Home gardeners can sympathize: not every seed that is planted grows.
This truth extends to restored prairies that are grown from seed mixes, according to Rebecca Barak, Ph.D., who completed research this year examining the success of individual species within seed mixes, and their combined potential to power up to the diversity level found in remnant prairies.
Urban and agricultural development has left us with less than one-tenth of one percent of prairieland, which is vital part of our ecosystem. Today, the prairie can be found only in small patches, and scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden study prairie plants and their chance for survival amid changing climates and landscapes. For Dr. Barak, a key question is what restored plant communities will look like.
Restored prairies can and do grow in all kinds of places, according to Barak, who conducted fieldwork at dozens of sites within an hour or two of Chicago. From a small playfield behind a nature center to the grounds of a temple to a large swath of acreage in the suburbs, she and her team visited each restored prairie site to compare the plant communities to the mix of seeds that were planted there initially.
“I studied that on the ground—how do prairies differ, how do seed mixes become prairies, and how can we tweak those seed mixes to improve diversity outcomes for restored prairies,” explained Barak, who recently earned her doctoral degree from the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University and is now a post-doctoral researcher in a joint appointment between the Garden and Michigan State University.
To conduct her fieldwork, she outlined a 50-meter-long transect in each study prairie, and marked off a large circle every 5 meters along the way. Within the circle, she and her collaborators counted all the plant species they could find. They compared those notes to a walk-through of each site months later as bloom cycles changed.
A native of the Chicago suburbs, Barak made unofficial discoveries that warmed her prairie-loving heart.
After summer months spent documenting and counting, she compared the list of existing plants to the list of seeds that were planted from the original seed mix. She found that less than 50 percent of the species diversity survived from seed to plant. “A lot of species are lost along the way,” she noted.
The plant mix within the restored prairies was then compared to historical data from 41 remnant prairies across Illinois—sites that had never been altered for other purposes. In addition to her findings about the success rate of seeds planted in restored prairies, “I found that species in restored prairies are more closely related to one another than species in remnant prairies,” said Barak.
The David H. Smith Conservation Fellow is not only tuned in to the number of species found in each prairie, but also to how well they represent a variety of evolutionary threads. “We think about how spread out plants in the prairie are across the evolutionary tree of life. Maybe, if you are getting more branches on the tree, your community will function better, or differently,” she noted.
“When we look at remnant and restored prairies, we find that there are differences in biodiversity and there are opportunities to increase diversity of restored prairies. In order to do that we have to think about the seed mixes that are being used,” she added.
In doing so, Barak anticipates that a higher level of diversity will support more functions like serving as habitat for pollinators.
Her detailed findings will be published this August in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
In addition to the benefits of prairies—such as storing rainwater and carbon dioxide—they also provide opportunities we can all enjoy each time we visit, said the scientist and former teacher. “I think it’s about more than that [the ecological benefits]—it’s about teaching people our natural heritage, thinking about habitats that are unique and special to our area, getting people to notice biodiversity, and recognizing that it can even happen in the city or suburbs.”
Last year, with great anticipation, I became a plant sleuth. Tired of my relative ignorance of plants, I wanted to learn more about them and become more productive while being outdoors, which I am—a lot. So I joined Plants of Concern as a volunteer.
Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden, Plants of Concern (POC) was launched in 2001 by the Garden and Audubon–Chicago Region, supported by Chicago Wilderness funding. The program brings together trained volunteers, public and private land managers, and scientists, with the support of federal, state, and local agencies. For more than 15 years, the POC volunteers—a generally mild-mannered but formidable force of citizen scientists—have monitored rare, threatened, and endangered plant populations in our region to assess long-term trends.
Broadly speaking, the data we plant detectives collect provides valuable information. Land managers and owners can use it to thoughtfully and effectively manage land, protecting ecosystems that have helped to support us humans. Scientists and students can use the data to help them understand rare-species ecology, population genetics, and restoration dynamics. The implications are significant, with climate change an important factor to consider in altered or shifting plant populations.
I quickly discovered that many POC volunteers are way more plant savvy than I am. Fortunately for me, the organization welcomes people of all knowledge levels. Our goal is to gather information about specific plant populations, ultimately to protect them against the forces of invasive plant species and encroaching urbanization. And our work is paying off. Some POC-monitored plant populations are expanding—reflected in the removal of those species from state lists of threatened and endangered species.
