Sunday, October 06, 2019

New Years Bonfire Begun - Save the Date

January 1, 2020 at 2:00 PM.

Now - the prep begins.

On October 4, we chose the spot, marked the buckthorn trees that will support the pile with double red ribbons, cut two invasive basswood logs for the base, and cleared enough brush to start work on Saturday's workday.

Russ, Estelle, John, and Eriko clear around the trees that will brace the pile. 
At 9:00 AM Saturday morning we planned to divide our forces in two. Our "top focus" this time of year is gathering rare seed. But a few of us would haul the base logs and start the pile.

Turnout is unpredictable - sometimes five or ten people - sometimes forty or fifty. But this day barely enough people showed up to carry those big logs, so the hunter-gatherers agreed to help with the big lug before their seed work.

Then at 3 minutes past 9:00, a miracle. Forest Preserve resource manager Steve Ochab showed up with young muscle in the form of Danny, Brandon, Aaron, and Steve 2 (Smith). 
The two big logs at the base allow us to build a raised platform for the brush pile,
which makes it easy for any animal hiding in the pile to escape when the fire is lit. 
Despite most of the regulars off scouting for rare seed, we got a ton done, thanks to two chain saws, a brush cutter, and a lot of hard lugging.
A brush-cutter allowed us to quickly dispense with dense young buckthorns - and add a lot of "flash fuels" to the pile.
In just three hours, the dense pile was tall enough that we needed a ladder and people on the top to haul up more fuel. 
We'll continue to build that tower of brush over next few Somme Woods workdays (except the pure seed-picking ones). Next example, October 19 at 9:00 AM, we'll put that ladder back up and continue skyward. You're invited to help. There's a lot of buckthorn to cut. 

As we worked, we heard and saw interesting birds, learned a few special plants. As we gathered up our tools, with some good feelings for a morning well spent, at the edge of a previous year's restored area, someone spied this treasure:
So gorgeous it seemed to glow - and yet almost invisible until you noticed it. This is the caterpillar of a hawk moth or hummingbird moth: Sphinx kalmiae. It was another reminder of the rich nature that had been being lost, but thrives once more after restoration. And what's with that blue and black tail-ish thing?

The caterpillars of this group of fast-flying moths are also called "hornworms" because of their scary-looking "stingers." They don't sting though; it's an impressive bluff. But why not leave them alone anyway. Hawk moths pollinate a lot of plants, like the prairie white-fringed orchid. They're part of the diversity that makes the world richer. 

Hey, enjoy nature. Enjoy the forest preserves. And save the date. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Evolved For Each Other: Bird and Flower

Like the glass slipper that fit the princess, this flower fits this bird. As you will see, in photos. 

Insect eyes don’t perceive red. Blue or yellow or white blooms are designed for them. Bugs have pollinated for more than 200 million years. Nectar-feeding hummingbirds have been in action for only 30 million. (It took a while for dinosaurs to get this small.)

Red flowers are for hummingbirds. In the photos below, the magic of hummers and plant sex is revealed. The pollen (male) of cardinal flower travels to the (female) ovaries on hummingbird heads. I can’t find any published reference to this precise adaptation, but if you doubt, look below. Each separate flower is topped by a long tubular structure that ends in gray and white reproductive organs. To appreciate the sequence of five photographs below, watch that structure in relation to the bird's head.

Yes - like the glass slipper that fit the princess, this flower fits this bird.

Lisa Culp Musgrave got these great photos at Somme - only because we restored the tiny birds' red-flower habitat. Until 2012, no hummingbirds had nested in Somme Woods for decades. Then we hacked out the invasive brush and gathered hundreds of species of rare seeds. Among those species were many that were crucial for butterflies, bees, fungi, and other interdependent species. But it was the red flowers that the hummers had waited for. 
Cardinal flowers, great blue lobelias and sweet black-eyed Susans
bloom by the hundreds where brush was cut and seeds were planted.
Adaptation: it is “costly” for a plant to develop a pollinating relationship with hummingbirds. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is the only one of the 19 lobelia species in the eastern U.S. that has done it (other lobelias are blue). In exchange for moving pollen to ovaries, the bird requires a great deal of nectar and a specialized form of sugar, and the robust ruby-throat is pretty rough on the plant, compared to butterflies or bees. Cardinal flowers thrive in isolated wetlands; hummingbirds fly long distances to find red flowers. Perhaps that's part of why they need each other. 

