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

Saturday, September 22, 2012

MADE FOR EACH OTHER: bird and flower

Like the glass slipper that fit the princess, this flower fits this bird.

a female ruby-throated hummingbird works a cardinal flower. Their co-evolution goes back millions of years.

Insect eyes don’t see red. Red means hummingbirds. Most flowers are blue or yellow or white and pollinated by insects. Bugs have done that job for more than 200 million years. Nectar-feeding hummingbirds have been in action for 30 million. (It took a while for dinosaurs to get this small.)

Until this year, no hummingbirds nested in Somme Woods for decades. Invasive brush had wrecked the habitat. Now that we're restoring health to that ecosystem, the hummingbirds finally returned to give us their seal of approval in 2012.

Cardinal flower pollen seems to travel from flower to flower on the tops of hummingbird heads. I can’t find any published reference to this arrangement, but if you doubt, look below. Each separate flower is topped by a long tubular structure that ends in grayish white reproductive organs. To appreciate the sequence of five photographs below, watch that structure in relation to the bird's head.

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

Adaptation. References say that it’s “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 (others 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 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 had five red wildflower species, spanning the seasons, and they’re all popular with ruby-throats: scarlet painted cup and columbine (spring), fire pink and Michigan lily (summer) and cardinal flower (fall). But now - the drum roll of drama: All five of these red beauties were rare, often eaten down to just leaves by over-abundant deer, until the last few years. (Deer populations have been reduced by culling and possibly disease).

Scarlet painted cup never came back. (We keep hoping to find a nearby seed source to restore it.) The other four species are now plentiful.

In addition to nectar, ruby-throats also eat large numbers of tiny insects and no doubt enrich the complexity, health and balance of the woodland ecosystem.

Long live the ruby-throats and their red flower friends.

There is an updated version of this post - with some additional photos.


These photos were taken in Somme Woods by restoration volunteer Lisa Culp, who had a splendid time at it. She sat very still in a quiet woodland glade. The female in these photos got quite tame. (It's the male that has the ruby throat; he didn't get tame.) Part of the thrill was finding these woods rich with red flowers and summer hummingbirds again. Restoring diversity and health makes us happy.

"Lobelia flowers are bisexual; that is they produce both pollen and ovules in the same flower. To ensure that self-fertilization does not occur the stamens (pollen-producing structures) mature earlier than the pistil (ovule-producing structures), therefore the pollen grains are released before the stigma on which the pollen grains will land becomes receptive."

Friday, September 07, 2012

Leave Nature Alone?

                                              “O sweet spontaneous

earth how often …
has the naughty thumb

of science prodded

thy beauty”

How much meddling with the ecosystem is too much?
Or, to look at the flip side, when does “leave it alone” become shameful neglect?

This is a report on the prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) at Somme Prairie Grove. It’s a drama of a threatened species coming back from the brink.

Under modern conditions, neglected populations of this classic prairie species die out. Without our help, this orchid (and many, many species) would soon be gone from the Earth.

My adventure with the orchid began in the late 1970s when I was just starting my career. I got a report that a young fellow had found it in a forest preserve. Rufino Osorio grew up in a rough and crime-ridden inner city neighborhood, but his grandmother in Puerto Rico had introduced him to the love of plants. In Chicago, he figured out that the Montrose Avenue bus would take him to Schiller Woods Forest Preserve along the Des Plaines River. It was an Eden to him, in many ways. But when he found the orchid, he had to tell somebody. Rufino called the Audubon Society, and they put him through to me at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

Did this kid know what he was talking about? The orchid blooms for just a couple of weeks. Rufino gave me directions.

I went. I saw. I was in love.

I organized volunteer expeditions to Schiller Woods to cut back the brush that was threatening to shade these beauties out ... and snuff the whole prairie community there. We did great work, but we noticed that the orchid rarely set seed, and its numbers were diminishing.

Then, out of the blue, Marlin Bowles of the Illinois Department of Conservation dropped by my apartment with a white-fringed orchid sticking out of a 7-Up bottle. It had been broken off by accident, and he’d rescued it, he said, for scientific purposes. Sure enough, it was destined for greatness, because he used it to teach me how to perform one of the great intimacies of nature.

PHOTO CAPTION: This gorgeous flower is brilliantly functional. The nectar is at the bottom of those long tubes that curve down from the back of the flower. To find out why, read about "playing-hard-to-get" orchid sex, below.

