Saturday, September 29, 2012


The photos below show what I looked at and thought about as I mapped where this year's various seed mixes should be broadcast.  

The subdued rainbow leaves are wild quinine. The sapling in the middle (gray bark, small yellow leaflets) is a shagbark hickory. I wonder how long that hickory will be here. It represents a possibly-natural disturbance. Its trunk burns off and re-sprouts after every fire. This little trunk is two years old. It will probably burn off again this fall.

The tall plant with the bright green leaves is tall goldenrod. It’s a weed, not a bad plant, but one that, being common, indicates that top quality species haven’t yet reached an advanced stage of succession here. More conservative associates of wild quinine will replace this weed, if we seed them in.  

These dropseed grass clumps are probably twenty years old. We also planted forty or sixty wildflower species in this same mix, most of which are now present in small numbers. The other main color today (dark red-purplish) belongs to gray dogwood, a shrub. In prairie restoration, many people try to eradicate it. But in this savanna, it’s natural as dirt. If we stopped burning for ten years, dogwood would probably be six to ten feet tall and start shading out the species that need full sun. If we burned every year, the dogwood itself would probably be choked out in time. Savanna is always flowing in the tides of change.

In this case, deep green marks the evil one. The shrub on the left is common buckthorn. Green late in the season, it works overtime to shade out every other species in this photo. 

Buckthorn we don’t mess with; we herbicide it. People used to think it would burn out in time. Frequent fire can keep it low like this, but it persists and degrades (and forces us to burn more often than perhaps is good for some animal species, given how small our preserves are). 

There are at least a dozen species visible here that buckthorn would shade out and kill. Most obvious are compass plant (deeply cut leaves) and cream false indigo (vaguely bluish gray). We won't sow more seed here until the buckthorn is gone.

It’s so cute. The bright green grass here will fill this frame when it matures, but that process will take some years. The seed this youngster grew from probably flew from our broadcasting hands about four years ago. As it grows, the wild quinine (gray seed heads to the left and multi-colored leaves) will still be here, but smaller and fewer.

Other species in this photo: little bluestem (curly reddish leaves), golden Alexanders, prairie rose and early goldenrod will also still be here. The latter was a dominant. It’s often dominant early in the process of restoring an old pasture, like this was. But it is very generous about mostly giving way to more conservative species in time. As this dropseed grows and the community re-adjusts, this will be a good time to seed in some of the rarer spring species like prairie betony, violet wood sorrel, shooting star and prairie violet.

I admit that the prairie dock leaves here steal the show. But what I see most are the columns of gray seed on the leadplant in the background. They scold me with reminders that we need to finish the harvest – so that the conservative plants of this rich patch can be broadcast in the many, larger patches that are still begging for restoration.
(Plants in bloom here: heath aster and azure aster.)

The bright orange here is hawthorn. Dogwood and hawthorn are now the commonest native shrubs at Somme. Hazelnut and wild plum were probably more common in original tallgrass nature. Heavy grazing helped the hawthorns. It will be fun to watch how the various shrubs increase, decrease and move around the site under the influence of restored frequent fire.

Stiff gentian is now the commonest gentian on the site, by the thousands. We never found much seed of this rare plant, but from the little we did it reproduced “like crazy.” The crazy part probably has something to do with the still transitional nature of the restoring ecosystem here. In time, stiff gentian will probably retreat from areas of the most conservative full-sun species – and will thrive where the shrubs keep things stirred with all their growing-up and shading-out and burning-back and starting-over.

Some oaks escape the fire by hiding in shrub patches. At least fifty nearby bur and scarlet oaks are equally old, but three feet tall. Their tops burn off, and they have to start growing new trunks every time the savanna burns. Brush patches suppress the grassy fuel. So the fire usually skips the oaks in shrub patches. By the time this shrub patch does burn, this oak may have developed enough thick corky bark to protect it. Then we’d have a mature old oak in the making.

This ash tree got its top burned off (see all that black at the bottom). It’s putting up re-sprouts (and holding up a grape vine). Oaks, hazels and plums are masters at re-sprouting. Ash is not. Over the years, with burning, we expect ash to fade out (along with maple, like that orange tree in the background). As they decrease, classic savanna trees and shrubs will increase.

