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Monday, October 7, 2019

Degradation and Redemption at Langham Island

This precious nature preserve is not “out of the woods” yet. But the successes are worth a bit of jubilance.
Volunteer leader Trevor Edmonson among the resurrected mallows. They were extinct, except for some dormant seeds, waiting for brush control, and a hot burn. 
As a unique nature preserve, this one, to paraphrase George Orwell, is "more unique than others." Its showiest and rarest plant has never been found growing naturally anywhere else on the planet. A host of other rarities were found here in the 1800s, and many are still here. Or were until recently. 

One of the earliest and most important Illinois Nature Preserves, Langham Island got needed burns and invasives control for years. But then the good care stopped. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) both lost staff and funding. When the island failed to receive needed controlled burns, it gradually grew so dense with brush that the rare plants died in the dark. 

In fall 2014, an Illinois Native Plant Society field trip discovered the grim fate of the rare plants and ecosystem. A Friends of Langham Island formed, and scores of volunteers began weekend volunteer work sessions - making great progress. Impressive news coverage and and popular support paved the way for INPC staffer Kim Roman and IDNR staffer Dan Kirk to find resources and resume burns.
Where we had cut and burned, about 500 mallow plants matured and bloomed. Those numbers have been “holding steady” for the last few years, according to Trevor.

Step one was the victory over gross brush. But what about all the little brush seedlings and re-sprouts? Last year, some generous folks, inspired by the progress on the big stuff, donated $50,000 for detailed contract restoration. These funds are being administered by Friends of the Kankakee to assure focus on the more technically challenging (and tedious) needs, such as sorting out the good seedlings from the invasives. Langham Island is increasingly becoming a model of the dedication and partnership needed for the care that Illinois Nature Preserves deserve.
Here Trevor spreads the word to Field Museum videographers Robb Telfer and Emily Graslie. 
But there’s still a long way to go. And there are hurdles to overcome. We ferry volunteers to and from the island in a rowboat. It’s fun and easy, if the weather cooperates. But if the river is in flood, it can be too dangerous. If the river consists of floating ice-flows, it’s impossible. 

Trevor’s goals for this autumn: 
  • cut small brush off the steep bank on the southwest side of the island (where many of the rare plants live).
  • cut more large brush from former mallow areas and do more of the “rolling bonfires” that inspired the germination of the mallows and other fire-dependent plants.
  • rely on the contractors to focus on the more-demanding control of small brush. 
And how about you? Some of us find it fun and inspiring to contribute to this historic recovery. 
In her fun video on the project, Emily admits to feeling a bit emotional about the recovery drama and its implications. 
If you might want to come and help, check the Langham Facebook page for last minute details. Spread the word. 

We work from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM (bring lunch or a snack, if you can stay that long). 

The dates are: 
Saturday, October 19, 
Saturday, November 9, and 
Sunday, December 15. 

If you’d like to know more about Langham Island, check out this first post on its re-discovery by the conservation community and a second post about about progress through 2014.

This fall, be a Redeemer of Langham Island – or some other nature preserve. These surpassingly-important biodiversity remnants need our help. 

If you wear waterproof boots, you can help less-prepared people get in and out of our little rowboat ferry without getting their feet wet.

If you want a real challenge, help us with our rolling bonfires - which were crucial to the resurrection of the mallows.
We roll these fires with the wind, to replicate the out-of-control, hotter fires that some plants need. 
But the main need on these workdays is hearts and hands to cut the brush and throw it on the burning pile.

For a wacky and fun report on this drama, check out the the Field Museum video - from which the above photos came (except the rolling bonfire photo - both Trevor and I are in it - who took that one?). 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Thumbnail Reviews of 25 Stimulating Species

“Ecosystems are more complicated than we think – 
and more complicated than we can think!”
Frank Egler

And yet, if we want to save them, we have to think and focus as best we can. This post is an attempt at something like pointillism or montage – a series of images and thumbnail studies that seek to convey insights into recovering prairie, savanna, and woods.

Of the more than 546 plant species in the Somme preserves, these 25 are random-ish samples of the complexity that stewards strive to work with. They run the gamut from conservatives to thugs. Like most Somme plants, most of these are rare – and associated with thousands of species of rare animals. But some are pests. The conservative (high-quality) plants fight the thugs, and with each other, toward ecosystem complexity and health – and we try to facilitate.  
New Jersey tea had been common in prairie, savanna, and woodland.
1. New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)
Said to be what the American revolutionaries drank after they threw the British tea into Boston Harbor, this shrub was one of the commonest savanna plants in what we now call Illinois but then was home to the Potawatomi, Illiniwek, and others. 

In our early explorations of Somme Woods, we noticed a few of these plants under old white oaks, but restoration didn’t get back to that area for decades, and when we finally did, the woods was too shady and this species was gone. 

In the meantime, we had been working hard on Somme Prairie Grove, across the street, where we found just two or three New Jersey tea plants in semi-shade of a bur oak. We gathered handfulls of seeds, here and from two larger patches in Miami Woods, and we broadcast them widely. The broadcast seeds produced nothing. We also grew little plants in a garden to transplant (you pour boiling water over the seeds to get them to sprout). Then we installed those little tea plants into the Somme recovering ecosystem. They grew for a while and then faded and died. Something was wrong. 

The plants under that original bur oak also died out, but that population didn’t die. It moved north, bit by bit. The closest New Jersey tea is now 54 feet (16.5 meters) from that original oak, in an opener, sunnier, regularly-burned area. And the farthest plant from the original oak is 194 feet north. The patch, formerly two or three plants, is now closer to two to three hundred plants. The patch is impressive in bloom – 140 feet from north to south and 74 feet east to west. Part of the explanation may be that this species has a necessary partner – its own specialized bacterium. Perhaps it has spread as fast at that Frankia bacterium could spread. (We’re now digging up a little soil from around tea roots and installing it in other parts of the preserve, where little New Jersey tea plants are trying to get started.) This plant can spread gradually, over time, in this case four decades; we’ve burned its habitat about twenty times over those years. The tea is happy, at least in that spreading patch.  
Canada milk vetch is related to "loco-weed."
2. Canada milk vetch (Astragalus canadensis)
In the early North Branch days, we found this handsome plant only at Miami Woods. Perhaps because of over-populated deer, it seems to be gone from there. But it now thrives over large parts of Somme, sometimes mixed with tall grasses, sometimes in partial shade. In 2019 we gathered a grocery bag full of its seed pods, only to find the pods were empty. Perhaps the seeds had been eaten by insects (as weevils often eat the false indigo seeds)? Or did this species just not make seeds this year because conditions weren’t right? (Some plants are fussy that way.) Later we found some plants that did have seed, so this year’s planting mixes will have at least some. We plant what seeds we find in good years, and for many species, that’s enough. 
Oval milkweed - the only plant of its kind known to bloom in Illinois this year.
3. Oval milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia)
We found one plant of this species. Indeed, it had been the only one found in Illinois in recent decades. Marlin Bowles of the Morton Arboretum hand-pollinated the Somme plant with pollen from the closest surviving plant in this latitude (Iowa). It made one pod full of half-Somme/half-Iowa seeds, and died. The Arb propagated plants from those seeds, and we “restored” them to Somme Prairie and Somme Prairie Grove. In Somme Prairie, they seemed not to make it. At Somme Prairie Grove, we counted five plants in 2014, down to three in 2016, and only one in 2019. Is it doomed? Plants of this species do sometimes appear after many years. And the Chicago Botanic Garden has been developing strategies to save this needy orphan. Stay tuned. 
One lonely prairie cinquefoil (blurry yellow) in a sea of purple prairie clover.
4. Prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta)
We found a couple of these plants at Wayside Prairie during the early years of North Branch restoration. Their numbers seemed to be on the gradual upswing until the deer populations skyrocketed in the early nineties. Now they’re one of the rarest species at Somme. We continue to find an occasional plant, propagate its seeds in gardens, and broadcast it widely once again. 

