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Friday, June 22, 2018

Unrelenting Effort Makes Me Happy

Poplar Creek Prairie – Forest Preserves of Cook County
Grassland Stewardship Network Field Seminar
June 5, 2018

- John Navin (volunteer, Poplar Creek – FPCC)
- Jenny Flexman (volunteer, Poplar Creek/Schaumburg Road Grasslands – FPCC)
- Troy Showerman (staff, Forest Preserves of Cook County)
- Ken Klick (staff, Lake County Forest Preserves)
- Daniel Suarez (staff, Audubon Great Lakes)
- Joe Suchecki (volunteer, Springbrook Prairie – Forest Preserve District of DuPage County)
- Pat Hayes (volunteer, Orland Grassland – FPCC)
- Randy Holtz (volunteer, Spring Creek – FPCC)
- Eriko Kojima (volunteer, Somme Preserves – FPCC)
- Mike McNamee (volunteer, Orland Grassland – FPCC)
- Stephen Packard (volunteer, Somme Preserves – FPCC)
- Chuck Scannell (volunteer, Bartel Grassland – FPCC)
- Steve Smith (volunteer, Citizens for Conservation)
- Paul Swanson (volunteer, Somme Preserves – FPCC, Nachusa Grassland – TNC)
- Teri Valenzuela (staff, Audubon Great Lakes)
- Marnie Baker (volunteer, Orland Grassland – FPCC)

The Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards manage about 300 acres at this site. They’ve done an astounding job for almost three decades. We professional and volunteer stewards had assembled to walk the site and learn from each other. 

Waving the flags for invasives.
John Navin gave an intro, holding pink flags: “I never go anywhere without these.” He uses them to mark patches of crown vetch or bird’s-foot trefoil. He claims that he doesn’t worry much about other invasives. “I distinguish between invasives and invaders,” he said, “We used to worry about teasel and a long list, but all I worry about these days is the invaders – crown vetch and bird’s-foot trefoil.”

The rest of us, still worried about a good deal more, were eager to learn John’s secrets. But as we began to hike out into the prairie, some of us noticed patches of grass turning brown that looked a lot like reed canary grass. “So you’re still battling reed canary?” someone asked. 

“Oh, the contractors get that,” he said. It turns out that John doesn’t worry about it because others on the team get it. It’s a given, handled, not a problem for John any more. 

I asked, rhetorically, “So do you suppose the Forest Preserve deserves some credit here?”

In response, John exploded with lavish praise for the District land management staff and contractors. He does very deeply appreciate them, but perhaps takes them for granted. I made a “note to self.” If we don’t highlight the teamwork, we won’t be strengthening it as we need to. Forest Preserves are public agencies, and as such they live or die with democracy. If there’s insufficient support, funding won’t grow and likely could diminish. 

We walked through prairie restoration, heading northwest toward a high hill topped with the very high-quality Shoe Factory Road Prairie Nature Preserve. Soon we saw high-quality restoration patches where dense brush had been cut not all that long ago. 

“I’ll tell you what our secret is,” said Navin. “Perseverance. You can’t just cut, plant, and leave. You have to come back three years in a row to wipe out re-sprouts, and then you keep inter-seeding for years after that.” 

Troy Showerman expanded on this idea in writing as he reviewed a draft of this post: 

“One part that … seems important, was the discussion on patience. … There was a lot of talk about managing dogwood in the early days and how now fire more or less keeps it in check.  Also that they initially ignored tall goldenrod and that it was slowly out competed, burned out, or some combo of both.  That  was good insight to me on sometimes letting things work themselves out when it is easy to get bogged down in the short term chasing around every last invasive.  Focus on getting the worst invasives, burns, seeds, and give the site time to heal.”

Jenny Flexman compared the management of this site at Shoe Factory Road Woods with the group’s newer effort to restore the poetically-named Schaumburg Road Grasslands, across Golf Road to the south. “One focus there, from the beginning, has been improved grassland bird habitat,” she said. “We knock down the brush enough to get sufficient grass fuel for good burns. But we haven’t planted the taller grasses, in part because they’ll do fine without help, and in part because the birds seem to respond better to the shorter grasses.” 
Volunteers and staff have worked on Poplar Creek Prairie for three decades.
Flexman said the burn program at Poplar Creek Prairie was different from Schaumburg Road.  Poplar Creek burns about once every two years, on a revolving schedule. Navin suggested he might prefer to burn even more, but he’d always reserve unburned areas for invertebrates, snakes, and other animals that might need it. Flexman said grassland birds do best with less frequent burns. “At Schaumburg, the average plot is burned once every three years,” he said. The two stewards said they couldn’t prove cause and effect, but they agreed that the grassland birds are a lot more plentiful at Schaumburg. Indeed, to me, a great surprise, during the entire morning, I didn’t see or hear a single meadowlark, savanna sparrow, sedge wren, or any other grassland bird with the exception of a single bobolink. In my memory, Poplar Creek used to have more. 

Grassland bird expert Joe Suchecki confirmed that in his experience “Indian grass is a real problem.” Indian, big blue, and the other tallest grasses “wipe out the grassland birds,” he said. Where the taller grasses had taken over, the grassland birds were gone. 