We are (mostly) unfazed
Yes, we POC volunteers are a hardy lot. Stinking hot, humid days on the sand dunes near Lake Michigan or the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie? We drink some water and slap on sunscreen. Steep ravines with loose soil and little to hang onto? Bring it on! An obstacle course of spider webs? No prob—well actually, those are a real drag. Last time I wiped a web from my sweaty face I muttered, “There ought to be a word for the sounds people make when this happens.” (Oh, right, there is: swearing!) But webs slow us down for just a few seconds before we resume the business at hand.
That business is hunting down and noting targeted plants, and continuing to monitor them over time. Our tools are notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment. In northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, we volunteers, along with Garden scientists and staff from partner agencies, have monitored 288 species across 1,170 plant populations at more than 300 sites, from moist flatwoods to dry gravel prairies to lakefront beaches and sand savannahs. Collectively, since Plants of Concern began, we have contributed 23,000 hours of our time in both the field and office.
“Northeastern Illinois is incredibly biodiverse, and some people are surprised to learn that,” says Rachel Goad, who became manager of the program in 2014, after earning a master’s degree in plant biology from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. “There are so many interesting plant communities and lots of really neat plants. For people who want to learn more about them and contribute to their conservation, Plants of Concern is a great way to do that. We rely on interested and passionate volunteers—we would not at all be able to cover the area of the Chicago Wilderness region without them.”
From the minute I met up with a POC group during my first foray last October at Illinois Beach State Park, I was hooked. Though I often feel like a dunderhead as I bumble around hunting for my assigned plants, wondering why so many plants look so much like other plants, I love it. One reason is the other, more experienced volunteers and staff leaders, who generously help me as I ask question after question after question.
Some of us volunteers are walking plant encyclopedias, while others (that would be me) have been known to call out, “Here’s a dwarf honeysuckle!” only to have foray leader Jason Miller, patience personified, respond gently, “Actually, that’s an ash seedling.”
“Hey Jason,” I say a couple of weeks later, trying to look unconcerned. “Do you guys ever fire volunteers?”
“Yes, but it’s rare,” he replies. “Of more than 800 volunteers over all the years, maybe five at most—and not recently—were dropped from the program.” He indicates that it’s more a mismatch of interests than a few flubbed newbie I.D.s that can lead to that very rare parting of ways. Miller also acknowledges that some plants are especially tricky, such as sedges (Carex spp.) and dwarf honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera). “Some species are straightforward,” he says, “and others are harder to monitor.”
I’m not hopeless—I’m just growing
I decide to interpret my POC foibles as “opportunities for growth,” since slowly but surely, I am starting to catch on. The information sheets distributed as we gather before a foray are making more sense to me. I am getting better at noticing the tiny serrated edges of a leaf, or compound rather than simple umbels, or any number of other subtle ways plants may distinguish themselves from others.
That gradual but steady learning curve fits with what Goad describes as “the most critical characteristic we look for in volunteers: someone who really wants to learn.” She adds that diversity among POC volunteers strengthens the program as a whole, helping to build a “constituency for conservation” among people not traditionally associated with environmental activism.
Goad and her staff, which includes research assistants Miller, Kimberly Elsenbroek, and Morgan Conley, work to match volunteers with something that fits their level of expertise. This “hyper-individualized” approach to training POC volunteers can limit the number of participants per year, currently about 150 (a year-end tally firms up that number). “We tend to fill up our new volunteer training workshops, which means that our staff is always working at capacity to get those folks up and running,” says Goad. “I encourage people to sign up early if they know they are interested.”
Another challenge for managing the volunteer program, Goad adds, is that “any time you have a whole bunch of different people collecting and sending in data, there has to be a really good process for checking it and cleaning it and making it useful.” Over the years, the program has improved its volunteer training and data processing so that errors are minimized.
Get ready, get set—learn!
Miller was majoring in environmental studies at McKendree University when he came to POC in 2013 as an intern. Now, among other things, he’s in charge of volunteers at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve. Like Goad, he says the main requirement in a volunteer is a willingness to learn. “We want someone who is interested in plants and their habitats,” he said. “If so, whenever you can help us out, great! We realize you’re giving your time to do this.”