Some species have gone through hard times, received a lot of remedial “special care” – and then started to do well on their own. We’ll continue working for recovery of this one. 

5. Perplexed tick-trefoil (Desmodium perplexum)
For years we had a difficult time getting any of the woodland tick-trefoils established at Somme. We had gotten small amounts of seed from Deer Grove and Harms Woods (of the species called paniculatum, cuspidatum, perplexum, and glutinosum). We’d see a plant or two from time to time, but then they’d be gone. They just didn’t like the site? Or the deer ate them? For species that seemed to need the extra help, we planted “propagation beds” with our regular mixes and weeded out the species we didn’t need. Over time perplexum started to thrive in one of those seed propagation beds in my yard. We started to be able to move more seed over to the preserve. But as the bed population increased, the clingy seeds would get all over me as I worked in the garden, taking forever to remove from my clothes. Then a brainstorm: I took to walking through the perplexum beds just before going to the preserve to work. I’d leave home covered with seeds, but by the time I was ready to return, they’d all be brushed off into the ecosystem, wherever – an appropriate technology innovation? Soon perplexum was visibly expanding in many areas at Somme.

But then it started doing insanely well in the propagation garden, crowding out most other species. It spreads underground, comes up thick in the lawn if I fail to mow soon enough. What kind of demon plant is this? We started weeding it mercilessly. Every last one. The preserve doesn’t need any more, and neither does the yard. Yet in the preserve it seems to be doing just fine and playing well with others. 

Also that name: perplexum? I have a hard enough time remembering the common and scientific names of 546 species of plants without the botanists changing them so often. This one was “smooth tick-trefoil” (Desmodium glabellum) in Swink and Wilhelm but is treated as “take-another-look tick-trefoil” (Desmodium perplexum) in Wilhelm and Rericha. Help! Yet “perplexum” does fit; I find it easy to remember; I’m sticking with it.

6. Stiff aster (Oligoneuron album)
This plant is frequent in the very high quality “two acres” of original prairie at Somme – but in very few other mesic prairies, at least in this region. We moved seeds here and there, into degraded areas under restoration. For many years they appeared nowhere new, but then a few plants turned up on Coyote Knob (the closest thing to a “hill” in Somme Prairie Grove). This year there were about twenty. The main (“Inner Loop”) trail goes right through them. Welcome.

Speaking of name changes, Oligoneuron album was Aster ptarmacoides until recently. An “earth-shaking” change, this aster was put into a goldenrod genus. Botanists had puzzled over it for years, because this aster hybridized at times with Riddell’s goldenrod. Only closely related plants normally have morals so loose that they hybridize with each other. So, in the world of scientific names, this plant is now a goldenrod, but in the world of common names, it’s still an aster. Go figure. 

7. Sanicle, or black snakeroot (Sanicula marilandica)
John and Jane Balaban first noticed that the snakeroot out in the savanna grassland was different from the common, weedy one in the woods. The grassland plant turned out to be “sanicle” or “Maryland snakeroot.” It has much bigger flower and seed heads, though both just kind of blend into the “green blur” for the casual visitor. We don’t ever seem to see this species, except in a few of the better quality openings in Somme Prairie Grove. There it survived 100 years of shifting farming and pasture patches and now seems to us a special, obscure pet, that hardly anyone notices. In recent years, Eriko Kojima has been gathering its seeds for the mixes, so perhaps we’ll see it elsewhere? 
Wild hyacinth (pale blue, front and center)
The pink ones are shooting stars.
The green-and-gold leaves are New Jersey tea shrubs, re-sprouting after a burn. 
8. Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
We noticed two lone plants of this classic savanna species in two disparate parts of Somme Prairie Grove when we started work. We hoped perhaps more would appear, but none did until we broadcast a lot of seed that we got from at least three different places. The fact that a few plants survived here suggests that soil biota (fungi, nematodes, bacteria, etc.) associated with this species may have survived as well. However, with that very small number of plants, survival was unlikely for insects requiring this plant for pollen, nectar, or other food. 

At first we thought our restoration efforts had failed, as no plants appeared. But, like quite a few species, this one takes many years to flower and can be hard to notice until it does. The populations from which the seeds came have not fared well, but the Somme hyacinth populations thrive by the thousands.  
American slough grass
The flower fly is there to remind us that the average rare plant in a high quality natural ecosystem has ten species of mostly-rare animals associated with it. Biodiversity is beyond our ability to comprehend or control. But as stewards, we can maintain it, or at least a great deal of it. 
9. American sloughgrass (Beckmannia syzigachne)
Saving specialized genes of rare grasses is a surpassingly important aim of practical conservation for agriculture. Most people on the planet eat mostly grass – in the form of wheat, corn, rice, oats, rye and other grains – and in the form of beef, chicken, farm-raised fish, and other animals that mostly eat grass, in one form or another. When some plant disease threatens to wipe out some major crop, as happens from time to time, agronomists go back to wild relatives to “save civilization.” 

The American sloughgrass that lives in “the corn belt” is a very rare plant. It was found in Somme Prairie Grove (before it had that name, or stewards) by amateur botanist Marion Cole. It was also found in one other North Branch site (Sauganash Prairie Grove). At Sauganash it seems to have been lost. At Somme Prairie Grove these days there are three to five plants in most years. When we started looking for it, following up on Marion's discovery, we could not find any. It’s an annual, and conditions may not be right for it every year. But after many years of waiting, we threw around some seed from Sauganash. A couple of years later, we found one plant, but not where we’d thrown the seed. One big plant seemed to reappear in the same spot, year after year. Then, finally, one year, many little ones. In those years we were driving back a monoculture of cattails; there was a lot of bare ground where pure cattails had stood, and soon we had hundreds of plants of sloughgrass, seemingly a roaring success. But as quality species began to elbow each other into a rich community, this annual mostly dropped out. These days it’s in a very different, much deeper water area. We’ll continue to watch and study – and add some diversity to the gene pool from a site along the Des Plaines when we can. 

10. Rock chestnut oak (Quercus prinus or montana?)
Not in local botany books, this curious oak seems to have been planted by Forest Preserve staff long ago, when “just get some trees growing” seemed to be the goal. With our restoration mission, we cut or burned out a great many such mostly “ill-fitting” and sickly trees including pines, birches, locusts, and more. Among oaks then planted and still present are chinkapin, post, white, pin, and this one. For some reason, this oak, if we’ve identified it right and which is found mostly south and east of the Ohio River, has prospered and spread. 

We’ve cut some, when it threatened to shade out quality vegetation, but we’ve mostly left them alone, uneasily. Our rule has been that we restore from within 25 miles, to save local gene pools. But this species for now seems to be an experiment. At least these trees promote rehabilitative burns by providing valuable oak leaf fuel along the north edge of the site where it’s thin. Perhaps someday it may make sense to cut most or all of them. Or, perhaps, down the road, as climate change progresses, we’ll be glad they’re there. 

11. White oak (Quercus alba)
To the confusion of some, we stewards see this fine tree largely as an unwanted invader in Somme Prairie Grove. It was planted here in large numbers (with pines and birches) by early staff foresters. Most of those apparently random trees failed to thrive. This species is the most numerous large tree at Somme Prairie Grove.  

Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit the ecosystem. Old records show no trees in Somme Prairie, bur and Hill’s oaks in Somme Prairie Grove, and a richer mix of tree species including white, swamp white, and red oak in Somme Woods. The reason that bur and Hill’s were the savanna oaks is that they are most able to deal with fire. Many white oaks have died from the fires in areas where restored tallgrass vegetation burns with characteristic intensity. We have maintained most of the white oaks in Somme Prairie Grove for reasons similar to the rock chestnut oak. (And we go to great lengths to facilitate their reproduction in Somme Woods, where they are stars of the show.) But we’ve cut some white oaks back where their increasing shade is killing off high-quality prairie and savanna vegetation. 

12. Meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum)      
A true savanna species at Somme. I’d never seen or heard of it when I first saw its little heart-shaped basal leaves in two of the original higher-quality remnant savannaareas. After I’d puzzled out this species’ name, we gathered its seeds and spread them widely around the site. At first we mixed its seeds with those of its less delicate look-alike, golden Alexanders. But this “parsnip” behaved so differently. Golden Alexanders now is common from our sunniest openings to our dappled-shadiest oak woodlands. The meadow parsnip seems to restrict itself to a narrow range: it’s only “in between” – restricted to spots about half way between full sun and dappled shade.    

13. Awnless graceful sedge (Carex formosa)
Midwestern populations of this endangered sedge live mostly north of us, in a few counties of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan. But it is “moderately abundant” in Ontario and Vermont. It was unknown in Illinois until stewards John and Jane Balaban found it in Harms Woods. We never expected to see it at Somme, but as with all our species, the North Branch Restoration Project “hunter-gatherers” of seed collected and put a bit of it in our mixes. It is now widely spread in Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods. 

14. Narrow-leaved wood sedge (Carex digitalis
Pepoon writes “Dry open places in the wooded ridges of the southeast.” Swink and Wilhelm show it only in Indiana, associating with white and black oak. But Jim Steffen of the Chicago Botanic Garden found it in their McDonald Woods. He gave us some propagated plants in pots which we “introduced” or “restored” (See “The Somme Experiment”). Wilhelm and Rericha have it as “very rare” in Cook County. But their lists of associates are similar to what we find in parts of Somme Prairie Grove. We haven’t seen this plant in years, but we aren’t sure we’d recognize it if we did. Perhaps it’s doing fine? Perhaps it died out because it didn’t belong? Perhaps to restore this part of diversity, we’d have needed to do a better job with it. (Often we find that scattered seeds do better than transplanted plugs. Perhaps we’re just not that smart about exactly where to put the plug. Sometimes animals dig up newly planted plugs.) 

15. Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata)
This semi-parasitic plant is “a regulator.” It is one of the commonest species in fine prairie and savanna and creates conditions that seem favorable for other species of conservation concern. It was present in Somme Prairie Grove along one swale, where the farmers had never plowed, and where invasive trees hadn’t shaded it out. It grows in patches that spread underground and which, after 40 years, are now extensive. It spreads at the rate of about one foot per year. Thus, it will readily spread 100 feet, but it will take 100 years. We’re impatient. Many of the animals and plants of Somme are vulnerable because their populations are too small. 

We’ve tried propagating it in various ways. Most haven’t worked, or have produced plants that seem feeble, for years. We do now have three apparently new patches, but combined with the spreading originals, they probably cover less than ten percent of the site. Perhaps less than five percent. R&D is needed. 
Marsh speedwell
Delicate, beautiful, and hard to photograph.
16. Marsh speedwell (Veronica scutellata
This delicate beauty was gathered as seed from a forest preserves a couple of miles west, along the Des Plaines. It did spectacularly well in Oak Pond, which had been recently opened to more sun, as we girdled the invading and shady green ash trees, that had left the ground bare mud. Soon marsh speedwell literally covered the western half of the pond. We gathered its seeds and broadcast them in what appeared to be suitable places in other ponds. Inexplicably, after some years, Oak Pond seemed to spring a leek. Marsh speedwell has not been seen in Oak Pond in some years. But it now thrives around the edges of three of the other ponds where the seed was broadcast. It also turned up unexpectedly in a little marsh where it lurks under willows and young cottonwoods. We never would have thought to put the seeds there. Some animal or bird likely carried seeds on its feet. We’ll be interested to see how this population does. Co-steward Eriko Kojima suggests we add this species to wet woods and savanna mixes, in addition to the pond mixes.
Prairie violet has leaves divided into narrow "fingers."
17. Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida)
This rare violet has spread in huge numbers over some of the prairie-like open savanna areas. It was probably there in small numbers, unnoticed, when we started. It’s doing best in areas where we’ve restored scores of other rare species that once were its regular neighbors. Restoring without paying much attention is super great, when it works. 
Sweet black-eyed Susan
Here growing with other tall plants including Culver's root, rattlesnake master, ironweed, and Joe Pye weed. This woodland meadow was all buckthorn, a few years earlier. 
18. Sweet black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa). 
H.S.Pepoon described it as frequent along the North Branch, but for many years we could find none. We wondered if we would have to go beyond our 25-mile limit to get seeds. Then we discovered Middlefork Savanna a few miles to the north, where there were vast stands of it. Soon it was one of the commoner plants of Somme Prairie Grove, especially in Vestal Grove where big blooming plants turned the whole grove yellow in late summer. It replaced the tall goldenrod, which was an early dominant. Then it got largely replaced by woodland sunflower. In the photo above, a large part of it will be replaced in time by species more typical of high-quality prairie. From experience, we expect it to thrive especially near trees.

Swink and Wilhelm (1994) initially list its habitat as “edges of moist open woods or thickets adjacent to prairies.” Wilhelm and Rericha (2017) list only prairie habitats. At Somme it now seems not to occur often in our opener prairie-like habitats but remains a major species of thickets and moist open woods. 
Wild Carrot or Queen Anne's lace
This photo is from decades ago, when Somme Prairie Grove was more weeds than anything else.
19. Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota)
We pulled a few of these in the early days. But soon they seemed less like problem weeds and more of a useful cover crop. These flowers – like ox-eye daisy – were a pretty indicator of places where we should broadcast additional conservative seed. As the community healed, this “biennial indicator” melted away. We still find it here and there, as a reminder that more conservative seed still needs to be broadcast. But it’s mostly gone.  
Seneca snakeroot looks better than this.
It's another plant that's hard to photograph, but worth seeing up close, along the trails.
20. Seneca snakeroot (Polygala senega)
This rare plant turned up in two places in the Somme Prairie site – though not in the prairie itself. One plant was among thin invasive trees. The other plant (or patch?) was along Dundee Road in an occasionally mowed area with hoary puccoon. We never got seed from either, and then they were gone. But we did find seeds in the beautiful Chevy Chase Prairie, and we threw some around Somme Prairie Grove. It did well in two “old field” areas with some prairie or savanna survivors including Kalm’s brome, small sundrops, gray goldenrod, and meadow parsnip. Soon there were dozens of Seneca snakeroots in both places. We began distributing their seeds and seeing them show up widely over the site. Not in great numbers anywhere, but a regular happy presence. Will they be part of the long-term community here? Will they return to Somme Prairie? Will we help them, or start to leave them alone? Each alternative represents a different experiment. We will definitely keep records and try to learn. 

21. Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus
This alien was a common sight in the early years of restoration. But like many “weedy” species, it did not fit into the intense competition of the recovering ecological community. It faded out and is gone, without any effort on our part.  
Cream gentian thrives in savannas.
22. Cream gentian (Gentiana flavida)
Once Dr. Betz told me, in a confidential and almost apologetic tone, that cream gentian wasn’t really a prairie species. That was when so many of us had “prairie fever” and sought “true prairie species” as if they were the Ark of the Covenant. Later he agreed with me that it deserved rehabilitation as a fine savanna species – and that quality savanna was indeed probably rarer than prairie. 

