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Friday, September 16, 2016

Gray Goldenrod – How important might it be in the Greater Scheme Of Things?

My popular field guides list its habitat as “woods and open places” or “old pastures, dry open woods.” Many of us know it best from beat-up old fields. It’s largely absent from many older “restored” prairies. Yet it can be common in the finest remnants.

Swink and Wilhelm use the name “old-field goldenrod” and list only four habitats – old fields, dry prairies, dunes, and sandy black oak savannas. 

But its habitat at the recovering savanna at Somme Prairie Grove includes many of the very "best" spots. This September, I found myself puzzled by its distribution. Though gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) was thriving in some fine areas, it had dropped out of some of the plots that we’ve thought of as recovering especially well. Are we missing something?
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.

Here young dropseed grass (clumps of fine leaves) will give the Indian grass a run for its money,
and there's great diversity of conservative legumes, asters, violets, and scores more.
But how secure is that diversity as the more mighty conservatives continue to drop seed and mature?

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? 

Close up of same area. We expect a high quality grassland, whether prairie or savanna, to flower richly all season long.
Though we've seeded the late-season species here as much or more than in the sparser areas
(where the gray goldenrods still thrive), the colors of diverse ecosystem health seem not to be here now. 

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.)

In contrast, the mowed side looks outstandingly better. Not only thriving gray gold and prairie clover,
but - if you blow up the photo and look close - tons of prairie betony, asters, bush clover, cream gentian,
lady's tresses, and general joy and happiness. 

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:

“Northern Illinois prairies have been so completely obliterated over the last 160 years that there is no telling what the full contingent of native plants may have been on our loamy and upland prairies.”

And I had another check. My vague memory was that the best parts of Somme Prairie Nature Preserve included 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.

I am reluctant to go to the Grade A areas too often. There's a "Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle" here. If enough people stamped around sufficient to study everything we need to know, the prairie would be badly degraded. Perhaps we should study it with drones, but I digress.

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. 

Here the gray goldenrod is coming right up through a cream false indigo (gray leaves) as this early plant senesces for fall.
No space is wasted. This too is quality. Also visible here are prairie betony, wild quinine, rattlesnake master,
prairie dock azure aster, little bluestem, and puccoon. 

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 wonder if one of the experiments we should be doing with the restoration of degraded remnants is to seed initially with some of the less dominant conservatives ... and hold off until later with the dropseed, lead-plant, New Jersey tea, and other potentially over-dominant species. Hmmmm. I suppose that would mean coming up with a list of what those are. Would we want to agree on such a list? Or perhaps let one hundred flowers bloom? And many interested people try different lists?

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.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Prairie Yells For Help

Weston Cemetery Prairie near Chenoa was a focus of the recent North American Prairie Conference at Illinois State University. It’s famous as one of the finest remnants in Illinois. But some visitors noticed a scary problem.

If you already know the deal on cemetery prairies, you can skip this paragraph. If you don’t, you may be amazed to learn that some of the finest surviving true prairies are in old settler cemeteries that were laid out, fenced, and mostly left alone since the mid 1800s. Often this acre or half-an-acre is the only sanctuary in an entire county where the natural vegetation (and many small animals) survives.

Less than one one-hundreth of 1% of the tallgrass prairie survives.
In Illinois, many of the best remnants are in old cemeteries. 
For 44 years, the five acres of Weston Cemetery Prairie have been managed as an Illinois Nature Preserve by staff and local volunteers. Half is burned annually, and invasive species have been largely banished from the center.
Though tiny, cemetery prairie remnants have a richness that can't be found in millions of surrounding acres. 
The Challenge
But prairie lovers who stopped by to see it in July (during the nearby conference) were shocked to find that after 44-years this precious preserve had a massive infestation of white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) along its north edge. The invasive is a serious threat. None of the people responsible for the preserve had had time to check on invasives this year. Tom Lerczak (Illinois Nature Preserves Commission) and Eric Smith (Illinois DNR) were disappointed to hear of it but explained that they’re both spread so thin they couldn’t be much physical help. On the other hand, Tom was eager for volunteer help and referred potential workers to Jason Shoemaker of the ParkLands Foundation for coordination.  
An evil army of Melilotus (white spiky flowers massed on left) advances into the prairie. 
Don Gardner is one of the most respected prairie managers in central Illinois. He wrote:
Weston Cemetery as well as Prospect and Loda and the railroad near Kempton
have provided guides for me as to what dark soil tall grass prairie here in
east-central Illinois should look like. My goal has been to try to recapture
some semblance of that. Although I started [his own project] in 1974 I did not
attack Melilotus aggressively until 1998 ... Any plants that are bearing seed are pulled and removed from the field. Thus for many years little if any new seed has been added to the soil. However, every year more plants appear indicating the large seed bank that has developed in the soil. In recent years there have been fewer, and this year there were the least to date ... controlling Melilotus is necessarily a long-term continuing effort. This will likely be true for Weston as well.
Help! Help! Sweet clover blots out all else! It can badly degrade a prairie if not controlled. 
People Who Rise To The Occasion
On Aug 8 and 9, ten volunteers including Dr. Gardner and Jason Shoemaker of ParkLands battled the sweet clover:

Don and Espie Nelson (stewards of the Vermont Cemetery Prairie west of Joliet) reported on the 8th:
A good dent was made in the clover patch.  A total of 7 people worked.  Three DNR people came, looked, talked, and took pictures.

