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Friday, September 29, 2017

Plant Refugees

Many once-common plant species are today rare, threatened, or endangered. For millennia, they were the basic building blocks of rich ecosystems; now they are hardly remembered. Some are vanishing over huge former ranges. Other species are at least losing most of local ecotypes. Today some of these species hide away in obscure habitats (that may indicate little about their former haunts).

Could they become common once again? Certain good experiments suggest that they could.

Before we get to a slightly longer list, consider two species – as they were described by H.S.Pepoon in 1927.

Lathyrus ochroleucus (wild sweet pea, wood pea, cream vetchling, or pale vetchling) is listed as threatened in Illinois. Pepoon characterized this plant as “Common on hillsides, in open woods.”

How often do we see the wood pea in woods today? Very rarely. There are probably two reasons: 1) the lack of fire has made our woods too dark, and 2) badly overpopulated deer seek out this delicious ‘sweet pea’.
Wood pea once grew commonly under white and bur oaks with rue anemone, fire pink, large false foxglove, shooting star, two-flowered Cynthia, wood betony, Seneca snakeroot, wood rush, wood vetch, and other first-quality species. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Viola conspersa (dog violet) is listed as threatened in Illinois. Pepoon characterized it as “very common.” I have three times seen it emerge when woods were thinned of trees making excessive shade. Mostly, these days, it’s found it wet woods – perhaps because shade from invasives is slowest to increase in very wet (or very dry) habitats. Wilhelm and Rericha list its habitats as “wet to dry-mesic woodlands" and include such associates in drier habitats as Penn sedge and bastard toadflax.
Violets hard to identify? Look at the stem (above). It shows a distinguishing character of dog violet. See how a main stem has many leaves and flowers branching off? In contrast, the common blue violet has no branching stems; the simple stems of every flower and leaf sprout directly from the root. 

As woods are restored, at least in some experimental cases, the full range of species that likely were part of the original community should be established. Some officials are reluctant to permit managers to restore now-rare or threatened species. Why should that be? If a plant was once common, what harm could come from giving it chances to become so again? Would its presence not likely help the whole ecosystem, as we try to provide the opportunity for it to restore itself to full health and diversity?

If authorization is granted, that authorization often limits restoration of the species to “proper” habitats. Why be so concerned about this? Might it not seem a bit arrogant of us to insist that we know the full amplitude of former habitats? All restoration and natural area management initiatives are experiments. These experiments should be carefully documented. And at least on some sites, the experimenters should give free rein to let the plants sort themselves out.

For me at least, I find the need for species restoration increasingly compelling the more I review species on the refuges list. The cases of seven more species are summarized below.

Pale Indian plantain (Cacalia atriplicifolia). Pepoon wrote: “Wooded hillsides. Common.” Today: Very hard to find original populations in woodlands.

Sanicle (Sanicula marylandica). Pepoon wrote: “Woods … common everywhere.” Today: Can be found in some savannas but in our darkening woods it has apparently been almost entirely replaced by clustered black snakeroot.

Smooth tick-trefoil (apparently Desmodium Dillenii and paniculatum in Pepoon). Pepoon wrote: “The common species … In open woodlands.” Now: Uncommon or missing in most woodlands.

Violet bush clover (Lespedeza violacea). Pepoon wrote: “Common on all dry soils.” Today: Rare enough that Swink and Wilhelm do not list it for Lake County, IL. But it showed up spontaneously in at least two Lake County savanna restoration areas, in one case, only after the burns started.

Wide-leaved panic grass (Panicum latifolium). Pepoon wrote:  Woods, common … An abundant, fine grass.” Today: A happy surprise when we occasionally see it.

Wild licorice (Galium circaezans). Pepoon wrote: “Woods common throughout.” Now: occasional or absent.

Wood vetch (Vicia carolina). Pepoon wrote: “Hillsides and dry open woods, frequent.” Today: I haven’t seen one in Cook County for many years.