In Somme Prairie Grove (mostly savanna) the cream gentians were original but increased to massive numbers with regular fire. On the other hand, none were in the prairie, across the river, until they first showed up along the footpath heading in from the parking lot. Clearly, they had arrived on someone’s feet. Now they and other savanna species are found in Somme Prairie, in disturbed areas. They will likely all drop out (“go back across the river”) as the diverse prairie vegetation recovers. 
Hazel in glorious flower.
Those long dangly things are the male flowers; they'll make the pollen. The tiny purple flowers hugging the twig are the females; they'll receive the pollen and make the nuts. In fall and winter, you'll see those male dangles, already formed, waiting till spring to open. 
23. Hazelnut (Corylus americana
In the savannas, it was said to be the major shrub. It was in Somme Woods thirty years ago, but shade killed it, and it no longer survives there. In Somme Prairie Grove there were a few patches, perhaps half a dozen, when we started, mostly along old fence lines. Since then, some patches have been shaded out. In the open, it survived, but barely at first. Every burn would kill it above ground. The next spring, deer would eat the new shoots repeatedly so they rarely got more than a few inches tall. We started caging some of the clumps and protecting them from some of the fires. Now some patches are ten feet tall and produce scores of nuts, some of which we beat the squirrels to. We plant the nuts widely, leading to many new patches. One patch is now big and healthy enough that we give it no protection or help of any kind, and so far it thrives.  

24. Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii)
This high conservative is frequent in the high quality areas of Somme Prairie. It was present in small numbers, here and there, in Somme Prairie Grove. With management by fire and brush control, we had hoped and expected that it, like all conservatives, would increase. But in the early decades it seemed to dwindle. When we took the trouble to check, we found it was being eaten mercilessly by deer in early spring. We started caging a few and then broadcasting the plentiful seed they produced. For years we saw little result. But now we see more and more plants spread widely across prairie and savanna areas. Perhaps there are fewer deer? Perhaps there are now so many alumroots and so many other tasty early species that the deer get their fill earlier … and let them alone sooner?
Veiny pea inside its cage - with two invertebrate associates. 
25. Veiny pea (Lathyrus venosus)
This species was present on our early plant lists for a number of the North Branch sites, but then it disappeared everywhere. A few years ago in late spring, I happened to notice two leaflets on a half-eaten, unfamiliar stem. It stopped me, and I stared with a vague, confused sense of recognition. There seemed to be no other species it could be, other than the long-lost veiny pea. I clapped a little deer-exclusion cage over the half-eaten puzzle. Sure enough, a distinctive whole leaf grew on this stem; this pea was back, baby. By the next year, it needed a much larger cage. I noticed it “happened to occur” along an old fence line. Sometimes plants survive only by fences in the narrow strip where the ground is never plowed and, over the decades, they find sanctuary from grazing on one side or the other, as owners and grazing regimes change. On a hunch, I walked fence lines, and on the next fence line north, there was another veiny pea, and then a third. More strangely, I was caging the oval milkweed on another fence line and, to my serious amazement, veiny pea appeared in the cage with the milkweed. Pretty soon, sprawling pea vines grew in five caged places, all along old fence lines. You can find some of these refugees growing in deer-exclusion cages on both sides of the West Link trail.


Thank you for plant inventories to David Painter, John and Jane Balaban, Jerry Wilhelm, Robbie Sliwinski and many others. Thanks for restoration stewardship to many thousands of generous and fun people.   

Thanks for proofing and edits to Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.

Thanks for photos to Lisa Culp Musgrave – well, for most of them anyway. I have to admit I snuck in some of my own, the hyacinth, sweet black-eyed Susan, veiny pea, prairie cinquefoil, and the Spooky and Historic photo of Queen Anne's lace.

Another perspective

How might these results compare with those of other conservationists? 

When I shared the draft of this post with Jim Vanderpoel of Citizens for Conservation, who has had a lot of comparable experience, he generously and unexpectedly sent along his own experiences with these species, as shown below. 

1.           New Jersey tea - CFC never had success with this species.  We may have collected a tiny bit of seed in the early days along the CNWR right of way, but none ever germinated as far as I knew.  We established some in our planting beds and have collected seed from those specimens.  Four years ago I found some foliage that looked like New Jersey tea in one of the best established savannah areas at Flint Creek.  The next year it had some small flowers.  Last year it exploded into bloom and was swarmed with pollinators--I was elated and I thought we finally had it.  Then this year I did not find it.  I have no idea what happened. A couple of specimens were at Baker's Lake and have persisted but not expanded.

2.          Canada milk vetch - We have had two small colonies at Grigsby Prairie for years.  One of the colonies expanded a little over the years.  Then we installed the deer fence and the expanding colony exploded!  We have collected several ounces of raw seed in the last two years.  I have never broken open the seed head to see if it has weevils.  I hope that this huge increase in seed leads to new populations.

3.          Oval milkweed - I have never seen this species.

4.          Prairie cinquefoil - This is one I can't figure out.  We used to collect a decent amount of seed of this plant and it seemed to germinate fairly well.  It does not thrive though.  Tom thought it was due to deer browsing, but it did not explode at Grigsby when we installed the deer fence the way some of the other deer favorites did. I have never noticed the evidence of deer browsing with prairie cinquefoil that I have seen with other plants.  I wonder if there is a problem with our soil.  When Wilhelm and Rericha came out I reviewed in great detail and I noticed that many of the species that have been particularly successful at our restorations are described as "calciphiles" or liking "calcareous soils"--are CFC's gravelly and clay soils too limey for prairie cinquefoil's liking?

5.          Not sure about the perplexed tick trefoil.  I know that paniculatum has done spectacularly well at one of our oak groves in Flint Creek.  It is also abundant at Baker's Lake.  At Baker's Lake cuspidatum is fairly common and glutinosum has formed a few small colonies.  All three are missing from some of the other groves. I did not see any yesterday when I was working at our Flint Creek South preserve.

6.         Stiff aster - This is another mystery plant.  Tom collected from one colony along the CNWR tracks in Palatine and did establish a few specimens at Grigsby Prairie.  They have been declining in recent years and this year I did not find a single specimen in spite of a thorough search.  New specimens always seemed to germinate far from the parent and I now wonder: is this a wind spread species that blew east (and off our property) pushed by the prevailing westerlies?  I have noticed this phenomena with false boneset and rough blazing star.  Restorationists will need to keep moving seed to the west side of our tiny preserves and let the windblown species continually expand to the east.

7.          Sanicle, or black snakeroot - I have never seen this species.

8.          Wild hyacinth - A CFC success story.  It was quite common at Baker's Lake, and has exploded with management.  We have spread this plant to both wet mesic prairie and savannah habitats at Flint Creek and Grigsby.

9.          American sloughgrass - I have never seen this species.  Our new sedge meadow restoration projects would be ideal habitat.

10.        White oak - We have lots of white oak at both Flint Creek and Baker's Lake.  It doesn’t seem to germinate at Flint Creek, but is extremely successful at Baker's Lake.

11.        Meadow parsnip - we had never planted this plant until you gave us some seed last year, which I spread at a likely spot this spring.

12.        Bastard toadflax - Another CFC success story.  We now have scores of round colonies slowly expanding outward at Grigsby.  Some of these came accidently when we rescued hoary puccoon , prairie phlox and shooting star.  However, we found a small patch that surely came from seed at Flint Creek two years ago.    I transplanted three plugs right from the middle of one of our clones, and all three plugs have expanded in their new location, while the original cloned colony was unharmed.
13.        Marsh speedwell - I have never seen this species.

14.        Prairie violet - This has always been one of our great disappointments.  We collect seed but only see an occasional specimen.  Well, two years ago I found our first real population--four blooming right in the middle of Grigsby.  I was cautiously optimistic.  This spring I counted thirty-five in the same spot!  Have we finally established a population?  Were they being eaten by deer and the deer fence has saved them?  I have never seen deer pay any interest to violets before.  If the colony continues to grow I am going to collect seed next year and spread it to nearby areas.  If things continue one of our great frustrations will be alleviated.

15,        Sweet black eyed Susan - this plant has been extremely successful at both Grigsby and Flint Creek.  At our preserves it seems to do best in moist (but not saturated) areas especially near the oak groves.

