|This short, cute goldenrod often has a jaunty little "elf cap" look at the top. Here it's growing|
with Kalm's brome, purple prairie clover, wood betony, smooth blue aster, and much more.
I first trekked to a "Middle Slope" patch where many of the most conservative prairie (and savanna) species were coming in well. These include prairie violet, prairie gentian, alumroot, and shooting star. It was an area where we hadn't actually done all that much - except for scores of burns and occasional light seeding.
|The cages protect prairie gentian from the deer. Sure enough, gray goldenrod was thriving here, |
along with lead plant, rattlesnake master, and perhaps too much tall prairie grass.
I worried about the denseness of the tall grasses that were coming in. We'd planted no big bluestem at all, but the little that was already on the site spread vigorously - especially where we hadn't yet been able to establish tough, conservative competition. When I studied the turf here, I was pleased to see a lot of the species that might regulate the abundance of otherwise over-exuberant grasses.
|The matted leaves of pussytoes cover most of the ground. Leaves with long fingers are prairie violet. |
Fern-like clumps are prairie betony. The longer leaves and stems are big bluestem and rattlesnake master.
Perhaps the density of competition in this area will keep the taller grasses from becoming over-dominant - as they do in most restorations but never in fine remnants.
|This nearby area seems to be ready and begging for more conservative seed. I worry,|
will the Indiangrass become over-dominant if we don't provide the diverse competition?
And in another nearby area, I had opposite concerns. Here we had done a lot of seeding, and the existing diversity might be at risk.
I stop by a third area, where we had long-ago found and favored the then-threatened small sundrops. Here, because the sundrops could likely not survive dense prairie competition, we'd been careful to seed only small amounts of some conservative species, slowly over the years. A success? Perhaps not for the sundrops; it is now much reduced (although moving to brushy edges, which perhaps is more its habitat). Yet this slower and more restrained seeding was highly successful for many conservatives including Seneca snakeroot, June grass, scarlet painted cup, prairie white-fringed orchid, and others. Yet, I still worried, as you may understand, looking at the dropseed in the two photos below.
|This area certainly looks good enough, but in spots with four or five clumps of dropseed together, there seemed to be little or nothing else growing in between them. Is the conservative diversity we see here temporary as the dropseed expands?|
|In the densest patches of dropseed, it seemed like the gray goldenrod (and much other diversity) was now pushed out.|
I walked quickly to another experiment. Here, I looked and worried. Not only was the gray goldenrod missing, but the whole late summer and fall flora looked very weak. This area represents a complicated experiment that deserves its own write-up some time. But it was now our largest and densest stand of dropseed, prairie clover, and a few other fine species. People marveled over it in July and August. But look at it now.
|About an acre of dense dropseed and prairie clover looked colorful and diverse a month ago.|
Does the lack of flowers now suggest something is wrong?
Is this experiment telling us something? Did we seed too heavy and fast here 35 years ago? Is the lack of gray goldenrod a mine-canary, providing a warning. We made three of these heavy seeding experiments. I quickly walked to the other two. In the second, there was much gray goldenrod nearby, but none in the heavily seeded area. In the third, it was almost the opposite; though there was only a little gray gold in the heavily seeded area, there was none at all outside of it. This contradiction reminds us of the difficulty of generalizing from a few experiments. Yet how many decades-long experiments can we afford to do before we make decisions? We do the best we can. I walked on to another experiment, to see what that one might suggest.
This experiment was a different kind. Here we started with one of the site's original patches of big bluestem. (It was almost the only plant growing in that patch at that time). A path cut through the middle of it - dividing it into two plots. On both sides of the path we seeded conservative species. (We didn't bother to seed gray goldenrod; our first notes list it as common in most places already.) On the west side we scythed (mowed) the big bluestem a couple of times a year, to keep the heavy grass from providing dense shade. After seeding, we did nothing to the east side of the patch - except for the burns of course. Then we watched for many years without noticing much difference. Now I wondered, how would it look in 2016?
|The path is the dark vertical line. It seems like gray goldenrod thrives on both sides, |
but we scythe the trail edge to keep the trail open, so the true experiment starts a meter or so back from the edge.
|On the east (un-mowed) side, there is no gray goldenrod and relatively little diversity.|
(There is some prairie clover and one rigid goldenrod in bloom, but overall, dullsville.)
So perhaps that mowing of the over-dominant big bluestem was a success here. And perhaps gray goldenrod is an easy-to-see indicator of surviving diversity. Perhaps losing it suggests the need to ask questions and perhaps consider different options in management strategies.
But I worried that I was making too much of too few data points. One check is the formidable resource of Floyd Swink's lists of associates. As I read through the species he most often found with some high conservatives, I had increasing doubts about my theory. I chose dropseed, cream false indigo, both prairie clovers, prairie coreopsis, prairie gentian, and prairie violet. Gray goldenrod was listed as an associate for none of them (though rigid goldenrod turned up repeatedly).
Did that close the book on my hunch? Not quite, for example I also remembered a passage in Swink and Wilhelm that was probably written by Wilhelm:
And I had another check. My vague memory was that the best parts of Somme Prairie Nature Preserveincluded gray goldenrod. This original prairie is just across the river from Somme Prairie Grove - and our main model for what species might have grown in the prairie patches there.
When nature raises questions, it's so handy to have a fine prairie so near. (In his most recent study, Marlin Bowles found Somme to be one of the two best quality mesic prairies in the Chicago Wilderness region.)So I made the pilgrimage to quality - to see what it might tell me.
At Somme Prairie there are four little Grade A (very high quality) prairie patches. They total only about three acres. But they're vastly more important than the other seventy acres. I have too much data in my head. I really couldn't remember what they'd look like, this time of year.
|In the Grade A prairie, throughout the best of the best, I saw gray goldenrod by the thousands.|
Just one more species in this grand and humbling diversity. With the best of associates.
You might think that one of the more conservative goldenrods would characterize very high quality mesic prairie. But clearly not here. And when I looked for the very most conservative plants, what did I find?
|Here, where the dropseed grass is thickest, gray goldenrod is in every square meter. |
In the green cage is a clump of prairie lady slippers. This is quality.
For now, I'm ready to believe that gray goldenrod is part of the diversity we want to conserve at Somme, and an indicator of a possible problem (or perhaps I should write "incompleteness") where it drops out.
I'm not worried about losing the gray goldenrod for its own sake. Its windblown seed will bring it back when (or if) the community regains true quality. But I'm interested in this species as an indicator of two ecosystem states. First, a degraded prairie with a lot of gray goldenrod (and, for that matter, heath aster, bluegrass, daisy, carrot, and pussytoes) is a good candidate for restoration by burning and conservative seeding alone.
The other state is a state of grace - very high quality. When the prairie has recovered to the point that there's room for the diverse little species of summer and fall, we have maintained or restored a quality ecosystem.