I asked Joe if he found that diversity had an impact. Some people have noticed great increases in grassland birds at sites like Nachusa Grasslands, where the tall grasses are in the planting mixes. One possibility difference is that they are less dominant when there’s sufficient competition from shorter grasses, forbs, etc. 

Joe replied, uncomfortably it seemed, “Well yes, but the opposite of what you’re after.” He said that the best grassland habitat for birds at Springbrook is pure, alien meadow fescue. And it’s true, fields of short, Eurasian, cool-season grasses are a good habitat for many now-rare grassland birds. But it’s not a habitat for a great many other grassland species, especially the invertebrates, so people keep working to restore habitats that are good for the whole. 

There's a nice video of Joe on the DuPage FP website.

Mike McNamee gave a different perspective from the Orland Grassland: “Indian grass has worked well for the birds at Orland,” he said. Part of Audubon’s purpose in organizing these “field seminars” is to wrestle with questions like this. How can we learn more about the practical, scientific, and organizational questions that land managers face?  

Daniel Suarez said, “In many grasslands around this region, imperiled birds like Bobolink tend to nest mostly in cool-season, non-native-dominated grasslands rather than prairie restorations. We need to learn how to make restorations that work for bobolinks.”

As we neared the fence that enclosed Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Navin pointed out that there’s been a challenge to get people to understand its special status as an Illinois Nature Preserve. People used to dig gentians out of it, he said. Not when they were blooming. These criminal poachers had some expertise. 
View from the top of the Shoe Factory hill shows the large restored prairie reaching to the oak woodland.
The very high-quality prairie here had been a couple-acre postage stamp, surrounded by trees and brush. Now it blends into two hundred acres of restoration – the best being the expanding edges of that original prairie, flowing down the slopes where the brush once stood. Some seed just travelled on its own, but most of the restoration success depends on seed gatherers and sowers. John proudly said that the Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards have 12 to 15 seed leaders who know their stuff and help scores of volunteers gather and spread massive amounts of seed. “We have three scheduled seed-collecting workdays per week, plus much individual and small group work on other days.” 

The nature preserve is treated differently from the rest of the site. Pretty much the whole preserve has been burned annually for the last 12 years. John Navin credited the annual burning with a three-fold increase in forbs (wildflowers), but he seemed dubious about leaving no refuge patches. A number of people mentioned that in small high-quality grasslands, it’s been seen as good practice to leave part unburned for invertebrates that are sensitive to fire. Other experts, including some of Cook County FP ecology staff, believe that annual burning is better and that the invertebrates do fine. 

For this write up, Forest Preserve Ecologist Chip O’Leary (who had been unable to attend the field seminar) provided this perspective:

The frequent burning was intended to ramp up flowering & seed set and foster quicker plant recovery. In recent years, we have sliced out an area within or immediately adjacent to the nature preserve as an insect refuge. I know the info on fire-effects is incomplete and still being debated, but we felt some level of caution was warranted. Our thought is that the restoration work done by the Poplar group has created a very nice high diversity skirt around the preserve that ought to harbor prairie insects and provide a buffer and recolonization source should there be impacts from fire – we have used part of that as a no-burn zone. Additionally, imagery of post-burns shows unburned pockets within the preserve which have the potential to be refugia.

Concern was expressed about people who are “afraid to intervene” in nature – using the lack of mature science as a crutch. “Let’s wait until we know more;” so they don’t act. 

Steve Smith of Citizens for Conservation asked a question about research generally: “This discussion sounds all anecdotal. Isn’t there research that answers these questions?”

Daniel Suarez said that he’s learned a lot from burn research at Konza Prairie in Kansas. Ken Klick encouraged us all to monitor vegetation transects and animal populations as much as we can, and learn as we manage. Jenny Flexman questioned how much typical academic studies have to offer. “Most look at one or two variables in a very complex system, and where there’s great variation from site to site.” A lot of what makes restoration successful is staff and volunteer stewards passing on what has been successful. As Ken Klick put it, “We’re doing tremendous good. It’s working.” 

Not always, John Navin said, “I saw Palatine Prairie for the first time in many years. I couldn’t believe it. Crown vetch covers all the best original prairie. You can’t just walk away.” 

Ken Klick said, “Fire, herbicide, and deer removal are challenging to many people. Some stewards can be afraid to hurt what they love. We’re human. But we can’t let emotions inhibit needed work that has scientifically demonstrated good results.”

He also asked Navin and Flexman how they fostered volunteerism with such great expertise and energy. He asked, “What would you say about sites where stewards just want to cut brush and burn brush piles, and then they’re done?”    

Jenny Flexman said, “We were given a kind of ownership. We were told that the future of these precious plants and creatures depended in major ways on us. And we could see that it was true. We came together as a community. Not just the ecological, but also the social. We have people who greet new people, follow up with them after their first workdays, organize regular social events.” 
 We listened, we laughed, we thought, we learned.
Some people in the Poplar Creek group have adopted the prairie sedge Carex meadii– a visually obscure plant that is hard to gather seed from but which seems to be an important component of the more diverse prairies. Perhaps it’s part of the complexity that may ultimately be good for grassland bird habitat structure. According to John Navin, “They’re raising and will be planting plugs of Carex meadii– that will slowly spread, over the decades to come.” That detailed work requires specific initiative by specific people. The Poplar Creek success with the invasives is similar. One volunteer, Kirk Garanflo, gets major credit – now jointly with the Forest Preserve contractors. (See Endnote 1.) 