Reproduction among the orchids is otherworldly. Only a few species of hawk moths can pollinate this one. The pollinator needs a prodigious tongue, because the orchid plays hard-to-get with its nectar. There’s a huge amount, but it’s at the bottom of a tube that is longer than the tongue of any bee or butterfly or hummingbird or almost any moth.

Marlin knew why the Schiller Woods orchids produced little or no seed. Pollinators are few, and the moths rarely find the orchids. When a moth does find the flower, it backs up, unrolls its tongue, feeds that long tongue down to the bottom of the nectar tube and drinks. It also gets a pollen packet stuck to its head or the base of its tongue, and flies on the to next plant (where conception now occurs).

Marlin taught me (and I subsequently taught many other volunteers) to mimic the moth with a toothpick. Once you have the pollen packet stuck to the pick, you go to another orchid and press it against its “stigma” – a sticky patch just above the opening that leads to the nectar. When you do it right, the stem of the pollen packet stretches accordion-like until the now-sticky pollen pops back from the sticky stigma, ready to meet the ovaries of the next flower. It’s hard to describe, but it’s incredibly gooey, elegant, and sexy. And it makes baby orchids.

As this toothpick draws back from touching the sticky “sigma” – one pollinium’s stalk is stretched way out. The other pollinium on the toothpick, which didn’t contact the stigma, shows what both had looked like, seconds before. To an orchid, would this photo be pornographic?

Rufino and I and our pals in the North Branch Prairie Project wanted seed – so that the orchids could have a chance to reproduce in the many prairie patches where we were cutting brush and restoring diversity.

Orchid conservation isn’t for people who require instant gratification, beyond the sex part. It was five years before we saw the first results from our new seed. After four years of nothing, I frankly wasn’t thinking much about orchids in July 1985 when I got a call from insect researcher Ron Panzer.

“Packard, you’re a genius,” he announced. I asked for detail. He reminded me that he’d first thought Somme Prairies Grove was ecological junk, but now, on return visit a few years later, he was finding many rare insects and plants including, of all things, the prairie white-fringed orchid.

He assumed I’d already seen them. I had not. He gave detailed directions, and I raced up there the next morning. Now comes the start of our next chapter – betrayal, evil, tragedy and restoration.

There was no orchid where Marlin told me to look. The directions had been simple, and you can’t miss it. Only one explanation was likely. White-tailed deer eat (and in some cases completely wipe out) many endangered and threatened plant species. They especially like orchids.

In 1986, I prowled the spot Ron described and found four orchids in bud. Oh, Yes! In 1987, I found three – and more at other North Branch sites where we’d scattered Rufino’s seeds. A successful restoration experiment?

Those were busy times for me, and I didn’t get a chance to see whether these plants successfully escaped the deer, attracted moths and set seed. In 1988 I found zero. Okay, nature can be like that. But in ‘89 and ’90, also zero. In 1991, blessedly, there were four plants. Then in 1992 – another zero. Success? Failure? Which would it be? The next year would be the start of a whole new chapter.

For this account, I checked 1993 in my restoration journal; I found not a word of the orchids on any summer date. But in the back of the journal, where the special species counts are, under its scientific name, I find the entry “3*”. And at the bottom of the page next to the * are the words “put in chicken-wire cage for protection from deer.” I had found three and caged them.

Has it come to this? The orchids in little prisons? But this was at least a stop-gap measure to ward off local extinction. Those three or four orchids we were seeing on some years now would have a chance to start a population. They started to benefit from three different types of “meddling.” First – the cages. Second – hand-pollination of every plant every year. The third was the hardest: with many others we worked to achieve public recognition of deer over-population. Both the Village of Northbrook and the Forest Preserve District began culling to bring deer numbers into balance with the rest of the ecosystem.

There was also an amazing vote of confidence from the U.S. government. The Fish & Wildlife Service began work to protect this endangered species. It was declining most everywhere – except the little North Branch sites where we volunteers were tending it. Fish & Wildlife contracted with The Nature Conservancy (where I then worked) to replicate this success at many sites in northern Illinois (the heart of the plant’s range). I was honored to see the initiative started by Rufino and me adopted as a model. I also looked at our encouraging, but really rather feeble, success data and whispered to myself under my breath, “I hope this works.”

