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.)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Girdled Trees, Rain, and Fish

Summer 2018 began a radical new era for Fourth Pond. We were expecting possible rare plants, more amphibians, rare dragonflies? We never considered invading fish.

But last year, like this year, featured Great Torrents of Rain, mixing natural with human-caused complexity. We got more change than we bargained for.
To understand why we girdled trees around Fourth Pond, you have to consider some ecology.
Somme Woods benefits from five larger ephemeral ponds and half a dozen smaller "pools." They are important because they harbor some rare and endangered species - and even more so as recovering ecosystem remnants. A natural pond in a regularly burned tallgrass oak woodland is a rare thing. Over evolutionary time, the open oak woods and tall grasslands included ponds that dried up every summer, grew sedges, rushes, and other vegetation over their bottoms, and then burned during dry autumns. This natural community did not survive well over the last hundred years. How much of the original biota of such ponds has survived over the decades of no fires? Are there rare dragonflies, snails, or other biota that need such fire-maintained ponds and wetlands? 

Death By Cat-tail

One of the main culprits in the loss of this biota has been cattails. Solid masses of this rank vegetation fill all, leaving thick mulch that doesn't burn - an especially unnatural problem with the spring-only burns that once were standard with many stewards. (Pond bottoms that were burnable in late summer or fall will be full of water in spring.) Many conservationists judge dense solid stands of cattails to be both unnatural and one of the main causes of loss of wetland diversity (from plants to birds and beyond).

Death By Shade

Another culprit is too many trees. At Fourth Pond, before we started cutting invasive trees from around its edge, the dark was so deep that nothing at all grew. The bottom when the pond dried each summer was just mud. Some Somme ponds have big old oaks (often bur oaks) at their edges, and these oaks sometimes have big old limbs reaching out over the pond. That's because no other trees were growing in the pond or on the edge. 

But over the decades without fire, most ponds filled with green ash, cottonwood, and other trees and shrubs that would not have been so frequent when a sward of vegetation resisted their seedlings in spring and then burned off saplings in fall.  

Early stages of restoration

In the 1938 aerial photo, Fourth Pond is surrounded mostly by open savanna grassland. But by 2016 when we started restoring it, this pond was surrounded and heavily shaded by basswoods, maples, and a couple of dozen large cottonwoods. By 2018 only the cottonwoods were left. Stewards girdled the smaller trees and Forest Preserve staff girdled the larger.

All Somme's ponds all dry completely by August every year, But some hold water long enough for chorus frogs, peepers, and blue-spotted salamanders to mature. We sometimes see great numbers of little frogs hopping into the vegetated uplands, where they'll spend the summer. But last summer at Fourth Pond, as it dried down to about three inches deep and we approached, we were puzzled to see what for all the world looked like a pandemonium of fish racing back and forth. The amphibians that live at Somme are rare in part because they depend on ephemeral ponds which, because of their transient nature, don't have fish. Dr. Karen Glennemeier has been studying these ponds, especially their salamanders, and she suggested we seek counsel from Eve Barrs of the Shedd Aquarium.

When the water was down to two inches, we caught the fish with our hands and a butterfly net. Here's our note to Eve and her reply:
To: Eve Barrs at the Shedd Aquarium:

We’ve never seen fish when this pond (or any of the Somme ponds) dried out before. (Perhaps the herons got them first?) Perhaps they show up only in a year as phenomenally wet as this? 

Attached see photos of the four species of fish we found, as Fourth Pond dried down.

Could it really be that these fish swam a half-mile up a creek that's mostly dry and flows only briefly for a couple of days after a big rain, past many log-jam waterfalls?

If fish can reach this pond (or these ponds?) in some years, do you suppose the young chorus frogs, peepers, and blue-spotted would mostly get eaten in those years? 

The Somme Team

From Eve Barrs to the Somme Team

Thanks for the photos.  You’ve got a great community of native species - tolerant of warm, low-oxygenated waters like an ephemeral pond: (in order of photos) Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus), golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas), mudminnow (Umbra limi), fathead minnow (Pimphales promelas).

These guys probably did come up that stream.  Other species may have as well, but didn’t survive as the waters warmed up.  Cold water holds more oxygen, so other fish species don’t last when those levels go down.  And yes, heron, raccoon, kingfishers, waterfowl etc will enjoy them, especially as the water shallows!  The distance isn’t surprising, and log jams are great habitat for all these species and more (jams are full of leaves which feed inverts which feed fish!).

I’m sure their presence alters recruitment of amphibians from year to year.  It would matter when the fish arrived vs breeding season for herps. Karen can speak more to that with all her research on this!  Peepers, chorus, toads typically are the early layers and their tadpoles don’t take too long to morph…  So they might have been OK if the fish arrived after the amphibians morphed out.    

It’s all a cool, complicated web. There are some ephemeral studies in and around the Shawnee Forest that are looking at how/why amphibians choose which pond to breed in.  In an area with many ephemerals, there are hordes of salamanders in some, almost none right next door. They look identical!  Neat research to be teased out of the data once “we” all start logging it. Go Karen!

Seems like a natural occurrence, but a good thing to take note of for this year and that pond!


How the pond looked when we caught the fish.
Two days later, there was no water at all.
We counted and found that, just before drying entirely, Fourth Pond still had five sunfish, three mudminnows, and one each of the fathead minnow and golden shiner. We wonder what was there before the herons and raccoons went to work on them. We saw no frog tadpoles as the pond dried up, but there was one nearly mature salamander larva. 
Commonest was the green sunfish. 
Fun fact: The green sunfish is said to have polarization sensitive vision not found in humans and other vertebrates. This "polarization difference imaging" is thought to enhance visibility of targets in scattered light.
Vertical bars help identify a mudminnow. 
mudminnow may bury itself tail first in mud to avoid predators. A female can lay 2,500 eggs per season. 
Golden shiner.
Golden shiners make use of an alarm substance contained in special skin cells. If a predator bites one, the substance is released, and other shiners in the vicinity detect it and leave the area.
Fathead minnow. 
Fathead minnow females deposit eggs in nests built by males. The males then care for the eggs until they hatch. He aerates them, provides a protective chemical, removes diseased eggs from the clutch, and wards off egg predators such as crayfish.

For more detail on this kind-of-amazing photo, see below.
When this photo was taken, July 27, 2018, Fourth Pond was already three-quarters dried. The water in spring would have nearly filled this photo - surrounding the bases of the now-girdled cottonwoods. Essentially all the grass, sedge, and wildflower vegetation around the edge here now is the result of recent restoration. To get a sense of how dark it was before we started, look behind the pond to the right. No restoration had begun there yet. It is so dark that the ground is just bare dirt, eroding away. Due to the cottonwoods, much of the pond was still too dark for natural vegetation. Now that will change massively. Girdling was a good way to kill these invading cottonwoods because no herbicide is needed, a good thing on the edge of a fragile and perhaps barely-surviving pond ecosystem. The cottonwoods probably had invaded here shortly after the Forest Preserves bought the land - on the denuded pond margin from which livestock had now been removed.  

There was no indication that any fish had travelled up other streams to any of the other ponds, fortunately for our amphibians. Perhaps that's because Middle Brook goes up steeper slopes and higher waterfalls than North Brook, the one that leads for Fourth Pond. 

The adventure of the biodiversity recovery of Fourth Pond is off to a predictably unpredictable start. More to come!

To Dr. Karen Glennemeier for her ongoing work with Somme's amphibians, to Eve Barrs and the Shedd Aquarium for fish expertise, and to Kathy Garness for edits.