Goad hopes to expand POC into other parts of Illinois over the next decade. “There are populations across the state that should be visited more regularly,” she says. “We do a lot with the resources we have, but it would be great to expand, and to do so, we need to continue to be creative about funding.” With partners that include forest preserve districts, county conservation districts, many land trusts, and nonprofit agencies that own land—and with its knowledge about challenged plant populations—POC is uniquely positioned to help facilitate collaboration.
Whatever the time frame, wherever Plants of Concern volunteers are found, the hunt is on. Some days are glorious for us plant sleuths, such as my first foray last fall. We hiked over the dunes, Lake Michigan sparkling beside us, the cloudless sky brilliant blue. A light breeze kept us cool as we spread out, flagging the targeted plant—the endangered dune willow (Salix syrticola)—which was readily apparent and accessible. Then there are days like one this past June, when the sun beat down over a hazy Lake Michigan, humidity and temperatures soared, and my assignment was a steep, prolonged scramble over ravines to find and flag my elusive target, the common juniper (Juniperus communis). By the end of it I was, to coin a phrase, literally a hot mess—but a happy and triumphant one, for I had indeed been able to plant a few flags.
Perhaps it’s time for you to sleuth around and plant a few flags, too! Visit Plants of Concern and find out how to join.
Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.
You know it’s bad news when the troublemakers—such as Queen Anne’s lace, purple loosestrife, or another invasive species—start to take hold in the landscape. Imagine the sight at Illinois Beach State Park when a dense thicket of more than 20 invasive species took over a ten-acre utility corridor—and began to grow steadily toward 50-foot-high power lines.
To ComEd, which manages the utility corridor, the thicket was potentially hazardous. According to safety regulations, plants under such transmission lines should grow no higher than 10 feet to ensure that overgrown plants do not interfere with service lines and threaten power disruptions.
In 2010, ComEd turned to the Chicago Botanic Garden for help in managing the overgrown narrow leaf cattail, reedy phragmites, common and glossy buckthorn, and other invasive species. “We reached out to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a partner to research the transmission corridor and see, over time, with different maintenance practices, what would come back,” said Kevin Jury, senior project manager for vegetation management at ComEd. “We wanted to use the information to guide our practices and see if there was something we could tweak in our process to reap an economical benefit and a benefit for the environment.”
As a result, the Garden developed a pilot program to research ways to turn overgrown corridors into sustainable native landscapes. “We’re interested because ComEd is the second-largest landowner in the state, and improving the habitat could have a major impact on the whole region,” said Greg Mueller, chief scientist and Negaunee Foundation vice president of science at the Garden. “It fits the type of public-private partnership that allows companies like ComEd to be better stewards of their land and allows the Chicago Botanic Garden access to land for use as a research opportunity.”
Now, in the program’s third year, plant life abundant nearly 200 years ago has reemerged with surprising vigor. Tall stalks of scouring rush—the same kind used by prairie homesteaders to scrub pots and pans—are growing under power lines alongside bright red cardinal flowers (Lobilia cardinalis), orange-petalled Michigan lilies (Lilium michiganense), and eastern prairie fringed orchids (Platanthera leucophaea).
Nearly 300 different plant species, including 225 native species and 40 newly identified species, have been recorded on six research plots. The plots are bounded by transmission towers and divided into three experimental conditions: two sites receive annual spot treatment with diluted herbicide solutions that control broad-leaved plants but protect grasses; two receive prescribed burnings every two to three years; and two sites are left unmanaged as experimental controls.
In addition to the current research sites at the state park, two new research locations are underway in Vernon Hills and Highland Park.
When the research is finalized in 2016, the Garden, ComEd, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources aim to implement the most effective approaches in ComEd’s ongoing maintenance of 3,000 corridor right-of-way miles and 5,300 miles of power lines throughout northern Illinois. “The lasting impact of this partnership will reintroduce, protect, and enhance native ecosystem locations throughout northern Illinois,” Mueller said. “We are hopeful the lessons learned from this collaboration can one day serve as a road map on how a groundbreaking public-private partnership can protect natural habitats beyond northern Illinois.”
Visit the Garden for World Environment Day on Saturday, June 7, and discover how you can make an impact in restoration and conservation.
This post was adapted from an article by Jeff Link that appeared in the winter edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.