We attacked from two directions.  Upon arrival, the one group thought the west entry might be easier because of the tall vegetation in the cemetery.  They entered from the west side along the tracks.  The dead bodies [of the hated clover] were packed in plastic bags ...  our group cleaned north from the parking lot to the RR tracks.  Then we cleared along the north edge of the cemetery.  The clover was quite dense along this side and 7 - 9 feet tall.  Surprisingly, there was no clover in the interior.  Also, there were not many first year plants.  We stashed our trash in tarps and left a pile at the edge of the parking lot... Both [groups] worked until noon ...

A group will be coming tomorrow and they will take care of the clover bags and the clover pile. Plenty of bug spray is needed, as well as drinking water.  There was no breeze.
Among the valiant heroes on the 9th, Ed Wilhite and Teresa DeWill admire the grim corpses
 in one of many tarps of sweet clover.  Photo by Diane Wilhite.
Tom Lerczak wrote: “The folks I met at Weston Cemetery are highly skilled and knowledgeable. I determined that during the few moments that I was with them.”

On the 9th, members of the East Central Master Naturalists and Grand Prairie Friends came down from the Champaign area and “had fun with Jason.” How can doing such work on a hot, buggy day be fun? The answer must be in the results.
On the 11th, Jason was joined by Dr. Roger Anderson and two ParkLands interns to finish the job.

Was the work too late, as some feared? How many of the literally millions of sweet clover seeds already fell? Time will tell.

Jason is looking for “people who may be able to help or be possible stewards who can help monitor the site, letting us know of vandalism or threat from exotics.”

Will enough people keep an eye on Weston, and pitch in, as Jason requested? Most sweet clover is best pulled earlier in the year, before it gets so hot. But there can be more to do than people to do it – a fact that is paralleled in various ways at hundreds of nature preserves across the state. There are plenty of people who care, but how do they get engaged, trained, and empowered?

One person, reviewing this post, wrote:  

In fact, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission is in a crippled state at this point.  For example, they've had two field staff retire since 2010, with neither position filled or on the horizon to be filled.  Last year, Director Randy Heidorn retired.  He was hoping to have two "deputy" positions filled before he left and a new director appointed soon thereafter.  But the state budget impasse prevented that from happening.  So Tom Lerczak has been filling in for large parts of the two program manager positions as well as portions of the director position, temporarily covering several counties in far eastern Illinois and his normal load of 21 counties. People need to know this and express their concerns.

Don Gardner wrote:
It has been my opinion that these small high quality remnants should receive the highest management priority. In recent years there is increasing interest in undertaking recovery or reconstruction on larger sites. This is fine, but along with other factors such as lack of funding may lead to diminished attention to the small quality sites, which I am sure you too have noticed even on certain dedicated nature preserves.

I asked Tom Lerczak if I should remove the comment on the staff people who stopped by briefly. Tom replied:
You might mention that I was with the group of IDNR staff ... that we were pressed for time, on our way elsewhere ...  We were not expecting volunteers, but we were pleased to see them ... I actually liked the “looked, talked, and took pictures” sentence.  I sounds a little snarky, but it's accurate.  I'm not offended.  (Note: See "COMMENT ON ILLINOIS STAFF, ABOVE.)

If you’re interested in volunteering to help Weston Cemetery Prairie, here are some contacts:

ParkLands Foundation:
PO Box 12
Normal, IL  61761-0012

Phone: 309.454.3169
Jason Shoemaker: (309)_531_7065

Illinois Nature Preserves Commission:
Tom Lerczak
17500 E. CR 1950 North
P.O. Box 590
Havana, IL 62644-0590

This isn’t much of a photo of Jason Shoemaker, but he’s a hard worker
and not easy to catch up with. Photo by Diane Wilhite.

Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve 
Honor Roll

The survival of rich biodiversity at Weston is credit 
to the wisdom and generosity of many, including: 

Staff and volunteers of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Biologists from Illinois State University, who were the original stewards
Dave Jeffries, former volunteer steward
ParkLands Foundation, current steward
Countless other volunteers who've worked there over the years

Special Credit for leading the recent Sweet Clover Mission 
Roger Anderson and Jason Shoemaker
ParkLands Foundation
Grand Prairie Friends
East Central Illinois Master Naturalists
Don Gardner, Espie and Don Nelson, 
Sara Hostetter, Diane and Ed Wilhite