Somme has six true-red, hummingbird-pollinated wildflower species, spanning the seasons. After spring's scarlet painted cup and columbine - there's prairie lily, Michigan lily, and an occasional fire pink in summer. But the crowning glory of the hummingbird year is August and September's cardinal flowers.

Hummingbird wings beat 55 times per second when hovering, 61 when slowly backing up, and at least 75 times per second when zooming forward. They have a high metabolism.

In addition to nectar, ruby-throats also eat large numbers of tiny insects and thus no doubt regulate and enrich the complexity, health and balance of the woodland ecosystem. They also perform. In an opening among the trees, the male performs dramatic U-shaped flights, something like a skateboarder on one of those U-shaped ramps - but way faster - up to 60 miles per hour. Then, the female, if she decides he's her choice, hums over to face him and they fly up and down, together in aerial ballet. Their tiny nest of lichens, spider silk, and plant down, often on a horizontal tree branch over a stream, will hold two eggs.

We've witnessed that spectacular drama as Somme. Lisa has not videoed it, but she has photographed some flirting. It's then you see the male's ruby throat to best advantage.
That throat is intense - when focused in your direction.
But move a little to one side of the other, and it goes black. 
Here, the female is on the left, pretending not to notice.
The male is on the right, focusing the red of his throat on her!
She notices, a bit. He notices, a lot. The camera still sees his throat as black.
A dance: they change places, hover, flit back and forth, often too fast to follow, and then alight again. 
These photos were taken at Somme by co-steward Lisa Culp Musgrave, who had a splendid time of it. The female in the pollination close-up photos got quite tame, as Lisa sat very still in a quiet woodland glade. Except for her trigger finger.

Thanks to Lisa for great photos. Thanks to hundreds of like-minded volunteers for restoring great habitat. 

Ehrlich, Paul R. David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handgook

The dramatic (to us at least) first report of hummingbirds in Somme Woods was posted in 2013.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Power of Color

The savanna in bloom stops me, grabs me, directs me. Below are 18 photos I couldn't help take on July 16, 2019 at Somme Prairie Grove - and the stories they whispered in my ear.

We know that a coral reef is rare, threatened, and packed with biodiversity. We care. Part of "the why" is that it's so exquisitely, brightly colored. If all were dull green, I suspect we wouldn't care so much.

Of course, there are evolutionary reasons for those diverse bright colors, and why we care. Subconsciously, we feel their meaningfulness.
I went to Somme Prairie Grove at 7:00 AM to scythe the trails. (If you want to know more about why, check Endnote 1.) The light was harsh. I did not expect to be taking photos. 
Blue sky usually means glaring light. To the disappointment of some people, I rarely see or take a grassland photo that feels fully rich and also has blue sky. I clicked this one when a rare opportunity arose, as blessed clouds started moving in, while the sky in the other direction maintained that preferred-by-most-people blue. And the thin clouds kept coming!

Ha! "Photographers' light. "Now, for a brief period, cloud-filtered, rich light: and, for you, the 18 photos that demanded I take them - also some brief thoughts on what they might mean. 
Here, butterfly-weed is especially dense along a brushy edge. It's out in the open grassland too, but it often establishes with extra density in places where brush has recently burned away. 
Savanna differs from prairie in that way. It changes more, as shade alternately increases and burns off, and novel plant communities come and go.
Further from the brush edge, all plants seem to be more diversely spread out and smaller, thanks to the intense competition of a relatively stable community.