Pay Hayes said, “At Orland, we don’t have people who want to lead separate parts. They all want to be part of one group that works together.” 

John Navin seemed troubled at that, “We need new people and we need new leaders,” he said. “Who’s going to be doing this 20 years from now?” (John Navin expands on these questions in Endnote 2.) That’s part of why Audubon’s Daniel Suarez organized this exchange.

There was general agreement that events like this help build the community of stewards that nature needs. As Jenny Flexman summarized: “Usually in June I spend all my time in nasty areas, spraying invasives. It’s great to share a walk through this health and beauty and consider how it’s going, over the years. Not just the learning, it’s a great feeling to be among many kindred spirits, doing similar wonderful work.” 


Endnote 1

Kirk Garanflo is a hero and an inspiration. I’d never properly met him, but his name has come up for years when I’d ask the Poplar Creek folks how their were coping with invaders. Researching Endnotes for this post, I had the excuse to ask him some questions, and he wrote right back, as follows.

Hello Steve,

Here are answers to your questions:

1. Do you have either words or statistics that summarize what you’ve accomplished at Poplar Creek?
The only statistic that I have is: 200 to 250 hours per year removing weeds (and some trash) beyond scheduled work days; most days I spend an hour or two at the site. I have eradicated (or greatly reduced) teasel, wild parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace, and garlic mustard in many areas (not because others have not done so, but because being retired now - or occasionally unemployed in the past - I have had the time to work in the same areas repeatedly during a growing season over a span of years). If a weed can not be prevented from reproducing, then there is no possibility of eradicating it; the availability of time has made this possible for me.

2. What’s your relationship like with the rest of the group? Do you lead workdays or portions of workdays? Are there a few people who especially work with you? Or do you work mostly solo?

For the most part now I work solo in areas of particular interest to me; Mondays through Fridays most of rest of the group are at their day jobs. If herbaceous weeds are targeted for a scheduled work day, then I often work with the group. Otherwise, I have planned for and work at something else.

Occasionally I have helped to supervise when a large group of inexperienced volunteers has shown up. Otherwise, no; I do not lead work days.

3. Do you and the staff/contractors coordinate?

I always keep either John Navin or Jenny Flexman (stewards for the main site or Schaumburg Road Grasslands, respectively) generally informed of my plans or tasks. They do coordinating with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County or the contractors; I prefer to only involve myself with one level of management, our stewards.

4. Have you written up procedures/recommendations for people generally?

No. When asked in the past I have written my approach to dealing with teasel and with wild parsnip. Currently I am conducting experiments with herbiciding and with mechanical removal of Lily-of-the Valley. This species is a small problem at Poplar Creek but a humongous problem at Bluff Spring Fen. While herbiciding can be effective, mechanically weed whipping (or clipping in really high quality and sensitive areas) early in the season before much else emerges would be less damaging and less labor intensive.
5. Do you have a great specific story or two that would help convey what you’ve faced?

I do not particularly care to have the first thing knowledgeable and experienced conservationists see upon entering our site is a lot of “crap”. At the edge of the main prairie at Poplar Creek there had been a 30 to 50 foot wide and 100' to 150' long band of wild parsnip, sweet clover, teasel, and reed canary grass. I and others have taken many years to eliminate them from that edge using scythes, hand clippers, and pulling (with herbiciding for the reed canary grass). It is unrelenting effort that has achieved this.

Within and surrounding the Shoe Factory Road Prairie Preserve I have worked to eliminate wild parsnip; the 1996 moratorium set back that effort by at least five years (the seed bank was replenished for a year), but eventually that objective was achieved. Other weeds, such as hound’s tongue, motherwort, thistle (Canada, bull, and musk), dame’s rocket, sweet clover, winter cress, and ox-eye daisy are yet to be eradicated, but their numbers are slowly being reduced. 

Comment from SP: I feel good about life to know that I’m sharing my efforts to heal nature with thousands of people, all contributing in different ways, and one is Kirk Garanflo. 

I have a lot more good material from Kirk that I'll try to include in a future post.

A person with Kirk's expertise would certainly be paid more than $50/hr for contract work. But, just for the thought experiment, at more than 200 hours, he's been contributing more than $10,000 per year for decades. Bless him. Of course, "It's nice work if you can get it" - given that he is doing exactly what he wants to do, exactly how he wants to do it!

Well, okay, one more note. I asked Openlands how much a contractor would charge for a weed-control person with that level of expertise. The answer was "about $125/hr." So at that rate, at 250 hrs/yr, Kirk would be contributing a value of over 30,000 per year. Hmmm, in thirty years it's about a million dollars. 

Endnote 2.

Below, John Navin expands on Palatine Prairie, persistence, and special projects, and more. 