UNINTENTIONAL SELF PORTRAIT – with big bluestem and dropseed.

I don’t know why my phone/camera did this weird thing. But I kind of like it. If you’re still here, thanks for taking this walk with me. And do comment to let me know if you found this helpful, or interesting, or had questions. Thanks.

Stephen Packard


Steve Halm said...

Stephen, This 'walk' was very helpful to me. I am more of a book learner and reading about and seeing photos of the various plants helps me to learn and memorize them. I am terrible at memorizing the names of people when I first meet them, and so it goes with memorizing the names of plants when I first meet them in the field.
I hope "What A Steward Thinks About" becomes a regular, year round part of Vestal Grove.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, I wonder how you know "natural associates of wild quinine will replace it (tall goldenrod), if we seed them in." It seems to me there is currently a population explosion of tall goldenrod. This population explosion is not necessarily related to disturbance. I have seen tall goldenrod forming large monocultures in both remnants and the oldest restorations. Something else besides mere competition is occurring that I do not believe anyone really understands.

I also wanted to ask you why the FPDCC will not allow girdling for the control of buckthorn. I think it is faster to girdle a large single stem buckthorn than to cut it, apply herbicide, burn the brush, and then reapply herbicide until it stops resprouting. Volunteers do not require state licensing to girdle, like they do for applying herbicide. I think more could be done for less cost if the FPDCC would allow girdling of certain woody species (like buckhthorn) in areas away from trails.



Stephen Packard said...

James, you raise good questions about tall goldenrod. Different sites may behave differently. At Somme and many other sites I have watched tall goldenrod retreat from diverse, conservative communities with regular burning. Sometimes we speed the process with mowing or scything. But in rich communities like the one shown, I'm confident, from experience, that it will continue to decline as it has, slowly, for decades.

In early restorations, I've seen tall goldenrod suppress grassland "healing" long enough for brush to take over and wipe out most grass and forb species. Then the whole restoration process has to start over.

As for girdling, Cook County and other forest preserve districts do sometimes approve girdling. I agree that it could well be used more often than it is.

LCulp said...

It was nice to take this walk with you, and listen to what you're thinking. It all helps me understand the process a little better. Such beautiful fall colors!

Anonymous said...

My sister and I are life-long residents of the area, but did not realize this magical place existed until I read your book and we participated in a Friends of the Forest Preserve tour on October 7. We had both driven by it umpteen times without paying it any mind. Your book changed that. What an incredible journey! We'll definitely be regular visitors now. I look forward to experiencing the change of seasons and to the thrill of discovering unfamiliar plants. Thank you for standing up for Vestal Grove!

Bruce D said...


Enjoyed your "walk" as I was prepping for Sunday's FOTFP Tour of SPG -- a real inspiration, with some information I passed on to the participants.

As to the Tall Goldenrod, I've also seen much more of it than last year at Spears Woods and Theodore Stone. It may be a matter of the hot summer having caused stress to which this opportunistic species was better suited.

Stephen Packard said...

Thanks to everyone for the good and helpful comments. Thanks especially to Bruce for helping spread the word that rich nature in the forest preserves is a joy to discover and well worth protection and support.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a beautiful collection of photos and explanations. I found this by trying to confirm that what grows in my yard is wild quinine. Unfortunately the seed heads look nothing like your photo, so I'd better get back to searching.

Mary Ann said...

Thanks so much for this Steve. I'm working on a hill prairie in Northwest Indiana and always struggling with the issues that you have. I have not been able to resolve the burning issue, i.e. should we burn everything every year? This year prairie gentian bloomed and I have learned that it does not tolerate burning and yet I need to keep the shrubs out. I'd love to have your opinion. Thanks.

Stephen Packard said...

Mary Ann, thanks for the good comments. I couldn't "prescribe" for a site that I don't know. But I can give some principles, as I understand them. Some experts would say that, if your site is of sufficient size and quality to have rare insects or other animals, some of the populations could be degraded or even eliminated by annual burns. On the other hand, many people recommend that for sites that need remedial help, annual burning is very good for the plants. You can feel confident that annual burning would not hurt prairie gentian. One solution is to leave some part of the high quality area unburned at any given time - but burn all the lower quality land every year.