Other species above: Big leaves - prairie dock. Lavender - wild bergamot. Yellow petals - black-eyed Susan. Yellow plumes - early goldenrod (a delicate treasure, unlike the thuggish tall goldenrod of roadsides).
To me, high summer truly starts only when lead plant and the prairie clovers start to bloom. This purple prairie clover springs out of a wreath of prairie dropseed grass. Dropseed is recognized by its fine leaves radiating out of big clumps. Leadplant is the dark purple. 
In this case, it's the lead plant springing out of the dropseed. Big bluestem is the tall, thick grass stem reaching toward the top left corner. Some of the finest prairies are dominated by dropseed, with bluestem playing a minor role. The forbs (or "wildflowers") dominate both the diversity and the color in grasslands. But the grass is the bulk of the biomass in any fine prairie or savanna. 
What's this? Blue sky again. Am I about out of photographers light? Time to get back to work? But also a pause to think. See those dead trees in the background? They're white oaks. When this much grass burns, the intensity of the fire is enough to kill white oaks. The natural oak here is the bur. Long ago a 'reforestation" project planted many species of trees here. But these days, with biodiversity conservation the goal, we need to bring back the natural bur oaks - the most fire-resistant oak - the one that dominated the tallgrass savanna - that community between the richest prairies and the woodlands. We've been planting and protecting bur oaks, so that they'll be able to replace the whites as they fade out over time. 
Yecchh! Here's an ugly photo. As I pause, I spot this white sweet clover - a nasty threat to grassland biodiversity. I stop to pull it, as I do whenever I see any. Oops, now I see more to pull. Perhaps while I wrench them out, the cloud-filtered light will return?
Sure enough, it's back and beautiful. In this case it lures me to take a photo that shows more disturbance-dependent ecological process. 

In all these photos, the species discussed so far are the ones planted for restoration, the prairie and savanna grasses and forbs rescued from railroad rights-of-way, obscure corners of this site, and other minuscule remnants - to restore bigger nature here. After we broadcast their painstakingly collected seeds, the job of those plants is, with the help of fire, to replace the weeds. Here again for a time, butterfly-plant is bigger and more common that it might have originally been - because it's good at replacing weeds. One weed that has been diminishing here is tall goldenrod (its rank leaves and tall stem are at the bottom left and fill parts of the foreground). Bit by bit the bergamot, butterfly-plant, prairie dock and leadplant ecologically elbow it out of the way. How will it all balance out in the long run? It's fun to watch the process, year by year.
I like this photo because it draws my eye off into the unknown distance. Today no tallgrass savanna wilderness exists. Remnants are pathetic at best, and all restorations are small. We need much bigger. Perhaps some day there will be thousands of acres, as far as a person could walk, surprises and mysteries. Perhaps some day. 
Not just for us, many other animals need size too. I happened on these mating "Appalachian brown" butterflies a few days ago. They're doing their part for conservation. But rare animal populations on small sites have a high chance of extinction. 

I didn't chance across any animals I could cell-phone photograph this morning. But animals need to be part of the picture, so I include these few recent butterfly shots.
A handsome, freshly-emerged "great spangled fritillary" nectared on a milkweed as I searched for one of the site's rare orchids. They need hand-pollination, because Somme is too small for the orchid's specialized pollinators - large hawk moths. At least we can say we have a restored habitat for a great many fritillaries. 
I moved slow, clicked quietly, and a second fritillary arrived. Twice the blessing. 
Purple prairie clover - from more of a "pollinator's-eye-view." This species seems visited mostly by tiny, unusual bees. Are there rare species on this site? Does anyone know about their needs? So much more research and collaboration would help us restore, especially for invertebrates. 
Then, as if to contradict me, a bumblebee bombs in and goes to work passionately. Bless you, bumblebee. (More about this, technically, in Endnote 2.)
It's tempting to take "artistic" close-ups - especially with big prairie dock leaves.
But is this a better photo? It shows the fire-killed brush (in front of the dock leaf - and filling the top right part of the frame) that perhaps made way for the butterfly-plant and others. Perhaps I'll have use for both of these photos.
Or perhaps this photo covers all the bases. Pleasing dome of orange. Larger burned brush patches. Ugly tall goldenrod in foreground. Nice long view for size and mystery. Click. 
Does this post have too many flowers and not enough birds to capture the feel of the July savanna? Part of the magic is certainly its unusually colorful birds. Not much chance to capture that with my cell phone. So two of Lisa Musgrave's handsome shots deserve a place here. Bluebirds sang their delicate calls and fed fledglings as I got back to scything. I listen, and they're colorful in my mind's eye as I work.
With its rich chestnut red, the orchard oriole is a prized savanna community member. They showed up only after many hard-worked years of restoration. They too sang as I scythed. 
Today, the open savanna habitat of bluebird and orchard oriole is bright with flowers. But as I approach the oak woodland, flowers thin out until only some dramatic Michigan lilies remain.
Inside the woodland, no flowers entertained my mind. Is the woodland less diverse or inspiring than the savanna? Certainly not. The April and June floras here were rich indeed. Buds now top thousands of stems and tell a tale of floral and butterfly richness to come. But today it's in between. I'll chose the thinly-treed savanna today ...
... and get back to work ...  after leaving you with this one last photo. Here, far in the distance, if you zoom in, you can see the wires and railroad tracks that divide Somme Prairie Grove from Somme Prairie. Cutting just a few more invader trees will join together the grasslands on both sides - for a great boon to animals and plants of both ecosystems. But that's winter work. Today it will be hot. I scythed from 7:00 a.m. to 9:15. It was such a pleasure. Sorry to be having more than my share of the fun. But thanks for joining me on this little photo tour. 