It had been over 20 years since I visited Palatine Prairie. It had started to be taken over by vetch to such an extent that I doubted its capability to survive to any decent capacity. Having first visited 5-7 years previous and seen it in all its glory, I no longer wanted to view its steady decline. Perhaps the landowners have taken action to control the damage and it is good as new--one can hope.

I probably should have expanded on my discussion on not worrying too much about many invasives. Reed canary has obviously been a concern from the get go. The entire drainage from Shoe Factory road to Lake Leaky was once almost a mono culture of reed canary grass. Only within the last 6 years have contractors been able to reduce its presence immensely. The area has now been seeded with more conservatives, and plugs of carexes have been put in for a few years, 100 Carex buxbaumii within the last few weeks. As with many of our other invasives - Canada thistle, parsnip, sweet clover, tall goldenrod etc. - I have found there is a tipping point where the natives will be victorious. This will be quite obvious in the recent clearing east of the Nature Preserve. We will need to get the multiple large populations down to minimal numbers but, with constant yearly burning, within 3-5 years it should start to look quite decent.

I am also a BIG proponent of transplants and, surprisingly enough, Indian grass. Indian grass is great fuel, and we have found inserting plugs of even the most conservative species works just fine in a burnt, predominantly Indian grass landscape. So far this season we have transplanted white prairie clover, alum root, dropseed, short green milkweed, Carex meadii among other conservatives in early-years-planted restoration areas. Before the plug planting these areas had only the most common natives scattered within the Indian grass matrix - ratibida, monarda, rattlesnake master - the usual suspects. With somewhat frequent burns, they should all do quite well.

We have a new bird monitor at the site, and I was walking the birding transect with him 2 weeks ago. We saw and heard Bobolinks and Henslow sparrow while we walked the western part of the main prairie.

Finally, new stewards and volunteers is now the MOST critical issue for all natural areas throughout the region. Crown vetch and trefoil surround even our most precious sites and threaten certain doom. There is little doubt in my mind that if all volunteers disappeared tomorrow, in 25 years much of Poplar Creek and the Nature Preserve would be in a vanishing state. Perhaps I am overly pessimistic; at least I hope so!

Nature does increasingly well in many cherished reserves because so many fine people feel happy about our “unrelenting efforts” – which, as Kirk wrote, get easier over time. Many of us find it deeply rewarding to pull together on this. 

Thanks to everyone who reviewed, commented on, and helped improve this post including Daniel Suarez, Ken Klick, Troy Showerman, and John Navin. Thanks to Kathy Garness for a ton of helpful edits.

Bonus Photo:
Wild hyacinths blooming in the restored oak woods south of the restored prairie.
Photo by Kirk Garanflo.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Braidwood Sands

It was a model field seminar. On May 26, 2018 a dozen scientists and conservation professionals hiked for hours to review the ecology and management of the Braidwood Sands Area with its 750 plant species in 945 acres of nature preserve within 2,068 protected acres. 
Floyd Catchpole and colleagues are restoring 945 acres of sand savanna and prairie nature preserve. 
The invitation to the event, sponsored by the Illinois Native Plant Society, called this tour “the First Annual.” We can hope so. The Society cautioned: “Ticks and chiggers likely” – although we encountered neither. To gently weed out laggards, we were warned that we “must be willing” to walk eight miles cross country “at a moderate pace,” but we were also promised “a semi-civilized lunch.” That lunch was BYO – but with the wonderful amenity that the sponsors would transport our lunches (and any “lawn or camp chairs” we brought) to the trail-side lunch spot, along with a “water igloo.”

Boldly, the invitation continued:

“The Forest Preserve properties have been receiving intensive management since 2010. They certainly needed it, and what you will see is a work in progress. Prior to 2010, the site was primarily managed by burning. This failed to control the already advanced woody invasion in wetlands and savannas.”  

Indeed, several rare plant and animal species have been lost from this important area since the Natural Areas Inventory documented them in 1977. The regal fritillary (a globally rare butterfly) is now gone. Some rare plants are gone from some areas, and these known losses are just indicators. Fragmentation and deteriorating habitat quality are certainly eating away at the gene pool of many species. There is urgency to reverse the trend. 

Trip leader was Will County Forest Preserve ecologist and Land Management Program Coordinator, Floyd Catchpole, who for his Master’s researched bison and fire interactions in Kansas. To make Braidwood plans, he and colleagues studied the geological history, Public Land Survey notes of the early 1800s, and soils. He initiated an intensive campaign to reduce the invasives, focusing on such threats as reed canary grass, common reed, black locust, and oaks (?!). 

He had figured out that, although the site was recognized as rich by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in 1977, it had badly degenerated in ways that weren’t at first obvious. The land had become mostly a mix of farm fields and fairly dense woods. Most of the trees were the same black oaks that the 1800’s surveyors found. But then, for the greater sands area in which these preserves lie today, 56% of the land had been prairie and 40% “timber.” The prairie, when this land was "preserved" had been mostly plowed and the timber had been transformed in a very different way, by fire suppression. 

The mean density on the timbered land was 1.7 trees per acre. In other words, most of that “timber” was what we would today call open savanna. Most of the animal and plant heritage of these 2,068 protected acres depends on prairie and savanna conditions, of which precious little was left.