16.        Queen Anne's lace - Our first nemesis when we used to plow and disk before seeding.  Now, it survives only in disturbed areas like along mowed trails.  I pull it out if one gets on my nerves but we don't systematically eradicate it.  Common mullein is also a nonfactor-it comes up at the edge of burn piles, among the rock pile at Grisgby and at new raw areas where we have herbicided reed canary grass.

17.        Seneca snakeroot - We have one thriving population at Grigsby--it blooms by the score on our Second Knoll feature, which is probably our richest prairie restoration.  I don't know where it came from.  We also have a few that came with some of our early plant rescues.  This year I found another dozen or so scattered at Grigsby, presumably from the tiny amount of seed we collect and include in our seed mixes.  At Flint Creek Savannah we have an even more fascinating colony.  It grows with violet wood sorrel and early buttercup on the steepest gravel slope on our East Bluff.  Did these three interesting species somehow survive grazing because of the steepness of that bluff?  No one remembers putting any special seed mix there.

18.        Hazelnut - I envy your success with this plant.  We have collected miniscule numbers of nuts over the years on our Harvard Workday.  None has ever germinated.  We have grown some from seed in nursery conditions and have transplanted a few into our groves at Flint Creek.  Never has any expanded.  Is this species functionally extinct in our area just like our shadblows?  Who knows? Maybe it only germinates in the wild when it is planted by a fox squirrel under just the right conditions.  Maybe it doesn't like our calcareous soil.

19.        Prairie alumroot - this is one of the few plants that CFC established from seeds that were originally collected in the wild, grown inside under nursery conditions, and then transplanted.  We now collect a lot of this seed from our planting beds, which are protected by a deer fence.  I have seen some in scattered locations at Grigsby, so I am beginning to be optimistic on this one too.

20.        Veiny pea - We have long had one small colony each at Flint Creek and Grigsby both of which came by accident with a plant rescue.  The Grigsby colony bloomed and actually set seed for the first time in the first year after the deer fence was installed.  At least five times more flowers were produced this year and dozens of little vines spread like wildfire.  It took just two years of protection!  We need to get hundreds established so the deer can't zero in on it.

Jim Vanderpoel

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What Can This Rare Plant Teach Us About Ecosystem Assembly?

Report on a Threatened Species:   

Forked Aster (Aster furcatus or Eurybia furcataat Somme Woods 


What we have learned from monitoring three transects 

Forked Asters established readily on land newly freed from excess shade. 
The patches gradually increased in size, but six years later, fewer new plants are establishing from seed.
In this woods under restoration, these rare asters were initially not fussy about habitat; they established well in mesic, wet-mesic, and wet woodlands (and, perhaps, savannas). 

And what we subsequently wonder

In the long run, will this rare species be a long-term part of Somme Woods? 
If so, in what niches will it end up?
Or will Forked Aster drop out in the mid or long run? 
Initially, will this rare species serve as a useful “cover crop” and niche creator that will facilitate the recovery of ecosystem health and biodiversity recovery overall?
Or – might it become a thug and pest?
Also – from a variety of perspectives suggested by these results, are we restoring the past or creating a novel ecosystem?
Here forked aster (white) grows with such quality species as elm-leaved goldenrod, sweet black-eyed Susan, and purple Joe Pye weed. But the weedy tall goldenrod (leafy but not in bloom here) reminds us that this ecosystem is new, its future uncertain. 

Forked Aster (with the scientific name Aster furcatus in most books – but Eurybia furcata in newer ones) is a Threatened species in Illinois and is globally rare.

Somme Woods, like most midwestern woodlands, was badly degraded for decades by grazing, fire suppression, and a long list of other injuries. As with any better-quality unmanaged ecosystem in the modern world, its best parts were likely losing biodiversity at the rate of 2 to 3% a year. Restoration has begun to change that, dramatically. Somme Woods is 255 acres in Northbrook, Illinois. We conservationists are in the early stages of understanding the composition and function of oak woodlands. 

Over the last few years, Forked Aster has seemed to increase dramatically in many parts of this Cook County forest preserve. 2019 seemed a good time to refresh and analyze our monitoring. This species offers us the possibility of studying how such a plant responds to regular fire, increased sunlight, competition, and the overall conditions of an oak woodland under restoration. 

A Plant of Mystery and Confusion

Though rare, this species is not restricted to one narrow niche.  Experts do not agree about its habitat; every source has it different. 

The NatureServe website provides the following comments on Forked Aster:
Number of Occurrences Comments: Several in Iowa (2, 1 county), Illinois (20), Indiana (14, 4 counties), Wisconsin (25), and Missouri (37, 6 counties, however, 30 of 37 EO's occur in a single county).
Population Size Comments: Many large populations are known, but stands are usually clonal, with relatively few genotypes present. (See Endnote A: Genetic Limitations.)
Overall Threat Impact Comments: Threats include … the absence of disturbance processes necessary for establishment; and over-shading by canopy closure which reduces flowering and clonal expansion.
Habitat Comments: Occurs in woods and woods edges to railroad rights of ways; moist, north-facing rocky ledges and stream bluffs, and open oak woods.

(Note: species that today are found mostly on artificial “edges” and railroad rights-of-way may be refugees from a vanished habitat.)

Gray’s Manual of Botany (Fernald, 1950) lists Forked Aster habitat as “dry woods and shaded bluffs.” In contrast, Wilhelm and Rericha (2017) offer, “This is a rare species of rich mesic woodlands and wooded seeps.” Thus, habitats run the gamut from dry to seeping wet. 

Swink and Wilhelm (1994) give one “interesting assemblage” of associates that includes such dry woods plants as wood betony, white oak, and sand bracted sedge (which in turn is an associate of prickly pear cactus). Yet this same assemblage includes swamp goldenrod and skunk cabbage. Those two groups of plants do not grow side by side, and yet this one colony of Forked Asters spans their differences.

As we were deciding over the years where to sow the seed of this species, we wondered if perhaps it actually might once have had broad amplitude in the now-largely vanished open oak woods. Was this plant forced into marginal habitats as our woods darkened with invasive and so many species dropped out?

What we did

Starting in 1977, the goal of the North Branch Restoration Project has been to restore the structure, processes, and biodiversity of the natural ecosystem that thrived here for thousands of years. Forked Aster has been in our planting mixes since at least 1989. It was clearly a plant of the North Branch, as it was found growing spontaneously at McDonald Woods, a mile from Somme. But the plants there had trouble setting seed, as do many remnant populations of this clonal plant. So we got additional seed from a more robust population in the Barrington area (See Endnote 1).

We treated Forked Aster like the hundreds of other species for which we gather and broadcast seed annually, and as with many restored rare species, we didn’t see much of it for many years. Our 1989 records show that we put all Forked Aster seed into our wet-mesic savanna mix.  In 2012 we recorded only six cups of seed (including “fluff”) gathered for our mixes, but by then were dividing the seed into five parts and putting one part each in wet-mesic savanna, wet savanna, and wet woodland, and two parts in wet-mesic woodland. We did not put its seed in the mesic woods or the open woods mixes – but the evidence now suggests that we should have. (Indeed, our records show that we were doing so in the special Somme mixes by at least 2017.) It has been doing increasingly well, as reflected by our 2018 report which includes 3 gallons of Forked Aster seed in the North Branch mixes and additional 6 gallons in the special Somme mixes. 

Our overall restoration and monitoring efforts at Somme Woods have dramatically expanded, with a few years of boosted recruiting and training beginning in 2015. Volunteers now annually cut ten to twenty acres of brush and pole trees. We now gather seed of about 300 plant species (most of them rare today) and in larger quantities. Staff and volunteers burn half to two-thirds of the site every year. We all devote hundreds of hours to combating invasive herbs including reed canary grass, teasel, and purple loosestrife. For more about our approach see Endnote 2: What we do.

