotions seem like those of a parent or a doctor. The child needs to grow itself. Just so, the patient needs to heal. Our job is to care for them, not to dominate or control.

This year, for the first time, white prairie clover seems to be seriously taking off. We'd just helped it a bit over the years. Now it's taking control.

In other areas, the purple is massively alone. Also alone is another example of the drama. See that cream color lower left?

This lonely plant is prairie cinquefoil - the only one we found anywhere in the preserve this year. Some years we find none. Will this be a species that just doesn't adapt? We have found very few local plants to gather seed from over the years. Maybe the gene pool is too impoverished. Maybe we'll find better sources. Maybe this species is just slow (but after 40 years?).

Somme Prairie Grove now has 487 native plant species and many thousands of animal species. We do our best. Most of them increasingly take care of themselves. The patient recovers. The child matures. Bless them.


Thanks to hundreds of volunteers for the great restoration.

Thanks to Kathy Garness for proofing and edits.

Friday, July 13, 2018

6:02 AM to 6:51 AM - A Cool Walk on a Hot Day

Somme Prairie Nature Preserve.
49 minutes of bliss and wonder. 

Is it too hot for you to enjoy nature - on a 90 degree day?
At daybreak, weather is heaven.
And just look at how the world glows!
At 6:02, the prairie was blanketed with mist. 
And just a minute later, with the sun rising and coming out from behind a cloud, the mist is on the run.

Purple Prairie Clover, a rare high-quality plant, is just starting to bloom.
And back behind it, the yellow Canada milk vetch is opening too.
Neither Purple Prairie Clover nor Canada Milk Vetch were at Somme Prairie when we first started caring for it. They came in with our seed mixes, from other nearby remnants.

The Milk Vetches are legumes that in cattle country are called "loco weed."
Perhaps these are beans that we shouldn't rashly experiment with re-frying. 
This patch is typical of many in the first quarter of the trail.
(I turn right at the fork, to see the best stuff before the light gets harsh.)
Weedy, aggressive Tall Goldenrod is dominant, often to the exclusion of most other vegetation. But here, Wild Bergamot, Prairie Clover, Black-eyed Susan, and other prairie species seem to be coming in. 
Other areas are just grass. That's not quality or natural either. A rich prairie mixes grasses and wildflowers.
Yes here, the grasses are diverse and include the rare Prairie Dropseed, a quality species.
The tall, colored stems are Big Bluestem.
Seeding quality prairie wildflowers will work wonders here. 
If you come bright and early, which I definitely recommend, be prepared to get wet.
Down the middle of this photo is the preserve path.
You're in the ecosystem, and this wet ecosystem will soak you.
The footpath trails may not look like much in photos, but they're easy to follow, intimate, and allow you to see un-trampled vegetation most everywhere else.  
Wild Bergamot, Mountain Mint, and Big Bluestem (back right). 
Two mints. Both have square stems and opposite leaves.
Bergamot is the flavoring of Earl Gray tea.
Mountain Mint tea was appreciated by Native Americans. 
Here the path goes between two clumps of dropseed grass and just to the right of a clumpy plant of rosinweed.
Rosinweed oozes a sap that Native Americans are said to have mixed with berries and other flavors to make a kind of chewing gum. 
Here the bergamot is backed up by Lead Plant, with purple flower fingers. 
Compass Plant towers over the tallest person.
Those white flags marked the trail when the vegetation was shorter. 
Wild Quinine
The rare and beautiful Kalm's Brome or Prairie Brome hangs down elegantly.
But that petty Tall Goldenrod (right) shows up in photo after photo.
Over the years there will be less and less of that species, as the higher quality plants slowly squeeze it out.
Culver's Root.
I don't know who Culver was.
Or what he used this plant's root for.
I know, but don't want to tell the name of this plant.
If you know, don't spread its name on social media.
With enough protection, it may "graduate" and not need the cages any more.
But for now, given that Somme has one of the world's largest and apparently more sustainable populations, the deer and vole exclusion cages are a good investment. Thanks, stewards!
This Michigan Lily is blooming much more often than it did for years.
Perhaps the deer control efforts are paying off.
At sites with more sustainable, natural numbers of deer, it may bloom with five flowers per stem, or twenty.
But it's nice to see even one.
Here and there along the trail you may notice dead patches, sprayed with herbicide.
This Reed Canary Grass, without control, could wipe out much of the natural vegetation.
It's invasive, and a killer. Thanks again, stewards.
(Notice the glacial boulder in the background? It's a reminder.
There is something glacial about restoring health to a challenged ecosystem.)
Just past the boulder is a brush-pile burn scar.
Yes, this ecosystem is "under construction." 
These dead leaves were a precious Violet Wood Sorrel.
That they're dead now is natural. This plant is an "ephemeral."
They enjoy the spring but always go dormant above ground for the summer. 
This same plant of Violet Wood Sorrel was shown in full bloom in the June post about this new trail. As you get to know the vegetation, it's feels good to sense past and future as part of your recognition of all these species.

Here the trail is rich with forbs (wildflowers) but poor in grass.
A healthy prairie needs both to prosper.
Stewards will sow more rare grass seed here.
This is Cord Grass - the tallest of the prairie grasses, a wetland species.
Here, it's in full flower and, unlike many grasses, is visited by lots of pollinators. What's going on?
(That building on the horizon is Underwriters Labs - our neighbor on the north.) 
The northwest part of the loop trail goes through dense brush.
Winter work for the stewards here. 

People once compared the vast and wind-rippled prairie to a sea. Here, what looks like waves are lines of brush. Most of that should be gone, as the prairie recovers. The other element to see here is the lack of diversity. The wetland in the foreground was degraded hydrologically. Some day it will be rich and flowery once again. 

Later there's a section with a lot of soon-to-be tall grasses, scattered brush, and few wildflowers. This area was bulldozed before it became forest preserve. It's been seeded, but recovery takes time. 
A few Smooth Phloxes still bloom. Notice the one in the middle, with most petals shriveled and dropped, busy making seeds. This is a classic first-quality species. But it's later hard to find those seeds perched on thin stems and leaves. 
Last photo. Thanks for joining me.
6:51 AM. Time to go to work.
A beautiful way to start the day. 

The Forest Preserves of Cook County deserve mammoth credit for buying the land, empowering the stewards, and conducting the burns in recent years.

Laurel Ross, steward, and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project deserve equal credit for detailed restoration over forty years.

Thanks to Kathy Garness and Eriko Jokima for correcting typos and editing.