Catchpole’s handouts included detailed research and analysis including the graph below.
Yellow =          Prairie                           (less 1 tree per 10 acres)
Orange =         Open Savanna             (0.1 to 4 trees per acre)
Green =           Closed Savanna           (4-20 trees per acre)
Purple =          Open Woodland          (20-40)
Blue     =          Forest                            (more than 40 trees per acre)

Thus, in an area that is now mostly farm fields and dense woodlots, 96% was savanna and prairie. 

Catchpole started killing oaks. Oaks are wonderful. But there were too many. Some were cut and burned like buckthorn, but that was too expensive to adequately reverse the increases, so he tried “girdling” or “frilling.”  

Most oaks were girdled. There were vastly too many for recovery of the biodiversity. 

The girdling was dramatically cheap and, Catchpole judged, successful.

A stand of girdled cottonwoods is shown below. The birds I noticed the most were eastern towhees and red-headed woodpeckers. Both are species of conservation concern, and both were clearly appreciating the restoration. 

Catchpole reported that these cottonwoods had been girdled six years earlier, and they’re just now starting to fall. How much of a hazard are they?

A prairie and wetland complex had largely been blotted out by silver maples. They’re shown, girdled and dead, below.
The acres of dead maples were impressive. Most "restoration by subtraction" is harder to show. A photo of the absence of reed canary grass doesn't add up to much. 
Trip participant Jeff Butler commented on the girdling from the perspective of one of the people whose job it was to follow up: 

“The group did not get to see any sites that were a mess. Girdled trees in a wetland let in lots of light. The increase in light often leads to invasion of reed canary grass and multiflora rose. Girdled trees, whether standing dead or fallen to the ground, represent hazards or at the least obstacles for anyone doing future management at that site.  A restoration crew needs to treat the area, and those trees will be obstacles for more than 10 years.”

Reed canary had already invaded the open areas of the woods, but expanded with the girdling. That's a standard problem. Ecosystems after major restoration are like patients after major surgery. Highly vulnerable to infection, they need intensive care for intended benefits to turn out as hoped.

Many agencies are now doing this work, notably the National Park Service in Indiana Dunes, state Nature Conservancies, and all the Forest Preserve Districts. At Miller Woods in the Dunes, where the Illinois Native Plant Society also had a field trip, the National Park Service chose to cut great numbers of invasive trees and just let them lay. Initially it was a great mess, but four years later, it was hard to tell they were there.

We discussed. Floyd wanted the feedback. We wanted to learn about his results and impressions. Most of the decisions that need to be made in this kind of work are not well informed by the limited research pool available[1]

Our group included a bee expert, a researcher of parasitic plants, and land managers with many score years of combined experience with comparable projects, and all offered questions and insights. One of the most compelling questions for me came from Lou Mule [2] who asked about the future of the movement or community that supports this work. The Will County Forest Preserve District is putting a lot of resources into something that has become understood only in the last few decades. Is the County doing enough to assure that the next generations understand what is needed? We discussed the impressive site and the equally impressive stewardship from many angles. No decisions were made. We grew, and new concepts gestated and percolated.  
Our diverse group thought together. It was good. 
More of this kind of sharing is needed. 

A Few Random Bonus Photos And Comments 

It was hot. We rested from time to time in beautiful places. Here, when dense oaks were removed and burned, cream false indigo and many other quality plants emerged. Brown thrashers and great crested flycatchers performed for us. 
Wild lupine and sand puccoon. We watched where we stepped, hating to trample. But when nature is this robust and we are so few, our feet can be buffalo hooves. We saw few indications that other people had been out there. Is that good? 
Sign of the times: Many of us spent a certain amount of time on our phones. But I don't think any of us were watching cat videos. We were taking notes and photos and looking up facts for the discussions. Progress, of a sort, perhaps? 

[1] The discussions at these events don't result in decisions because the questions are too complicated. People discuss hypotheses, experiences, and results anecdotally. Experts from various disciplines offer what they know that might help. It would be great if there were settled science we could turn to, but there isn't. This quandary will be looked at in more detail in an upcoming post about the excellent Poplar Creek field seminar organized by Daniel Suarez, Jenny Flexman, and John Navin.

Girdling was not the major issue it might seem in this account. It was just an easy one to show in photographs. Some of the major questions were: What kind of areas to prioritize for work at a huge complex like this. When to seed and when not. How to get the least damage and most effectiveness from herbicides.  

[2] Lou Mule's name should be spelled with one of those French accent marks over the "e" that encourage you to pronounce the name "mule LAY". (I don't know how to get that mark.)

Lou was referring to the great energy around ecosystem and biodiversity conservation that grew out of the Northern Illinois Prairie Workshops, Morton Arboretum, Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, Volunteer Stewardship Network, and Chicago Wilderness (to name key organizations) and Doug and Dot Wade, Jerry Paulson, Robert Betz, Ray Schulenberg, Floyd Swink, Ron Panzer, Jerry Wilhelm, Marcy DeMauro, Ed Collins, Judy Pollock and many others (to name some folks). During the 80s and early 90s, Chicago conservation was world-wide famous for all this energy. Lou was asking whether those energies would continue strong, or what?