Bonus Plant Identification
If you want to zoom in on the photo above, plants not mentioned earlier include: Yellow, in patches: prairie coreopsis. White spiky globes: rattlesnake master. Flat-topped white: wild quinine. 

Endnote 1
Most of us, this time of year, gather rare seeds. Some of us cut excess vegetation away from our trails. We want to keep the trails functional and pleasant for two reasons. First, so that people will be happy to visit - and, for that matter, to fall in love. Biodiversity conservation needs more volunteers and rarely, help from time to time when threats emerge and officials need to hear from people who care. Second, good trails will help people stay on them and not trample off all over everything. Many of our rare communities and rare species populations could be wiped out or badly damaged by trampling. It may be easy for thoughtful people not to step on a special plant while it's in bloom. But that's only a little part of the growing season. 

Actually, come to think of it, we need more volunteer help for trail care, if you might be interested. We train.    

Endnote 2
Most purple prairie clover flowers don't make seeds. Why not?

The new Flora of the Chicago Region: a Floristic and Ecological Synthesis by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha lists 64 species of bees that visit its flowers so intensely that all the day's pollen is gone by mid-morning. As the authors put it:

"Just before dawn, the anthers synchronously dehisce inside of each partially open corolla, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the anthers burst forth from their corollas, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, the anther-denuded filaments being common after that time." 

Just before dawn, the pollen-bearing structures synchronously open inside of each partially open set of petals, and as the sun crests above the horizon, the plants bathed by that first golden-rose wash of light, the pollen structures burst forth from their petals, which are immediately visited by a diversity of pollen-collecting and nectar-consuming bees. Pollen is collected usually before 10:00 AM, naked stalks that once bore the pollen being common after that time. 

Okay. So why are those 64 species of bees seemingly unable to pollenate most of the flowers? Or perhaps might this conservative plant be helping itself by maturing seeds only with certain characteristics, as some plants selectively do?

It would be fun to know. But we don't need to for now, as this plant reproduces by the thousands at Somme. We use its predominantly empty seed coverings as the major carrier that improves our seed broadcast.

One last, thrillingly nerdy note on the bees of  purple prairie clover:  Most of them (well, 44%), according to Rericha, are from the genus Lasioglossum, “small to tiny” bees, often called sweat bees because, in addition to pollen, they like to land on us and lap our sweat. Just for the fun of it, here’s a handsome photo of one of those friendly little sweat bees on milkweed, from Robert A. Behrstock through Bug Guide.

To Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima for proofing, edits, and suggestions. 

Friday, July 05, 2019

Faith In A Sedge Seed

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has
been, I have great faith in a seed.”
                                                                                      Henry Thoreau

What do you see above? Some people would look at this photo – and see a flower.
Stewards see sedge seeds – aching to be picked, transported, and sown.

Sedges demand a sensibility so refined that most people miss them entirely. A person can walk through a woods and see flowers, hear birds sing, hug a tree, find a frog or caterpillar – without noticing perhaps the biodiversity highlight. A fine woods has more species of sedges than any other genus of plant – and those sedges promote the diversity overall. As grass is to a prairie, sedges are to woods. And their beauty sings!
The seed ripening right now is Carex davisii.  Do you demand a common name? Sedge “common names” are largely jokes. No one knows them. Books make them up to fill a requirement. See Endnote 1. 

Some Somme stewards started calling themselves sedgeheads. Habitat 2030 folks did too, and this tee shirt is one of the results. The forehead or brain as depicted in the sedge-head skull is a sedge seed (or "achene" to a properly nerdy sedgehead). Will such a heavy-metalish tee work to popularized these outcast graminoides? Hope so.
This time of year, little bands of hunter-gatherers prowl through woods, prairies, and marshes searching merrily for handfuls of bionically pre-packaged embryos, to start new little worlds of restoration. If you live nearby and would like to join in, see Endnote 2. 