What We Counted

For years we did not monitor this Forked Aster, as this species seemed to appear in small numbers from one end of the preserve to the other. But in 2015 we decided that the new Somme Woods populations deserved study. Our first monitoring transect for Forked Aster covered 5 meters on each side of the Middle Loop trail (starting across from the picnic shelter) running north from the parking lot for 230 meters (thus including 2,300 square meters of ground). 

Forked Aster along this transect occupies a variety of habitats. The first clumps are in open savanna and then a transition to an open white oak woodland. The path next crosses a darker wet woods and ephemeral stream with bur oaks where we found no asters. Next comes a bur, white, and red oak southeast-facing slope where most of the asters occur. Then comes a relatively level open wet-mesic woodland meadow (or small savanna?) with no asters. But they we found them again toward the end of the transect, in mesic red oak woods. 

We counted numbers of plant patches or "clones" and numbers of flowering stems. We considered each patch as one clone. If two seeds happened to land very close to each other, the result could be two genetically different plants being considered one patch. Between 2015 and 2017, the numbers of both stems and patches about doubled. 

Table 1. Middle Loop Transect for Forked Aster


But the change from 2017 to 2019 seemed to tell a different story. Now flowering stems increased by 60% while the number of patches increased by less than 10%. Considering the analysis by NatureServe, perhaps Forked Aster had established well on bare soil after shade removal, but as competition from planted species increased, fewer new plants established.  Existing patches continue to increase their numbers of stems asexually, but they may not reproduce readily by seed under the intense competition of a rich woods (See Endnote 3: “The Middle Loop Slowdown – a Result of Associates?”) 

Contrary to our expectation, Forked Aster on this transect is doing well in the mesic woods but poorly in a stretch of moist meadow or “wet-mesic savanna.” 
A woods shows its history. Decades ago, the old white and bur oaks lost their lower limbs when invasive pole trees shaded them out. Sun-loving shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers were lost at the same time. Under restoration, with pole trees thinned to restore the light, a rich ecosystem now supports Forked Aster and a long list of quality plants (see Endnote 3). 
A second transect (128 meters) is newer and better documented. The initial thinning and planting were done in 2015. By 2017, the slow-growing perennial plants were well-enough established to monitor. This year we compared this streamside (wet and wet-mesic) area to our results with the mostly mesic woodland population in Table 1.    

Table 2. South Brook Transect for Forked Aster


In this younger population, the number of patches has increased by about 20% while the number of stems has increased by about 150%. Here the plants were predominantly growing with wet-mesic associates like cardinal flower, boneset, brome sedge, and swamp goldenrod. 

The third transect is an impressive 475 meters long, about a third of a mile. It’s wilder and woolier, darker, less-restored than the others, following a brook that sometimes has no channel, as it braids itself and changes courses. This long transect produced many surprises, which may appear in a future post, but the trend again was dramatically upward.

Table 3. Middle Book Transect for Forked Aster


Number of patches increased by 600%. Number of stems by 1600%. And it's not just within these three narrow transects that the rare Forked Aster shows irrational exuberance. It’s widespread throughout many “restored” areas (though absent in many other similar areas). 

What We Learned

Without any special care, these rare flowers now bloom on at least many thousands of robust stems throughout much of Somme Woods. No other Endangered or Threatened species has established this widely and rapidly at the Somme preserves.

Despite our initial apparent belief that this species has narrow habitat requirements, it now thrives in and near oaks in sunny to shady areas that range from mesic to wet. It has very different associates in each. (We don’t have truly dry or even dry-mesic habitats at Somme Woods.) 

Yet, in large similar areas, it is absent, despite large amounts of seed blowing around the site. There is a suggestion in our data that this species establishes best on bare soil in the earliest stages of restoration. 

We have detailed planting maps by date as well as detailed seed mix lists by year. It would be possible for a person with energy for it to study many questions in some detail using these data. The current monitors, however, have our hands full with what we’re already doing. We’ve learned that this species for now is doing well enough at Somme without additional help. 

What We Wonder

Over time, will this species settle down to one habitat? Or will it end up as scattered small populations in many odd places that aren’t quite right for most standard plant associations? Will it survive among some associated species but not others? Or will it just die out as the woods grows back towards its original quality and rich competitiveness, making the Forked Aster bonanza a brief flash in the pan, a freak phenomenon?
Here a young plant of Forked Aster grows with young plants of such conservative and competitive species as bloodroot, blue-stemmed goldenrod, elm-leaved goldenrod, Short’s aster, purple Joe Pye, wild columbine, and a number of woodland grasses and sedges. Will the densely clump-forming rare aster kill off these other desirable species? Or will they kill it?
Are these expanding patches a threat to the larger ecosystem? Will this Threatened species unexpectedly become a thuggish pest – continuing to form larger and larger clones that exclude most other species and reduce biodiversity overall? Unlikely? But something to watch and learn from?
This large clone grows among diverse conservatives species (see Endnote 3). The aster seems bigger, denser, and more competitive at this point. As stewards, we wouldn't feel good about it smothering out all those other species. 
Pushing apart the stems of the patch above reveals shaded-out bare ground under the aster. Will the surrounding conservative species in time restore diversity here and co-exist with the aster? Or in time eliminate it? 

Or can you have too many of an endangered species for its own good? We have heard stern warnings that managers should not attempt to make a rare plant common. The Illinois Plant Translocation/Restoration Policy states that injunction this way: “new populations of native plants in the wild should not exceed the presettlement abundance of a species.” 

We did not try to make this plant so common, nor do we expect it to remain so. There seem to be few studies of this problem occurring and fewer compelling arguments for what harm this unlikely situation might cause. Yet, here we may be facing it (although there’s little information available on what the “presettlement abundance” in a woods of this kind would be). Should we weed out some portion of these plants or omit their seed from future planting mixes?

Conversely, some conservationists have argued that the way to re-establish sustainable rare plant populations is to restore sufficient genetic robustness that the species can adapt to new conditions. Forked Aster may need all its genetic robustness if it is to find a long-term niche here, as it faces increasing competition from other conservative species in the young restoration areas here. Somme Woods has been under restoration only about three decades, with most plantings much younger. 

Our initial advisors suggested we plant seeds of this species in woodland seep areas. Is it possible that our current conception of the habitats of this species is an artifact of the degraded state of our woodlands?  Possibly the species behaved differently when fire-maintained woodlands were more open and sunnier.

We remind ourselves that our fundamental goal at Somme Woods is biodiversity conservation. We don’t know to what extent this woods is becoming a replica of its historic self and to what extent it is becoming something new. How much should we care – if the result conserves plant and animal biodiversity?

Let’s be real about the future. Major climate change is a given. Fragmentation, hydrologic manipulation, rain acidity, predator and prey imbalance, and changed air composition all present challenges. Our hypothesis long has been that the rare North Branch species and ecosystem types have the best shot at survival if they can maintain substantial populations and full gene pools. Will Somme Woods under the current kind of restoration evolve toward a species composition largely similar to what was here five hundred years ago? In other words, will the diverse conservatives from the diverse seed sources re-establish something much like the original? Or will it (and most ecosystems in the region) become radically different? As stewards, we suspect that the answers to those questions are in considerable part out of our control.

Yet, we still need to wrestle with what is the best conservation management to facilitate the best result, considering that this woodland, with most of its (invasive) canopy cut away, is like a patient after a severe operation? The radically altered community is in the intensive care ward – highly vulnerable to infection by a wide variety of invasives and thugs. (In our experience, attempts to make these changes more slowly result in different problems and, in some cases, and much poorer result.) If invasives are on the decline and diversity on the rise, we have some confidence that "restorative succession" (is there a better name for this process?) may be heading in the right direction. It seems naïve to imagine that we can somehow control the individual abundances of the hundreds of species that we are restoring. Thus, we tend toward an uneasy confidence that most species will work out most balances on their own. 