Thanks to Jeff Butler for all the people photos.  
Thanks to Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima for proofing. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Mistake? (or Experiment?): mixing wild leeks

Will these aggressive wide-leaved leeks blot out the trilliums? Professor Jones suggested, "maybe."
Given the incipient-at-best state of true ecological restoration, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a mistake and an experiment.

Perhaps this example started as ignorance, then seemed a mistake, and now is an experiment[1]?

Amateur botanist Justin Burdick might have saved us Somme stewards a lot of trouble when, in 1877, he sent a letter to Asa Gray at the Harvard College herbarium, explaining that the Midwest had two different wild leeks. But Gray’s Botany didn’t accept his suggestion. 

Somewhat paraphrasing Doug Ladd: rare natural ecosystems can’t be successfully managed by people who see the vegetation as “a green blur.”[2] You need to know the species. We mostly didn’t start out as botanists, but many of us have tried to learn plants sufficiently to be good stewards.

I’ve recently been struck by one mistake I had long made. We thought our one species of leek had two subspecies. I’d treated those two as “a green blur.” Varieties? Oh please! How much difference did it make? For Somme and the North Branch generally, we gathered seeds, dumped them into mixes, and broadcast them across the recovering (we hoped) ecosystem. 

We’ll consider what long-term difference that might make. But first, let’s review the history of whether there are two distinct types of leeks, possibly with different roles to play in the ecosystem. Our bible, Swink and Wilhelm[3], long told us that we had just one species of wild leek. Yes, there were two “varieties” or “races,” but my brain was already burdened by too many species – and resisted dealing with races. 

Embarrassingly, looking back, it turns out to be easy to tell those two apart. 
The narrow-leaved leek is the all bluish-green clump on the left.
The wide-leaved leek is the taller clump on the right with the distinctive reddish stems. 
The “narrow leek” (now called Allium burdickii) has overall narrower leaves that are green or whitish all the way to the base. 

The “wide leek” (now called Allium tricoccum), has longer, wider leaves with narrow red stems. 

These two species have many other distinct differences. For example, narrow leek blooms in early June. Wide leek blooms in July through mid-August[4]

Many people have never seen leek flowers. Although leeks are one of the most prominent plants in the spring flora of rich woodlands, they never seem to have flowers. Their foliage lushes up the background of our May flower shows – but then fades away and is gone. Unexpectedly then, in June, when the first leek flowers come up, they’re all by themselves. Just a flower head on a naked stalk. 

My second thoughts about leeks began with the big new Somme Woods East restoration effort in 2014. I began to notice that the leeks in the lowlands, farthest east, seeded to have those wide leaves and red stems. The leeks in the uplands (that is, up on the moraine) were those narrow-leaved bluish ones. Should we stewards, if they were naturally separated, mix these two up when we seeded?[5]

To test my concern, I checked Somme Prairie Grove (one of the planet’s first attempts at true restoration of a black-soil oak savanna) and found that the wide leek seemed to occur only where we had planted it in our seed mixes. The narrow leek was the only one in the least-degraded, most-remnant (and unplanted) areas. Oh oh! Maybe we only wanted the narrow here.

So, somewhat uneasily in 2016, for the first time we started separating the two leek “varieties” and broadcasting their seeds only in the kinds of areas where we’d found them. In Somme Woods, we restricted the narrow-leaved seeds to the high ground to the west and the wide-leaved seeds to the low ground to the east. Our new decision to treat these “varieties” differently was supported by the arrival in 2017 of the new Flora of the Chicago Region[6] – which treated the two as separate species, Allium tricoccum and Allium burdickii.

Now I looked ruefully at the mixed leeks in the beautiful Vestal Grove where so much good restoration had so long been done. Had we made a big mistake? Or did we launch an unintentional experiment? Would the wrong leek be a negative for the ecosystem, or would the competition of better adapted species drive it out? Or what?

But more angst bubbled as I now researched these varieties/species. A 1979 article by Professor Almut Jones was especially troubling [7]. She described the narrow leek as a “play well with others” kind of species – the sort we most want to restore in the early stages of a restoration. Of the wide leek, she wrote, “Populations of Allium tricoccum usually form extensive colonies. Frequently the bulbs are so densely spaced that other vegetation can hardly penetrate the stands.” By contrast, she writes, “the plants of Allium burdickii occur in scattered small clumps of from three to about a dozen individuals. The stands are integrated with and surrounded by the dense herbaceous forest vegetation prevalent at the height of spring.”

I now remembered that the place where I’d first been struck by and learned tricoccum was just such a monoculture. It was on the new Somme East trail. This stand-out patch attracted all the photographers every spring, because the leeks were so lush, so early in spring. No one payed so close attention that they knew whether little else would grow there as the season progressed. Did we have to worry about this thuggery happening at Vestal Grove and the other under-restoration areas at Somme?
Wide-leaved leek - so dense that little else survives. Had we planted a pest?
Narrow-leaved leek “plays well with others.” Here its bluish leaves are scattered in a rich community with white trillium and geranium (starting to flower) and leaves of hepatica, early meadow rue, trout lily, wood anemone, elm-leaved goldenrod, Short's aster, and many sedges.  
Is the narrow-leaved leek more typical of diversity and quality? Are they an evolutionary adventure where one species divided into two for some reason. What can we learn from their differences?