Every one of the Carex davisii seeds above has been held in someone's hand and will be hand-broadcast. We Somme stewards have more than 200 acres of formerly degraded oak woods that need such seeds from hundreds of species. In our marshes and prairies, other sedges ripen and call out to us. Bit by bit, we restore.

Of course, other seeds ripen and call out too. Below, Seneca snakeroot, shows dark seeds, starting to fall out. We will "massage" off those lower ripe ones and disperse them to other promising Seneca snakeroot opportunities. 

Blessed be those who gather seeds for ecosystem restoration. And it's free. Believe it or not. Education and conversation included. Good life for the ecosystem seems to contribute to a good life for some of us, too.  


Endnote 1
Swink and Wilhelm call this sedge "awned graceful sedge”? That’s a common name? Most Internet sites call it Davis' sedge. In real life, I've never heard anyone call it anything other than Carex davisii. It was named after Mr. Davis for no compelling reason. Sedgeheads name species after each other, perhaps because no one cares, and lonely botanists need that boost? 

Is our handsome Carex davisii a rare plant? The entire Wikipedia entry for this species reads: "Carex davisii, known as Davis' sedge, is a species of Carex native to North America. It is listed as an endangered species within Connecticut and Massachusetts, endangered and extirpated in Maryland, threatened in Minnesota and New York, and as a special concern species in Tennessee."

In the Chicago region, Swink and Wilhelm gave Carex davisii a "conservatism rating" of 7 - meaning that it's largely restricted to high quality remnant or restored ecosystems. Wilhelm and Rericha later slashed that rating to a 4, which was harsh! 

For more excitement about sedges see a thrilling previous post on this blog.

Cassi Saari, after reading the first draft of this post, generously rose to the occasion and wrote a better Carex davisii Wikipedia page at:

Endnote 2
Because it's hard to predict summer weather and seed ripenesses –  the times and meeting places for our summer seed collection forays are announced a few days before on the Somme Community Facebook page. We may meet earlier than expected if it will be very hot, or later to avoid lightning and hail. Check for last minute changes before heading out (no pun intended).


Seneca snakeroot photo by Eriko Kojima.

Fashion statement by Shop Habitat 2030.

Thanks for proofing to Kathy Garness. 

Wikipedia amplification by Cassi Saari.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Yellow Stargrass: humble and dominant

Each species of flower, each grass, each sedge – as you focus on it – is a wonder of meaningfulness. Indeed, as we join it in ecosystem restoration, we are in the arena with that species – and, in the case of the early spring species like yellow stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta), we’re there at the beginning. 

Every April for countless millennia, as the ecosystem started a new growing season, this little beauty was one of the commonest flowers. Now, shrunk from millions of square miles, the tall grasslands barely survive, and this species is one of their most conservative members, a plant of rare quality.
Hard to gather seed of, slow to reproduce, this quality plant restored poorly for decades.
How important, we ask ourselves, is this plant – a dominant in spring when the summer seeds are germinating – for the long-term recovery and evolution of the ecosystem in our care? This is not an academic question. Indeed, we also ask ourselves, we the Somme stewards and others who we learn from, are we wise to put great work into stargrass? Or just some work? Or none?

After all, wasted conservation time is a loss for the planet.

In 1985, twenty-something David Painter, a carpenter in workday life, gathered the seeds of yellow star grass and many other of the most challenging species – for our newfound restoration mission. (See Endnote 1 for more on David’s heroic early contributions.) Back then, we didn’t see results fast enough to motivate that first herculean seed-gathering era to continue and grow. Strike one. 

And so it came to pass, in the year 2011, that a garden of hundreds of yellow stargrass bulbs (technically corms, if you care) had been fattening for a decade in my back yard. Years back I’d had a chance to grab a few bulbs when a preserve was sadly being damaged for a trail through original prairie. I installed them in a four-foot-diameter bed of bare soil, imagining that gathering seeds would be easier in such a weeded, single-species patch. And indeed it was easier, to some extent, but still tedious, and few of us found time for it, before the seeds dropped, and the meager seed collected and broadcast into the recovering ecosystem was probably working, but it was hard to check. We didn’t really know. Strike two. 