Many people once defined restoration as “putting things back the way they were.” That definition now seems old to us, and not in the best sense. For us, restoration is a tool in support of biodiversity conservation. Yes, perhaps under the conditions of the future, the classic oak wood diversity will evolve a community here much like the original. But what if some species once here just don’t make it? What if others that weren’t here rise to fill their places? Indeed, we wouldn’t be surprised if in 50 or 100 years, stewards and managers spend some of their time mailing seeds north or east and waiting for FedEx to deliver seeds and eggs or tadpoles from south and west. 
Patches of both forked aster and woodland sunflower can expand and wipe out most other plants.
What will happen when these two thugs meet head-on?
Only time will tell ...
... if we are there with the right tools to measure the changes. 
Rich ecosystems have always changed. Plants and animals move around, if they can. Conservation doesn’t mean keeping things as they were but does mean setting conditions so that as much biodiversity as possible can adapt and continue this journey with us. 

As we consider Forked Aster and the 500 other Somme plant species for which we are stewards, we wonder: are we asking the best questions to improve our ability to contribute to biodiversity conservation? Are we using the right measures to get good answers? Are we focusing on the right time frames to realistically explore ecosystem processes?  

The map below represents another attempt to explore the scale question. It shows how many aster stems were visible from a 1.3 mile trail - that is, speaking with wry science-iness, a transect of 2,092 meters. It turned out to be both misleading and helpful in many ways. We hope to explore this and related questions of measures and scale in a future Forked Aster post on this blog.
Overall, the questions we wrestle range from the happy to the weighty. We’re not going to answer them definitively at the Somme Preserves. But we can contribute.  

Endnote A. Genetic Limitations

Phd candidate Nora Gavin-Smyth who studied Forked Asters at Somme and other northeastern Illinois sites, wrote a Masters thesis: “Genetic augmentation reduces mate limitation in two rare Asteraceae species.”

Its Abstract reads: “This study assesses the effectiveness of augmenting pollen from outside populations in two clonal, SI species that are known to experience genetic bottlenecks. Remnant populations of Eurybia furcata averaged 13% open seed set and augmentation crosses between populations increased seed set by an average of 96% and by over 500% in the most mate limited populations. Populations that, because of previous management practices, are composed of mixed genetic lineages, averaged 36% open seed set but between-population crosses did not increase the average seed set. In remnants, 34% of within-population crosses were compatible in contrast to 58% in mixed lineage populations, indicating that mate limitation is driving the differences in seed set. Remnant Cirsium hillii populations received between population crosses as a supplement to open pollination, increasing seed set by 50%. Offspring fitness measurements for crosses of both species indicated no significant differences among cross distances or population status, providing no evidence of inbreeding depression in the populations nor of heterosis in augmentation crosses. These results provide compelling support for genetic augmentation as a management tool for clonal SI rare species."

Endnote 1a. Seed Origin and a Donor Habitat
Rebecca Collings wisely suggested that this post add a note on the habitats our seeds came from.

I wrote to Jim Vanderpoel of Citizens from Conservation to ask if he could describe the source of our original seed, which they generously supplied, and which has been subsequently enriched by seed from McDonald Woods (See Endnote 1B) and from Nora Gavin-Smyth's work (see above). Jim wrote back:

"I know the exact habitat of the forked aster in Barrington.  It grows on an occasionally mowed, shaded roadside with a mixture of native and invasive plants--it's right at the stop sign of the low-traffic Biltmore subdivision cross road.  I consider the population precarious.  There are a few nearby specimens scattered along the perpendicular road almost to CFC's little Steyermark preserve.  This includes the natural garden of a neighboring homeowner.  I don't know if the neighbor is aware of the plant.   The subdivision includes many old open-grove type trees but also a lot of landscaping plants.   I'd guess the original habitat would have been open grove." 

In 1994, Floyd Swink had written that Forked Aster "is frequent in the hilly country in the Biltmore Subdivision north of Barrington." I wondered how much survived there.

Then I found out. This turns out to have been the very population that Jim described, above. A few years ago, for her thesis, Nora and Tom Vanderpoel "looked around that neighborhood quite a bit" but could not find other surviving populations. 

Nora visited many northeastern Illinois populations for her thesis (which did not include site ecological information). For this post, she generously summarized how the habitat appeared to her for five other sites. Seeds from those populations resulted in the plants used for her experiments. (She provided plants left over from those experiments to us at Somme, and we subsequently added seeds from them to the Somme populations, following our Seeds Plan, which challenges us to restore seed from as many original, local populations as possible. The five habitat descriptions below suggest the apparently temporary and precarious state of current populations:

- A bike trail in Kane County--the habitat is degraded woodland becoming overgrown with woody species, some invasive. These patches were along the river, but weren't very wet, growing in a very shallow ditch. The Aster furcatus grows best just off the bike path where it seems to get mown from time to time. There are 4 long and large patches that are separated by about 30 feet. This was the one remnant population that had very high seed set and high number of compatible crosses between the patches.

- A Kane County nature preserve -- a high quality woodland though not very open. A. furcatus here is made up of about a dozen patches that were transplanted by volunteers from a bike trail when it was expanded. The plants were transplanted pretty far apart in this large Nature Preserve, and interestingly the seed set here is low, and there are not as many compatible crosses. I interpret this as the patches that were transplanted were likely genetically related but also the compatible plants may have been planted too far apart for pollination by a compatible plant. The patches with the most stems were in small openings in the canopy or woods edges. None of these patches were very close to water but somewhat close to seeps.

- Along a Lake County bike trail-- not high-quality woodland, much darker than any other site. Growing in dense, large patches, in small but not particularly sunny openings, about 10m from a large wetland.

- In a Lake County forest preserve, in a high-quality wetland. A. furcatus is growing in sunny open patches, as well as some less sunny openings in a wet seep. Very large, extensive clonal patches, but low seed set and low compatibility between patches.

- In Barrington Hills--just a single large persisting patch in a neglected nature preserve, with very conservative associates like Cypripedium candidum. The patch of A. furcatus was on the edge of a wood, not in a wet area, but 10m from road ditch.

Endnote 1b. McDonald Woods, a Donor Habitat 

Jim Steffen of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s McDonald Woods writes:

The locations where E. furcata was remnant in McDonald Woods would be what I would refer to as Flatwoods habitats. Associates included Lysimachia ciliata, Solidago patula, Cinna, Cornus obliqua, Fraxinus nigra, and Quercus bicolor. These areas are on the edges of what would have been a rich upland woodland dominated by Quercus alba, Tilia americana, Acer saccharum, Dentaria laciniata, and Podophyllum. It could be that these remnant populations survived in more open areas where they were not under the growing shade of the maple saplings, but they are very wet habitats. Generally speaking, after we enriched the gene pool with seeds from other sites, the areas where E. furcata is doing well from seeding would also be what I would call wet-mesic to wet habitats. In general, it appears to me that the plant prefers wetter sites. Most of the plants more often than not are in association with Quercus bicolor, Fraxinus nigra (before ash borers hit), Chelone, Rudbeckia subtomentosa, Lobelia siphilitica, Carex bromoides, Cinna, and other similar wetter-growing species. Although I have not looked carefully at the difference between clones and individual plants, it appear that the plant is spreading from seed as the clones are far apart. There seems to be more of it over the years and in different locations, but still in the wetter parts of the woods.

Endnote 2: What we do

If you’d like to learn more about the Somme approach, you might want to consider previous blog posts, for example: 

Endnote 3: The Middle Loop Slowdown – a Result of Associates? 