These and hundreds of other refugee species deserve a natural and sustainable home.
We should not ill-treat these refugees. We have the ability to restore them to ecosystems that are recovering diversity and health.

Legumes (some of which have long-lasting, hard seed coats) may emerge from the seed bank in some cases. I have seen apparently missing legumes (Lathyrus ochroleucus and Lespedeza violacea) emerge from seed banks when restoration started (or possibly from surviving plants that weren’t recorded at first because they consisted only of a few leaves hanging on from year to year thanks to the little sun they did get). But on most sites, the seed bank is more of a myth than a reality. Most species, on most sites, do not spontaneously re-emerge. Restoring them by seed from nearby populations is one good experiment that should be encouraged at some sites.

When volunteers and staff launched the Somme Prairie Grove experiment in savanna and oak woodland restoration, we could find none of the species listed above. Now most of them are common or at least frequent. 
     Exceptions: We have found no nearby seed of Vicia carolina and thus have none at Somme. The recovery of Lathyrus ochroleucus seems only to be just getting started; but the similar Lathyrus venosus (which we started caging years ago) is thriving. Viola conspersa is recovering well in Somme Woods but not in Somme Prairie Grove.  

We should find as diverse populations of these refuges as we can – and restore the seeds (and some soil, if possible) to areas where full ecosystem restoration experiments are under way. Some experts have recommended restoring seeds from only one site for a given restoration. But in some cases, seed sources may consist of only one or just a few plants. Even where there may be many, we may be looking at a clone, or all may have descended from one or two individuals that survived some bottleneck when the farmer let loose his sheep or pigs or whatever. Perhaps most populations have lost some of the “genes” (alleles) that better fitted them for wetter or drier or sunnier or more-browsed-by-deer or whatever conditions. Thus one experiment, as least in some cases, should be to restore species from many nearby small populations, if possible. Perhaps then populations can re-assemble the “natural richness” of their gene pools – and surprise us with their behavior. 

Note on names: Most names above still follow Swink and Wilhelm. When Swink and Wilhelm (Plants of the Chicago Region) refer a Pepoon account to another name, this post uses the S&W common name for that referred species.
The contemporary associates given above are mostly from Swink and Wilhelm (plus, in a few cases, I wrestled with the new Wilhelm and Rericha and added species from that important source).


Pepoon, H.S. Flora of the Chicago Region. 1927.
Keep in mind that when he studied plants (late 1800s and early 1900s), the ecosystem had already been degrading for many decades.
Fralish, James S. 2004. The Keystone Role of Oak and Hickory in the Central Hardwood Forest. Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-73. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station. pp. 78-87.
     An important article to read, for context. See abstract, below.
     Abstract—Communities of the central hardwood forest have been dominated primarily by oak and hickory for the past 5000 years. Over this time period, they have become keystone species within the ecosystem and are of major importance in maintaining biodiversity. Not only do the large number of oak and hickory species by themselves contribute to community richness but they are known to provide food and support for a substantial number of wildlife species. Moreover, the structure created by dominance of oak and hickory in the forest community provides an environment for a highly diverse herbaceous understory. Data from oak-hickory stands with a maple-beech understory of saplings and small trees show a 90 percent drop in photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) at ground level accompanied by a 35 percent increase in litter weight compared to stands without an understory. The result is over a 90 percent drop in species richness and cover. This drastic loss of biodiversity, foliage, and fruit has serious implications for insect and bird populations and also suggests a potential for increased soil erosion and loss of nutrients. Extensive research into the loss of biodiversity is advised.