So, most of our recovering ecosystem at Somme still had no stargrass, after 34 years. Now we said, how about digging up dormant bulbs and transplanting them into the grassland sod? Would that be more efficient? Would those plants, making their own seeds, year after year, restore the ecosystem?

Thus began the current experiment. First we took the “before” data. In April and June, 2011, I walked hither and yon, clipboard in hand, assembling the map below.

For the experiment, the areas we now cared about were the ones outlined in red.  We confirmed our hypothesis that large swaths seemed to have no stargrass. A green outline indicates areas where stargrass was common – ecosystem diversity and health. A green star indicates one or a couple of stargrass plants. (For more on this map, see Endnote 2.) In the original ecosystem (and in our vision) stargrass (and conservative associates) covered (and will cover) pretty much the entire site, except the deep marshes. 
We planted stargrass along transects marked by red flags. 
I haven’t found the records of the plantings I believe we did in 2011 and 2012. (For a personal note on why this is so disorganized, and why that may even be good to some extent, see Endnote 3.) But we found the records for 2013 – for fourteen transects. See map below. (Notice the mud stains. This is the map we carried around on a clipboard, with our flags and bulbs and trowels, to record the experiment as we did the plantings.)
In 2019, six growing seasons had passed. Time to monitor results and try to figure out what they could teach us. 

We re-located most of the transects. Then I paced off the intervals and studied. Every ten meters (that is, every 11 to 12 of my paces) I’d see that bright little yellow star on one or both sides of the path. In the end, Eriko Kojima and I counted 147 stargrass plants successfully restored. But on other transects we found none. And, aside from those individual or paired plants, we found no other plants outside the areas we’d marked in green back in 2011. 

Thus, after six years, here are some lessons we believe we’ve learned. 

Lesson 1. It is possible to plant stargrass into a recovering grassland as dormant bulbs. 

Lesson 2. After six growing seasons, these plants are not spreading, so far as we could tell. But a new young stargrass – without a flower, just a wispy grass-like leaf a foot or a yard away – would take great diligence to find, and we did not spend the time.

Lesson 3. On the other hand, some of plants marked by those green stars on the 2011 map had indeed increased to five or ten plants. Stargrass thus can spread under these conditions. Perhaps it just takes longer than six years.  

Lesson 4. Sadly, the efforts to restore stargrass to white oak woodland (parts of Transects I, J, and M) did not work. Perhaps those areas were too dense, too many oaks, too shady. Wilhelm and Rericha list stargrass associates under dry-mesic white oaks  to include pussytoes, spreading dogbane, poverty oats, bastard toadflax, wild geranium, two-flowered Cynthia, wood reed, fire pink, violet bush clover, elm-leaved goldenrod, and grove sandwort. We have such areas, but we didn’t choose to invest any stargrass in them. That might be a future experiment. Some of these areas seem to be increasingly rich and deserving. On the other hand, woodland sunflower (or hispid and pale-leaved sunflower) is massively invading some such areas. Will it decrease diversity recovery or facilitate it? That too deserves study, as woodland sunflower can be moderated by scything or mowing. Or perhaps our woods are just not yet of high enough quality to restore stargrass; our open grassland restoration efforts started well before and seemed to develop faster than our work in the dappled-shade oak areas. 

Lesson 5. It also did not work for us to plant stargrass in wet-mesic woodland openings (parts of Transects J and K). These areas are especially rank with thuggish aggressive species. 

Lesson 6. Similarly, we did not find that we had successfully reintroduced stargrass into still-badly-degraded areas of (wet-mesic to mesic) grassland (Transect H and parts of F). For that matter, where large original (or planted) patches of stargrass adjoined rank poor-quality grassland, stargrass mostly stayed back in the quality areas. On the other hand, inspired by the rest of this experiment, we were interested to find stargrass, violet wood sorrel, and other quality grassland species under tall goldenrod edges. Will the thugs wipe out the quality species? Or will diversity gradually replace the aggressives? And under what conditions? All deserve study.
Stargrass, violet wood sorrel, and other quality plants growing under "thuggish" tall goldenrod and saw-tooth sunflower. What community will win out? 
Lesson 7. Just a little more detail in the records and just a minimal filing system would have been So Helpful. 

Lesson 8. This work also motivated a more careful look at the role of stargrass in Grade B vs. Grade A prairie. See Endnote 4. As explained there, while stargrass is a conservative plant of the highest quality areas, it may increase under degradation or during recovery under some circumstances.