Vastly more seed than ever before now blows around the Middle Loop Trail area, but fewer new plants establish themselves. That’s likely due to the diversity of conservative associated plant species, making an increasingly competitive woodland turf. Below are associates of some of the patches along this transect (in approximate order of descending cover in each case) within 0.25 meters of the patches at the given distance from the curb at the start of the trail. The “rich white oak wooded slope” (where most Forked Asters thrive for now) was bare ground under buckthorn and pole trees about eight years ago. All the associates there (except Solidago altissima, Bidens frondosa, and Aster sagittifolius) were planted in seed mixes with the Forked Asters at the start of the restoration. 

In savanna
Meter 13.3: Solidago rigida, Eupatorium purpureum, Monarda fistulosa, Rudbeckia triloba, Solidago ulmifolia, Coreopsis tripteris, Daucus carota

On savanna/woods edge
Meter 30.2: Solidago altissima 90%, Coreopsis tripteris, Solidago juncea, Zizia aurea

On rich white oak wooded slope
Meter 79.7: Heracleum maximum, Aster shortii, Aquilegia canadensis, Cinna arundinacea, Sanguinaria canadensis

On rich white oak wooded slope
Meter 96.6: Eupatorium purpureum, Chelone glabra, Camassia scilloides, Solidago altissima, Bidens frondosa, Solidago caesia, Cinna arundinacea, Carex blanda, Aster shortii

On rich white oak wooded slope
Meter 132: Solidago ulmifolia, Aster shortii, Solidago altissima, Aster sagittifolius drummondii, Zizia aurea, Eupatorium purpureum

On rich white oak wooded slope
Meter 142: Solidago ulmifolia, Solidago flexicaulis, Heracleum maximum, Cicuta maculata, Eupatorium purpureum, Solidago altissima, Taenidia integerrima, Agrimonia parviflora, Carex gracillima

In red oak woods
Meter 200.5: Helianthus strumosus 95%, Aster shortii, Lithospermum latifolium, Ranunculus septentrionalis, Solidago altissima, Heracleum maximum, Lactuca floridana, Potentilla simplex

Nora Gavin-Smyth. Genetic augmentation reduces mate limitation in two rare Asteraceae species. Masters thesis.

Falk, Donald A., Constance I. Millar and Margaret Olwell editors, Restoring Diversity: Strategies for Reintroduction of Endangered Plants. Island Press. 

Somme Woods Forest Preserve is in Northbrook, Illinois. It is owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County with much of the most detailed restoration work executed by volunteers coordinated by Forest Preserve staff, Friends of the Somme Preserves, and the North Branch Restoration Project.

This monitoring was done by Eriko Kojima, Paul Swanson, Sai Ramakrishna, Matt Evans, and Stephen Packard.

We share our monitoring data for the endangered and threatened species at Somme Woods with Plants of Concern, a community science rare plant monitoring program based at the Chicago Botanic Garden. For more information visit Plants of

Thanks for Questions, Edits, and Comments to Karen Glennemeier, Mark Kluge, Eriko Kojima, Rebecca Collings, Debbie Antlitz, Will Overbeck, and Gretel Kiefer.


From Mark Kluge
As for the larger question, it is a fascinating one. Since we were not present to witness climax succession before our woodlands began to implode under the weight of human disturbance, there is very little we understand about the ecological distribution and habit of many conservative species.  Given the scale of the Somme Woods restoration, there are things to be learned - but it may take 20, 30, even 50 years to learn them.

From Debbie Antlitz
My hunch is that many of these species are doing well while competition is not yet fierce; it is natural and expected that diversity may diminish at some future point when the clear winners are sorted.... however my understanding is that this is *not* what has been witnessed at the Sommes to this date, so maybe there is a lesson there that early diversity encourages sustained diversity? Runner-reproducing clones have an advantage in moving patches of ideal habitat, such as a burning shrub front that is burned back on one end but grows on the lee-side of the fire, or a woodland where falling trees open new patches, or in wetland areas that are subject to seasonal or even 10-year cycle hydrological fluxes. Given the aster is a wind-blown seed, that ability to colonize, clonize, and adapt to rapidly changing conditions makes sense in a savanna shrubland dynamic patch landscape.   

From Karen Glennemeier

You're laying out a bunch of questions that naturally come from your data, but you're very clear that what we have now are more questions than answers, and, importantly, that this is ok.  What matters is to keep asking the questions and keep figuring out better ways to try to answer them. I like the way you put the forked aster story in the broader context of the "chaos" of new restorations - how do we know when things have sorted themselves out, will they ever do so, does it matter?

I also like the type of data you've got:  It's data and monitoring that most stewards could do, it's not a super narrow, controlled experiment, it's a study that works with the process of restoration itself -- you're spreading seeds according to management plans, not experimental design, and you're counting plants in a systematic way within those areas.  It's a looser study than the kind that gets published in journals, and in some ways this makes the conclusions messier.  But in some ways it makes them cleaner -- if you were to design a tight, narrow study that did a good job of answering your specific question but wasn't really representative of the way restoration is done, then how would one interpret the results, wouldn't this get messy and speculative?

I think a lot about striking the right balance between "publishable" and "useful" experiments.  I don't have it figured out, but I think you're on the right track.

From Eriko Kojima
 If you have this species in an area you manage (or have authorized access to seed from nearby), you can do this too, and share your results. To start, this fall, pick as much seed as you can (without taking more than half). Or, like us, raise seed from two or more natural populations in a natural garden. Then plant it after you have removed brush, burned, and sprayed for re-sprouts. Make sure it’s sunny enough (open woods or shaded savanna), and it doesn’t matter if it’s wet or dry - try it in all kinds of wetnesses. Plant the seed as part of a diverse seed mix. When it comes up and blooms, maybe in two years, do a vegetation inventory, and repeat the transect from time to time. Let’s get to know this plant better. 

From Will Overbeck

As for the study design – I think it is a fine example of what we all should be doing as stewards – monitoring population trends along transects. It takes about an hour for me to do a 100m transect with 10 – 1m sq plots. We should encourage our natural resource managers to either conduct their own data collection and share results with stewards or cooperate with site stewards to facilitate collection by volunteers, archive data, etc.

From Nora Gavin-Smyth
Of course, my thoughts are drawn to the question of genetically controlled self-incompatibility that determines A. furcatus ability to make viable seed. I think that this is going to be one of the biggest bottlenecks to seeing new A. furcatus patches … The result that you are seeing of large increase in vegetative growth but small increase in new patches doesn't surprise me too much, because of this constraint on seed production.

I keep thinking about the differences between the A. furcatus at Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods--they are behaving so differently in those preserves and my understanding is that the SW population was sourced from the SPG population. In SW, it seems as though many of the seeds in the inside loop have established-- there are many many small patches and this pattern is unusual in comparison with SPG and with any other population, remnant or restored. I would be really interested to know how many of the new patches are the result of new seeds in the population (not from the seed that we sowed), and how many genotypes are contributing to the new generation. Did the population in SPG look similar to SW when it was early on? Have patches dropped out as well as new patches popping up? Were fewer seeds introduced to begin with? The results of my research indicated that not only the quantity of patches but the distance between patches effect how much A. furcatus will set seed.

I hope we can find a student at CBG to look at genotyping these populations and getting some answers to these really interesting questions! Thanks for getting me to think about those Asters again...

From Andrea Kramer

Your post made me think of Nora Gavin-Smyth’s recent MS thesis research investigating the role genetics plays in limiting seed set in populations of this species across the region. Her region-wide experiment showed clearly that genetic augmentation will be necessary for many remnant populations to successfully produce viable seeds. This was not the case for restored populations that had multiple source populations. I am curious to know more about the genetics at play at Somme, whether/how that may be driving the patterns you are seeing in the woods, and how that compares to other sites in the region. A region-wide molecular genetics study that complements Nora’s research would provide insight into some of the dynamics at play while informing future sourcing decisions about the species. It’s a project I’m hoping we’ll be able to tackle here at the Chicago Botanic Garden – it would be a great project for another master’s student in our graduate program, if you know of any good candidates.

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