In 1953, Hanes[8] compared the habitats of the two types this way: “The species (tricoccum) is found generally in marshy habitats whereas the variety (burdickii) prefers upland woods.” Hmmm. In this region, we don’t find leeks in marshy habitats.  

The Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm and Rericha (W&R) was published in 2017. W&R characterized both leeks as species of mesic habitats[9], and as to their quality, the W&R judgement seems quite the opposite of what concerned us in the Jones paper. W&R gave narrow leek a fairly high-quality coefficient of 7 – but the wide leek rated an impressive 9. As we study plants, assessments change. The 1994 Swink & Wilhelm (S&W) had rated narrow a 6 and wide a 7 – so W&R is upgrading them both.)   

The often-elusive goal of true restoration is a community with diverse conservative species – including many species with “Coefficients of Conservatism” in the 6 to 10 range. Do either of these leek species help or hinder the recovery of such ecosystem health? Our concern about the “thug potential” of the wide leek is not allayed by W&R’s 9 rating. We’re trying to learn to restore highly degraded oak woodlands at a time when few or no very high quality ones still exist. Do W&R’s rating of 9 for the wide-leaved reflect its ecology in Michigan and Indiana, where it grows in non-fire-dependent and otherwise very different beech-maple forests? Did Jones find the wide-leaved to be a "thug" because it crowded out all else in degenerating oak woodlands in the absence of burns? The great John Curtis[10] had pointed out as early as 1959 that, under fire suppression, not only maples but also such oak-woods conservatives as trillium, bellwort, and blue cohosh could wipe out the original diversity of oak woodlands. 

The 1994 S&W had seen wide leek as common “especially in our eastern sector (Indiana and Michigan). They listed associates like sugar maple, beech, Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn – but no oaks. They characterized narrow leek as “even more common” – with associates including white oak.

The 2017 W&R finds both species sometimes associated with bur and white oak – and with each other. Is it possible that the wide is increasing and replacing the narrow (and other spring flora) during the current degrading of most sites because of decreasing light – as the much-shadier maples replace the less-dense-canopied oaks?

The scientific sampling at many sites that has been going on for decades could help answer such questions (if the sampling distinguished between the two varieties or species). It will be interesting to re-look at previous sampling and study future results under various conditions. Anyone have sampling results that would help clarify any of this?

As for the Somme area, when I double-checked as I wrote this paper, I found yet more surprises. The nearby Chipilly Woods (which until recently had many much higher quality areas) seems to have only the narrow. But in another high quality woods, McDonnald Woods, two moraines to the east of us, Jim Steffen reports large amounts of both, especially the wide leek[11].

Another surprise: The best quality remnant in Somme Woods is between a horse trail and Dundee Road, where decades of cutting brush (for no ecological reason – just to keep the horse trail open and prevent trees from growing out over the road) maintained a bit more light. Here such quality species as hepatica, shining bedstraw, two trilliums, Penn sedge, elm-leaved and zigzag goldenrods, and many others thrive densely together. But this area, in the lowland to the east of the moraine, is where I’d come to expect the wide leek. When I checked for this report, it has the narrow leek only. Indeed, when I kept my eyes open for it, I found no wide leeks anywhere except for two patches of less than an acre each – in the hundreds of acres of potential Somme habitat. The two patches were both fairly close to the decayed foundations of a long-abandoned pioneers’ house. Is it possible that the settlers brought along and planted the wide leeks from farther east? They taste better and are easier to harvest.

I hadn’t considered the narrow leek to be an especially conservative plant, but when I checked, I now found that it hugged the edges of that horse trail closely, with many other conservative species. Back even a few feet from the trail edge, under ancient bur and white oaks, but now in the gloom of invading young maples, the flora survivors consisted almost entirely of carpets of trout lily, spring beauty, and false mermaid. As I searched back and forth to test my hypothesis that the leek now closely hugged the trail, I was surprised to discover yet another, nearly disappeared house foundation. And here were numerous leeks – of both kinds. Another puzzle. 

I’m now less worried about the wide leek in Vestal Grove. I found a few plants of it apparently growing spontaneously in an area I was sure we hadn't planted. Perhaps we didn’t introduce it; perhaps it was there all along. I am, however, no less interested in watching how it interacts with the other species over time. In Somme Woods, should we continue to limit planting the seeds of the two leek species to areas where they already occur? If an area is too degraded to have any surviving leeks or much else, should we plant only the works-well-with-others narrow leek? Or should be plant both and watch them fight it out? Or try to replicate the distribution we found when we started? Or forget about special treatment for the watched leeks and focus our limited decision-making capacities on other questions? This is how good restoration works. We know that we have to make the best decisions we can without knowing all the facts we wished we had. We'll reflect, seek input, discuss, alter plans if needed, and carry on. 

One wrinkle we’ll probably never fully understand is the complex of impacts by previous forest preserve land managers, foragers (and planters?) of medicinal and edible plants, farmers that managed the land before the preserves bought it, and native peoples who managed it before them. We’d like to know more. But we don’t need to wait before we proceed with the best stewardship we can.