In any case, bless its little vegetable heart.
We are rightly known by the company we keep. 

Endnote 1

I wonder if David Painter was inspired by phlox. On the first day of the North Branch Prairie Project – the 6thof August, 1977 – twelve of us for four hours gathered the illusive seeds of smooth phlox. We hunter-gathered about a teaspoon full. On the second day – August 13th– ten of us for three hours planted those seeds in Wayside, Miami, and Bunker Hill Prairies. We had a confidence, and a hope, that was not shared by many. We didn’t know any results of that work for about five years. But in the early eighties, we started seeing luscious crimson blooms of smooth phlox everywhere we planted them. Five years later, we learned we’d had success.
We restored smooth phlox by seed, successfully, but at that time the achievement took too long to properly motivate more of the same? 
In earlier days, we had spent much time following what turned out to be poor expert advice, growing rare plants in greenhouses and gardens, then planting them out into the ecosystem, laboriously, inefficiently, losing most to the predations of voles. Experiments with phlox and other species taught us that – even for some very rare plants – seed and fire alone would do it. The experts would have to revise their views. 

Thus - five years after that first August 13, 1977 planting, we began to focus on our fundamental experiment – the gathering and sowing of now-rare seed. Prairie was then becoming known, through a splendid book of photographs by Torkel Korling and by news accounts of restoration success by Professor Robert Betz, the writer of the intro to that book of magical photos. But the easy-to-restore plants in the famous restorations were a few aggressive species – not the beauties captured by Korling’s camera. 

We decided early on that restoring hundreds of conservative plant species – the foundation of what we now call biodiversity – would be the focus of our work. And we could do it for most species by seed. This post may describe an exception.  

Endnote 2

Areas simply outlined in green are probably remnants of the original ecosystem. Yellow stargrass at Somme survived along the railroad at the west edge and by some wetlands that hadn’t been plowed.  

The two stargrass-dense (yellow-filled) areas along a trail to the west and another in the lower right seem to correspond to plantings in the 1980s with David Painter’s seed. 

Green stars indicate single plants or two or three plants. These may represent natural seed spread from the original patches or successful results of our seeding.

Both the original and seeded dense patches have fairly sharp boundaries. Stargrass does not seem to spread widely or quickly. Toadflax and stargrass survive together in the best remnants at Somme. Toadflax spreads here at about one foot per year. In its inexorable march, it will cover the whole site in time. But to advance 100 feet would take 100 years. Like toadflax, stargrass is expanding from alongside the wet Central Swale in dense patches, many plants in every square yard. But it seems to be expanding even more slowly, with toadflax outpacing it by double or triple the distance from their wetland-edge refuge.  

Much more detail on these and related maps is at:

Endnote 3

Personal note: More stargrass records are probably in the piles of maps and notebooks (and the more recent digital files) going back to 1977. Maybe sometime I or someone will find (or even organize?) them. Perhaps they’re not important enough?

We did many hundreds of experiments during this “battlefield medicine” early era of restoration. We were not looking for slight statistical shadings. We were looking for approaches that made obvious life-or-death differences. People later could work out more. But we also realized that some of what we were looking for would take longer than our memories would last, so we tried to record what we could. 

During this time, I personally was devoted mostly to my job as Illinois Nature Conservancy Director of Science and Stewardship, and after 15 years when that ran out, to launching Chicago Wilderness, Chicago Wilderness Magazine, Audubon Chicago Region, and along the way the Society for Ecological Restoration, and Mighty Acorns, and helping many people establish stewardship communities and citizen-science monitoring programs etc. etc. – so my precious Somme work had to be done on the fly, as complete as time allowed. 

And now, at 76 years old, I can focus more time on these old experiments. My life is like an enchanted adult version of the peanut hunt. Wonderful discoveries fill my growing-season days. Finding endangered and rare birds, orchids, and bumblebees, now thriving where we have stewarded! What treats – merely to be in the middle of annually spreading seas of color where we had broadcast rare magic seed! Then math and science, when we can: they further reward us with detail, insight, and other kinds of discoveries. 

Often we didn’t find the time to take the data. We then perceived results, sort of, out of the corners of our eyes. Something seems to be working, or not. Judgments form, and we do more of what seems to work best, and less of what doesn’t. 