(There’s an important side note here. No one was caging the orchids at Schiller Woods. Deer numbers there were very high - and orchid numbers decreasing. No orchids have been found at the site where Rufino had first discovered them since 2003.)

Summary of Phase 1: During the twelve years including 1986 through 1997, we found no orchids in five of those years. In the other six years we found a few, with a twelve-year average of 1.8 orchids per year. This may seem a pathetically small population for all this history, but just you wait. The key fact was that orchid habitat was here, and these plants (22 over the 12 years) were each making 50,000 to 100, 000 seeds per year (once the deer weren’t eating them). In other words, perhaps one million tiny endangered seeds were floating through the air and landing in potential habitat.

Orchids have seed like dust, designed to blow in the wind. The seeds are so small that they’re barely visible to the naked eye. No seed coat, no “germ,” no structures of any kind. Just a few undifferentiated cells. When the wind drops one in the dirt, another drama starts. A specialized fungus must infect it, as if to devour yet another piece of soil detritus. The orchid seems not to resist this assault – but it uses judo. Soon the fungus finds that, instead of gaining nourishment, it is losing it. The orchid is eating the fungus.
Daniel Suarez braces his hand on a green metal post. It held the 
deer-proof cage he has removed briefly to pollinate. Posts? Cages? 
Toothpicks? Is this too much prodding and poking?

An orchid initially lives for years entirely underground, like a mole, or a fungus-y thing that only vaguely remembers its green parent plant soaking up the sun with photosynthesis. The plant consists of a root only. But it is a root that grows bigger each summer. It builds up resources until, three or more years later, it decides it’s ready to put up a green leaf and start competing with the regular plants.

Some orchids live a long time. Not this one. Most white-fringed orchids glory in only two to four years of knock-out flowers and then die. It’s those hundreds of thousands of seeds that live on, if given a chance.

Of course, that’s a challenge for us stewards, because we never know where to put cages until the deer have had way too much opportunity to find the sweet little orchid leaf. So now comes another kind of pampering. We search for and cage them in May when the first emerge.

Phase 2 of the Somme Orchid Drama represents a clear step forward. During the ten years from 1998 through 2007, we found orchids every year with an average of 8.2 per year. We found them in three other parts of the preserve. Now four little sub-populations were broadcasting their millions of seeds. (To put our numbers in perspective, in 2006 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found a total of only 109 plants spread over more than thirty sites in northern Illinois.)

Immediate gratification? Just fifteen short years from the start of intensive restoration in 1993? Hey, this is getting exciting. 

Before I give the results through 2012, here's a summary list of the kinds of meddling or pampering we did:
  •        Ecosystem restoration for the donor population
  •    Hand pollinating the donor population
  •        Harvesting and bringing seed to the restored site
  •        Years of overall habitat restoration for the new site
  •        Hand pollinating the new plants
  •        Seed dispersal in areas we select, throughout the new site
  •         Caging from the deer
  •         Deer culling
  •         Caging from voles (Those little rascals cut the bottoms when deer couldn’t cut the tops.)
  •        Watering (when we had a chance to) during droughts
  •        Sampling and analysis to help decide how many plants and flowers to pollinate
  •        Controlled burns approximately every two years
  •        Pulling or herbiciding invasive weeds
  •        Cutting and stump-treating invasive shrubs and trees
A person could argue that we were weakening the population with all this coddling. But natural selection is a powerful thing, especially with all those millions of seeds. Any weaklings drop out. 

So - results. The graph shows numbers of plants through 2012. Note that we had to change the scale of the graph: 

Is nature better off if we leave it alone, or if we’re good stewards?

For me, this graph answers the question, at least for this species ... at this site ... so far. 

In 2012, at Somme Prairie Grove, we had 345 plants in seven major subpopulations. In addition, the orchids are popping up in odd corners all around the site, whether we’ve scattered seed there or not. This is now one of the world's largest populations. Will it be robust year after year? Only time will tell. But the first thirty years of our stewardship are looking pretty good. 

Helping nature recover makes us happy.


Photos by Lisa Culp who has also done or coordinated much of the pollinating, caging and monitoring since she joined the Somme Team in 2008. Lisa is now a respected member of the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service's orchid recover program. She has done "how to" presentations at conferences and trained many new "orchid stewards." 

Rufino’s website: