Saturday, January 18, 2014

Plant Quests and Questions from 2013

These photos by Lisa Culp seemed worth
some reverence (and some thought) in the cold of winter.

Vestal Grove was home to little or no trout lily when we started. But we've thrown seed around, 
and once a plant's established it spreads underground dramatically. 

Hairy stargrass is another one that's hard to restore by seed, 
because the seed is so hard to get.
We've been raising hundreds in a garden, harvesting a little seed, 
but mostly digging and planting out garden-raised bulbs 
in widely scattered prairie, savanna, and woods areas. 
In a few measly years, if all goes well, each spot will be a patch.

The first little purple leaves of prairie betony are often the first spring color we see. Betony is now widespread, because the seeds are easy to gather, and the seeds do very well.
As the central buds unfold, large areas will be bright yellow.

Shooting star is in no rush. From seed, it takes a plant about ten years 
to grow big enough to bloom in the competition of the wild. When we started at Somme Prairie Grove we had only a few single plants. We've gathered some seed from each, but we let some blow around the parent plants. Now we have hundreds - widely scattered plants - 
and big patches where the first ones were. 

Of cream false indigo, we had none. We scattered seed found along railroad tracks. 
Now there are hundreds. These spread their own seed by rolling like tumble weeds when dry in fall.
(We also still pick and scatter a lot by hand, before the weevils can eat it all.)

A few plants of veiny wild pea showed up in our early surveys. Then we saw not a one for decades.
Deer eat it. Nor could we find seed from a single population within 15 miles, our first goal. 
Then in 2012, one plant showed itself where we'd been scything tall goldenrod. 
We put a cage on it, and in 2013 it was many stems needing many cages. Inspired and looking carefully, we found three more plants widely scattered. Now they all have cages.   

We have so many close-ups of the prairie white-fringed orchid.
Lisa decided to try to capture its relationship to the ecosystem. 

Characteristic of only the highest quality prairies, our few prairie lilies are still widely scattered. Every one came from seed gathered elsewhere and started for us by the Chicago Botanic Garden. 
We keep gathering seed and starting more. When there are enough to reproduce on their own, 
we'll have passed a very special milestone. 

Dr. Betz always told us that Leiberg's panic grass typifies the finest prairies.
This species has spread massively for us from the limited seed we've gathered. Its chocolate stamens and feathery pistils make gorgeous flowers, if you can appreciate the minute.

Is purple gerardia a natural plant for us, or not? Unlike slender gerardia, which we have by the thousands, this one has been absent, despite a bit of seed broadcast long ago. Lisa noticed just two plants blooming this year. Where did they come from? Very nice.

Wild plum flowers may be beautiful, but the fruits also have eye beauty (in addition to mouth beauty). 
Here in a tangle with grapes they remind us of how crucial mammals are to the savanna. 
Mammal disperse big seeds. Big fruits and nuts are designed for mammals. 

Of cardinal flower, we had very few, and mostly the deer ate them. We salvaged a few seeds 
and gave them to Bill Valentine who propagated them in his yard. 
Bill returned massive amounts of seed and now these beauties are plentiful in many areas. 
Plant fans - there's also an animal in this photo. See if you can find it. 

Another celebrity for us this year was rough white lettuce. 
We'd never seen it bloom at Somme Prairie Grove. But it wasn't a surprise this year, since we finally found nearby native seed and grew the corms for transplant. In this case, the seeds blow widely 
with the wind in their parachutes. It will be a treat to see where the new colonies appear.

Savanna blazing star is recognized by a) long stalks on the flower heads 
and b) flat, green leafy bracts. After much conservation work, 
this species may be ready to come off the Illinois threatened list.
Hint to plant fans: there's also an animal in this photo. Look carefully. 

When we started, we thought no black-soil fringed gentians survived within out 15-mile limit. 
So we made a deal with Dr. Betz, and Larry Hodak harvested 6 capsules 
from Markham Prairie. We paid back the seed with interest 
when nearly 200 plants thrived at Miami Prairie that very first year. 
Being annuals, they're vulnerable to difficult weather and over-abundant deer. 
Some years we've had none. Some years we've had thousands.

When I see a shot like this, I wish I was a pollinator. I want nectar. I want pollen.
Are the fringes just decoration? No, they're there to ward off pilfering ants.
Only welcome here are flying insects that spread the genes from plant to plant.

We hate to see the prairie gentian, because it's our last flower of the fall. 
We love to see it because that color is so achingly deep. 
Except when warm sunniness inspires the pollinators to fly, this gentian twists to close up tight. 
Bottle gentian never opens at all. Only bumblebees are strong enough to get inside and pollinate.
Gentians protect themselves from crawling bugs, perhaps just too numerous by late fall.
Over evolutionary time, three gentian species came up with three solutions.
Is there more to learn about this?

Thanks, Lisa, for another year's worth of treasures to love and ponder. 


Daniel Suarez said...

These photos strike a deep emotional chord on a cold, snowy day like today. What beauty. Can't wait for the coming growing season.

James McGee said...

The difficulty with Yellow Star Grass is not establishing it from seed. Stewards in my area of the county have been successful with sowing the seed directly into old cropland. The real difficulty with Yellow Star Grass is collecting the seed. The small plants are almost impossible to find once the grasses have grown tall. We must mark the plants when they are blooming so we can relocate them later in the thick vegetation. We then must get back to the site to collect the seed during the short period between when the seeds are ripe and when they disperse. For some stewards, an even bigger challenge than collecting the seed is getting permission to collect seed from a site with a large population. One local steward was only able to collect 10 seeds from the small scrap of prairie that he was given permission to utilize. The difficulty in obtaining permission to collect seed is rather disconcerting considering a number of nearby high quality sites have many hundreds of Yellow Star Grass plants in the space of a mere square meter. In contrast, the scraps of prairies stewards are frequently relegated to for seed collection only have a few widely spaced plants which produce so little seed that the small reward is not worth the large effort required.

LCulp said...

"A picture's worth a thousand words," but your words, Stephen, give my pictures much more meaning and depth and relevance to our mission in the Chicago area. Thank you!!

Stephen Packard said...

@ Daniel and Lisa: thanks for the comments on aesthetics, spirit, and all sacred intangibles. They make a big difference. It would be great if we were better at articulating those values for others to consider.

Stephen Packard said...

@ James. I totally agree that the problem with seeding yellow star grass is getting the seed. Sue Gorr at Deer Grove East marked a patch with red yarn. Even with yarn of the individual plants, it was tricky to find and harvest those seeds. I have a patch in my garden with hundreds of plants, and we harvest quite a bit of seed from there. But this species (mostly missing from restorations) is a major part of the spring vegetation in many fine remnants. Despite the challenges, we keep plugging away. It would be great if someone invented a restoration procedure that was magically better.

James McGee said...

Seed gardening is one solution to the problem. However, this takes a commitment of many years.

The trick to relocating the often hard to find spring ephemerals is to make a map on graph paper showing were they are located. The location of the plants can be referenced to a fence post, rock, or other landmark. If no landmark is readily available then just having the pattern of the plant's locations can help you relocate additional plants once one has been found. If you know where to look, it becomes much easier to find those small markers in the tall grass.

Another solution is to use survey flags to mark the location of plants. I do not use survey flags when working in areas where people could be expected to visit because everyone either removes the flags or tramples the area trying to figure out what is being flagged.

There is no magic procedure that will make the process easier. The simple fact is the forest preserve districts need to make the same level of commitment toward getting their volunteers permission to collect seed as their volunteers have been giving. I am confident the Nature Preserve Commission would be very helpful with the process.

Stewards also need to realize that the preserves are not their personal property. It is not a Steward’s role to give or deny permission for the transfer of seed from a site.

The current system of barter between stewards seems to be too much like the worst of politics. The results being quid pro quo, permission only provided to favored people, denying permissions for any purpose, and at times the decisions even appears to be an act of personal revenge. The result of all this is an obstruction of the purpose that originally compelled people to volunteer.

Jim Vanderpoel said...

Tremendous work! These pictures serve as an inspiration for all Illinois conservationists.