We restoration pioneers were gathering seed (during each species’ sometimes brief periods between ripening and falling) from remnants that in many cases were rapidly being lost to “progress.” It usually seemed worth more of our time to save seeds from ten populations (that would otherwise be lost forever) than to record careful detail of one. But records and counting are crucial to solid understandings. So we did that too, perhaps not enough? But none of any of this is ever enough. Yet, it’s wonderful. 

Endnote 4

In some Grade B prairie areas, stargrass may be a lot more frequent than in Grade A. We often found scores of flowers in a square yard (or meter) of Grade B but only one to ten in Grade A. 
Fifty or more blossoms per square yard are not unusual in a damaged but recovering (Grade B or even C) prairie or savanna. Does this kind of quality facilitate recovery of missing species when seed is broadcast? Young dropseed, prairie clover, Leiberg’s panic grass, and Seneca snake root - visible above, emerging from broadcast seed - suggest that may be true.

This is as dense as I found stargrass in Grade A mesic prairie. Often there was just a flower or two in a plot this size. Also prominent here are hoary puccoon, prairie betony, violet wood sorrel, bastard toadflax, alumroot, Mead's sedge, rough blazing star, and wild strawberry. But there are at least twelve other species visible, even this early in the year. That's biodiversity. 

Acknowledgements and a link

The first photo in this post (the fine close-up of stargrass) is from the Flora of Wisconsin via the Internet.

The photo of volunteers planting along a transect is from Spring Creek. Why didn't we take better photos of our thrilling stargrass work at Somme?

Most of this work at Somme was done by scores of volunteers including David Painter, John and Jane Balaban, Sai Ramakrishna, Jeanne Dunning, Eriko Kojima, and so many eco-generous people who float in the mist of partial memory and are cherished, indistinctly. Thanks to Kathy Garness for edits on this post.

This post is a less-technical and more-fun (but not that much fun) companion to a companion post, which is more of a "scientific paper" version of some of this same material, at:

Common and Scientific Names

I struggle with how to expand interest in (and support for) the ecosystem. Few people will learn scientific names before they get involved. Listing both names (with the scientific in italics and parentheses) is tedious and off-putting to many. So this post sticks to common names. Among bird conservationists, common names are good enough. I wish that were true for plants too.

Unfortunately, unlike ornithologists, botanists change both scientific and common names often. My books call the subject of this post "stargrass", "star grass", "yellow stargrass", and "yellow star grass". No big problem there. But these same books call the possibly aggressive Helianthus strumosus "woodland sunflower", "rough-leaved sunflower", "pale-leaved sunflower", "pale-leaved wood sunflower", and "savanna sunflower".

As a rule I try to use the names in Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, which most people in the region have used. But I couldn't abide the bowdlerizing of the great old name "bastard toadflax" into the prudish "false toadflax". And even "false" was too racy for the plant long known as "false indigo" which many sensitive people have changed to "wild indigo".

In any case, the "science" version of this post included this handy chart:

Names of Plant Species in this Post 
(C = Coefficient of Conservatism)

Scientific Name
Common Name

Allium cernuum
nodding wild onion

Baptisia leucophaea
cream wild indigo

Comandra umbellata
bastard toadflax

Cypripedium candidum
white ladyslipper

Dodecatheon meadia
shooting star

Eryngium yuccifolium
rattlesnake master

Gentiana puberulenta
prairie gentian

Platanthera leucophaea
eastern prairie fringed orchid
Helianthus hirsutus
hispid sunflower

Helianthus strumosus
pale-leaved sunflower

Heuchera richardsonii
prairie alum root

Hypoxis hirsuta
yellow star grass

Lithospermum canescens
hoary puccoon

Oxalis violacea
violet wood sorrel

Panicum leibergii
prairie panic grass

Pedicularis canadensis
wood betony

Dalea purpurea
purple prairie clover

Phlox pilosa fulgida
prairie phlox

Polygonatum canaliculatum
smooth Solomon’s seal

Scutellaria parvula leonardii
small skullcap

Silphium laciniatum
compass plant

Veronicastrum virginicum
Culver’s root

Viola pedatifida
prairie violet

Viola sororia
common blue violet

There are probably species in the post not in the above list. If anyone would like to search them out and update the chart, that would be great. I can replace it. Or perhaps it's good enough. (I need to go out and gather some seeds.)