Monday, September 25, 2017

TED part 4: Green Community

Part 4 includes added details on the final 24 slides (including 2 videos)
of the TED talk that can be found at:

Our weekend exploits as hunter-gatherers and citizen scientists 
are low-key and recreational for most …    
     At the "work party" or "workday" shown above, people are cutting brush and building a brush pile. The white bags are filled with various seed mixes (probably Mesic Prairie, Mesic Savanna, and Wet-Mesic Savanna here). After break (see table with treats), these folks will broadcast those seeds where the brush was cut and use the rakes to rough up the soil so the seeds can settle in.
     This photo seems to show "community" well, but it's from decades ago. Today we work differently. We nearly always omit the brush pile stage and throw the brush directly into a burning bonfire. We don't "rake in" most seeds any more. Instead, we broadcast almost all of our seed in the fall and let the seeds work themselves into the ground over the winter.
     Restoration is changing and improving.

… but the quality of our work depends on 
dedicated, expert leaders. 
For some examples …    
As the Somme restoration expands, it's crucial that more and more people are able to lead. We study together and then divide up the work. Currently within the 220 acres of Somme Woods there are 15 "zones" each of which needs a steward or steward in training. Currently there are 9 such "zone stewards" who plan and lead the brush-cutting, seeding, and other stewardship. The TED talk focused on four of them:

Chemist Sai Ramakrishna in his free time plans work sessions and kindles bonfires.    
Sai in his professional life is actually a "chemical physicist" who works on processes and particles that are too small for the rest of us to comprehend. At Somme he leads the restoration of the Central Middlefork zone and helps other stewards inventory and monitor plants.

O’Hare airplane mechanic Paul Swanson improves our invasive weed control 
and writes newsletter articles.    
Since Paul has to keep the airplanes flying on the weekends, he often has to skip weekend workdays, but then he takes on special projects with people who have some weekdays off. For examples, he has led the assault on a number of evil invasives, and he's been studying the hydrology of our ephemeral ponds. He is zone steward for both the North Brook and Fourth Pond zones.

Medical doctor, Stephanie Place, believes in healing the ecosystem, 
as well as the body. She manages the restoration for the watershed of Fifth Pond.    
As steward of the Fifth Pond zone, Steph had the "good fortune" and extra pressure of having the site of last year's annual Solstice Bonfire in her zone. Hugely more brush was cut in that zone, as our friends in the Notre Dame College Prep "Lumberjack Club" strove to make the bonfire pile higher and higher. Steph did a lot of extra seed collecting to take advantage of all that newly exposed bare ground.

Steph also provided great feedback to this post. She wrote: 
"You could add one line about how those stewards in training that you mentioned, for the most part, became involved as stewards first by simply showing up and learning by doing, and later by accepting increasing ownership.  The "hey, we need help with the seed harvest" and thus Eriko was launched.  "Hey, what if you rake around this pond" and the rest is my history.   This could emphasize the accessibility of involvement." 

This seems like an important point. Steph refers to one of her early volunteer experiences when she was invited to rake in seeds around the edge of Fifth Pond - where the leaf litter was too dense for seeds to make it without some help. It took her about a half hour to do the careful job that this beautiful pond-edge deserved. Doing it helped her realize that even caring beginners could make important contributions that otherwise wouldn't get done. As she writes, the rest is her history.

Translator Eriko Kojima recruits for and manages many projects…
Professionally, a Japanese/English interpreter for conferences and business meetings, Eriko is steward of the Shooting Star zone but spends most of her Somme time leading a variety of workdays, coordinating our internal education program, and managing our web pages. But perhaps her biggest contribution is leading the seed harvest.  Those bags of seeds (see below) represent ...

…  including our annual seed harvest.

... thousands of hours of hand-picking by the more-than-one-hundred people who help out every summer and fall. In partnership with other North Branch Restoration Project sites, we gather more than 250 species of rare, local seed every year.

Teacher and artist John Patterson added pageantry to our annual Solstice Bonfire. 
John's initiative gave new spark and meaning to our annual procession through the woods to the Solstice Bonfire. See first video:


Neighbors celebrate the holiday seasonbrush disposaland the ecosystem. 
Our annual Solstice (or New Year's) Bonfire draws neighbors who might otherwise not pay much attention to Somme Woods. This year 400 friends of Somme from near and far shared the fellowship, witnessed the ancient power of the bonfire, and learned a bit about the ecosystem. 

We Illinois neighbors conserve globally rare nature – in a few hundred acres, 
surrounded by people’s lives. And through this mission 
we work in solidarity with like-minded people on five continents.    
The above aerial photo shows Somme Prairie(left), Somme Prairie Grove (middle) and Somme Woods (large area to the right).

Coverage of our work in books, TV and elsewhere reinforces its significance. 
A great many books, chapters, and articles focus on the work at Somme and sibling sites. "Miracle Under the Oaks" by New York Times science writer William K. Stevens explores Somme Prairie Grove history in considerable detail.

Volunteer stewards make special contributions in part  because our time 
is our own … unencumbered by grant deadlines … 
and relatively free from bureaucratic hierarchies. 
Our experiments may take five years, or ten, or twenty-five. 
The inspiring results are our reward.    
     The graph above shows how the quality of Vestal Grove varied (green line) from 1986 to 2011. Especially since 2003, the quality has dramatically increased.
     The green line represents the quality of sampled plots as indicated by how much surface area was covered by "quality species" (conservation coefficients of 4 to 10). The red line indicates how much of the vegetation was "weedy" (total cover of species with coefficients of 0 to 3). The 0 to 3 "weedy" or "disturbance indicator" species are the kinds of species you'd see along a roadside on in an abandoned farm field - rather than in a diverse natural area. For more detail on measuring quality, google "Floristic Quality Assessment."
     Vestal Grove is the bur oak woods at Somme where we first tackled the challenge of woodland restoration. The two shaded portions of the graph indicate periods when quality decreased for a while. In the early 90's, there was an explosion of white-tailed deer, which was very hard on many quality species, until the Village of Northbrook and the Forest Preserve District both began deer culling programs to protect the preserve (and to lessen the number of deer/automobile collisions on adjacent roads).
     The second dip in quality, starting in 1996, reflects a "moratorium" on restoration work that resulted from a political conflict. See

We the people must take some responsibility ... 
At Somme workdays, we try to organize planning sessions and idea exchanges whenever we get a chance.  

… because the future of our planetary ecosystem is in our hands. 
These seeds shown here include great Solomon's seal (blue), doll's-eyes (white), bottlebrush grass (tan with long "tails"), and many more, including some as small as specks. Somehow they'll all work together to restore an ecosystem.

Along with seeds, we spread ideas and spirit. 
Here, we're helping our friends and neighbors, the Spring Creek stewards - who have started work on 4,000 acres of woodland, savanna, prairie, wetland, and ponds.  

The earth can be conserved only by communities that cherish it ...   
Here we're helping the Orland Grassland Stewards, who are working on a thousand-acre former (and future) prairie.

…  generation after generation

We benefit from the exercise.    
Winter brush cutting attracts help from many high schools, as with these students from Evanston Township High School.

We socialize while we work, and compare ideas.    

We the caring people are happy to help our elected officials 
to better understand controlled burns  
and environmental needs generally.    
When agencies empower stewards to "take on some level of ownership" of their sites, the stewards can become advocates and community spokespeople. When "the public" and neighbors are calling for controlled burns, there's different feel than when the recommendation is coming only from officials.

If the earth is to avoid a future of ecosystem collapse, 
it will be because of us – all of us.    
Similarly, in the case of global climate change and loss of biodiversity, a crucial need is for education that most people find accessible and compelling. Neighbors can be influential in special ways.

At Somme – everyday people have good times, week by week, 
working hard, contributing our bit.    
We volunteer stewards are unusual in the environmental world. We have fun doing the work. Our approaches are "can do" and result in easily appreciated and frequent successes. Many of us are dedicated to the work decade after decade. Working cooperatively with the staffs of public agencies and not-for-profits, we hope to be increasingly a part of the world-wide community of friends of nature who help to spread a spirit of appreciation and generosity to world cultures far and wide.

And one last thing: We personally invite you to join us, 
by spreading the word …  
or whatever might be your favorite ways to pitch in. 
Thank you.

If you don't already, you may enjoy visiting a restoration site near you from time to time. Walk around and witness the changes taking place. At some local prairies, woods and wetlands - history is being made, and biodiversity recovery is happening. It's fun and inspiring, against the backdrop of great challenges. 

Please leave a comment or question below, if you have one.

To recommend the TED talk to a friend, send this link:

Photo credits: Lisa Musgrave, Eriko Kojima, Jim Root, Jeanne Muellner, and Stephen Packard

Saturday, September 2, 2017

TED part 3: Big Green Ideas - And People

Part 3. The backstory behind a TED talk.
Only so much can go inside the time limit of 18 minutes.
These four "backstory" posts include additional info and technical details.
The TED talk itself can be seen at:

The third quarter of the talk starts with the ambitious restoration plan approved (but not funded) by the Cook County Forest Preserve Board.

In 2014, the Forest Preserve board approved a plan to expand restoration
to 55,000 acres. The plan’s cover landscape is Somme Prairie Grove. 
The plan calls for an annual restoration budget of forty million dollars. That's an aspiration. The funds will come only with strong public support, the help of foundations, and lots of volunteering.

On the other hand, during this process, the annual budget for restoration has increased to about $5M/yr in recent years. When we started as volunteers in 1977, the budget was zero. We volunteers purchased our own tools. The change started when Commissioner Herb Schumann worked with Palos steward John Sheerin to develop the first real restoration budget (probably in the late 1980s).

When John approached the Commissioner, as I remember, he requested $10,000 (for the preserve's 68,000 acres). John apparently made a compelling pitch, as Schumann subsequently came through with an appropriation of $60,000. It was a pittance compared to what was needed, but it launched the program.

Flash forward to 2014.
Forest Preserve President Toni Preckwinkle announces a "Next Century Conservation Plan."
The plan calls not only for a budget of $40M per year but also 500 jobs for young conservationists.

Co-chairs who led the plan process were:
John McCarter, President Emeritus, Field Museum
Wendy Paulson, board member of Openlands and long time volunteer steward
Arthus R. Velasquez, Chairman, Azteca Foods
Eric E. Whitaker, M.D., CEO, TWG Partners LLC

This fine blue-ribbon civic-leader initiative is summarized at:
The full plan is at:

President Preckwinkle, staff, and forest preserve partners had been building toward this initiative for years. Volunteers had worked to restore natural hydrology with shovels. Now hydrologic experts provided sophisticated plans which, when needed, could employ mighty machines and other advanced resources.
With increased funding,  we can remove artificial drainage from former corn fields ... 
Even before the Forest Preserve District began beefing up its program, a not-for-profit conservation group, Openlands, found millions of dollars of funding to launch a variety of pilot projects. Often a key component was to take out farm drainage tiles, that had been installed before the lands were acquired for conservation. This work, in addition to ecological benefits, protected downstream communities from flooding, water pollution, and siltation.

…  allowing natural ponds and wetlands …
At the Orland Grassland, we hardly expected full scale prairie ponds to develop, but with the tiles removed, many did.

… to fill up and thrive again. 

The Orland Grassland Volunteers and the bird conservation community were thrilled as ducks, herons, egrets, cranes, grebes, rails, and much other wildlife including the rare Wilson's phalarope (right) returned to the Orland Grassland soon after the ponds magically re-materialized.
(Orland photos by Jeanne Muellner.)

Now the forest preserve staff can supplement burns with … 
Forest preserve staffer Kim Blaszczak discusses a successful burn with Kyle Goergen (left) and Dave Paddock of Pizzo and Associates, one of many restoration contractor businesses that have sprung up to fill needs not better filled by staff and volunteers. Economic and governmental communities collaborate with human communities as this new field develops.
… heavy equipment to clear brush rapidly – making community support
and the more-detailed and careful volunteer restoration work
more crucial than ever. 
If killing trees with loppers and hand-saws shocked some people, imagine the impact of this kind of work. And yet, the overwhelming response was appreciation. People - especially those who care the most - have learned through media and personal contact. The Orland Library hired a National Geographic artist to paint a twenty-six foot mural, showing how the plants, animals, and people of the grassland would look when the restoration was complete. It's a focal point of the library.

Back at Somme, our results are being studied by scientists from the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Chicago Botanic Garden, and others.    
Research under way studies birds, aquatic invertebrates, fungi, endangered plants, snails, and restoration techniques. A new initiative by the Prairie Research Institute (Illinois Natural History Survey) and Forest Preserve staff takes data on some of the best patches of prairie, savanna, and woodland at Somme to serve as quality benchmarks to help guide the Next Century Plan.

We – the people of Somme – are inspired by the ecosystem to work and learn. 
We stand here under an ancient bur oak. It may very well be 400-years-old. In the midwest, on fertile soil, we have the opportunity to save ancient, largely-pre-agricultural ecosystems which have vanished long beyond saving in many parts of the world. Africa, Asia, and Europe have been "peopled" so long that they do not have areas of rich soil "pre-agricultural" biodiversity. What we have in the corn belt represents science and ecological resource base that is rare.
We grow as ecological managers and teachers. 
One challenge of this work is saving ancient natural communities while developing new forms of human community.

A dramatic story could be told about every person in this photo. You'll read four of them in Part 4. But here it's worth mentioning that these people are a team. We appreciate the differing ethnic backgrounds and life histories that have brought us together - and given us different abilities to contribute.  (Photo by Eriko Kojima)

With increasing still, we gather seed, conduct burns,  
Many restoration efforts restore thirty or sixty species. For Somme, every year we are able to gather hundreds of species, because people are inspired to learn, specialize, and lead. There's no way one person can master all this in their spare time, but a collaborating team can.

operate chain-saws, monitor rare animal species, season after season,
now for 40 years and counting.
Many of the early leaders of the Somme Woods East initiative are also active in Habitat 2030 - a group of "young(ish)" people  who "host habitat restoration workdays, nature hikes and weekend camping trips, social gatherings, and educational opportunities."  

Somme today hosts 14 species of threatened or endangered plants – 
like the savanna blazing star – here providing nectar to a migrating monarch.    
Many rare species are being lost from conservation areas because of lack of care. Do wild plants and animals need care? Many people would say that, by definition, they don't. If we must care for them, they're not wild any more. Okay, but if they are dying out, and we don't want them to die out, then it makes sense to become stewards. All of Somme's rare species depend on the occasional controlled burns. If we waited for lightning to happen to strike these little patches on a dry day, we'd wait in vain. Some species depend on seed or pollen exchange with other populations somewhere else. The shaggy coats of bison and bears no longer transport seed across the landscape. Nature can be more rich and natural if we take care of it.

            Recently two more birds of conservation concern – the red-headed woodpecker ...
Red-headed woodpeckers used to be common birds. They became for a while the most rapidly declining bird species in the U.S. Their open woodland habitat was vanishing. With their conservation situation still dire, we felt a great vote of confidence when they returned to Somme as breeders.

and the American woodcock –

... returned for the first time in decades, to breed in Somme Woods.    

The American woodcock is a fat, long-billed sandpiper that performs dramatic courtship flights and dances in good habitat in spring. Most unburned woods today are too decadent to provide the space and food they need. They started performing in Somme Woods in 2015, and their numbers have increased each year since - as we continue to improve the habitat.

Thus the human community and the natural community are in sync here. We feel honored to be part of this phenomenon, rather a new one for our culture. And we need to profoundly change culture if our unique living planet is to be all it can be. Volunteer communities are wellsprings of creativity and commitment. They also can be breeding grounds for innovation, science, and political leadership.

To be continued in Part 4.

To review the TED talk: go to