The real fundamental challenge is to save nature – to preserve the ongoing life of the communities and species that are making their “last stands” here. Millions of years of evolution have continuity here. If the losses of diversity can be reversed for the full suite of plant species, that’s enough to give us some confidence – as we continue to restore as best we can sustainable natural conditions for the plants, invertebrates, fungi, bacteria, algae, and so much of the ecosystem that the planet may turn out to need. So much resource and potential. So much beauty and mystery. 

Special bonus: Author’s Messages

Message to people thinking about maybe becoming stewards
You are very much needed. You can do a lot of good without being an expert. You can learn as much as you want, as you go. You can also quickly become expert in a few specialties and add to the science that conservation depends on. (The ongoing recovery at Somme is a great opportunity for many people to learn and contribute – and we could use so many more hands and minds.)

Message to advocates
Please help us get the message out. A hideous extinction event is under way, right here, now. The ongoing losses at so many sites are so sad, despite many good (and some not so good) increasing efforts recently. 

Message to all stewards
Your mission is noble (without the despotic sense). Your mission is holy (in the best senses). Your mission preserves and restores beauty, health, and the future possibilities for the human and biotic communities of the Earth. Creation thanks you.

Message to dedicated, committed staff
Your mission is noble and holy. Thank you for your work and what you have to put up with, as you preserve and restore beauty, health, and the future possibilities for the human and biotic communities of the Earth. Creation thanks you.

Message to just good, honest staff
Even if you don’t quite get the conservation passion, and perhaps your next job will be in sales, or hospitality, or as a poet … your good work is appreciated. 


[1]Restoration takes many forms, and is not easy to understand. Restoring health to a somewhat degraded remnant is very different than starting with a corn field. Similarly, original high-quality natural areas are so much richer than "from-scratch" restorations. There’s almost no comparison. Or, if one was to compare, to quote Jerry Sullivan from memory, as best I can, “If the natural area was Einstein, the restoration would be some sort of Frankenstein monster, staggering down the street with wires hanging out of its neck.” Since Jerry published that line (apropos of Mayor Daley’s claim that he could with impunity tear down and re-build a natural forest to make way for a new airport, saying, “This is Chicago; we can do anything.”), some restorations have advanced toward the somewhat better. But there’s still “no comparison” in most cases. 

And, sadly, there's no such thing as a remnant high-quality prairie or oak woodland that's large enough for animal populations and most ecological processes. So we start most of our best conservation initiatives by including both remnant and to-be-restored components. 

Should the challenging state of our ignorance of the whole ecosystem make stewards pessimistic about their restoration efforts? I'll argue, no. True ecosystem restoration is very hard, but to strive for it is to strive for the same kind of “miracle” that resulted in antibiotics, the wheel, and the computer. Ecosystem conservation and restoration can be planet-changing. Success or failure will ultimately make the difference in whether humanity is to live (or die) on a planet of weeds and cockroaches – or whether we can, given our other mistakes and over-indulgences, learn to save most species in ways that retain potential and health of the Earth. 

[2]Doug Ladd has long been admired as one of the most respected of the Nature Conservancy natural area managers. He retired in 2017. He was Missouri Director of Science and Stewardship (a title I once proudly bore for Illinois). I encourage conservationists to read his parting wisdom, published:

Note that Ladd writes mostly about very high-quality natural areas. But on rich soils there are no very high quality savannas or woodlands (except possibly on Walpole Island, or some military bases?). (There are "high-quality plant communities" – but a community that is too small for most animals is not a high quality natural ecosystem.) So we restore as best we can. Assumption: if we save all the plants, the animal species will be saved as well, at least if the site is large enough. 

Superficially, Ladd is doing the opposite of restoration. Indeed, a major point of his article cited above is that ecosystems are not resilient and do not recover once they are severely compromised. He reminds us powerfully of need for the very best management for the very best areas.

[3]Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region(1994) told us that these two “varieties” were both common, with the classic wide-leaved leek being a little more conservative (C = 7), being found with such classy associates as yellow trout lily (C = 8) and large flowered trillium (C = 8). The other narrow-leaved “variety” was a tad less conservative (C = 6) with none of those classy associates, being found with merely with white trout lily (C = 5) and the red trillium (C = 5), although it did score with sharp-lobed hepatica (C = 6).   

[4]This note discusses common names and then expands on bloom dates and other differences between these species. 

Common names for plants are not “official.” You can make up your own. The scientific name is subject to many rules and is codified in books and scientific articles. As Allium burdickii was not recognized by most people as a species, it did not have a common name in wildflower books. Now that many botanists are recognizing it as a species, some apply common names. The excellent Illinois Wildflowers calls it “narrow-leaved wild leek.” The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s website calls it “narrowleaf wild leek.” Swink and Wilhelm gave it no common name. Wilhelm and Rericha call it “Chicago leek.” This last name is a great one, locally, as this leek appears to be the plant that the Chicago region was named after. But for a plant that can be found from Maine to the Dakotas and south to the Carolinas, the Chicago name is probably not going to win out. Some botanists continue to call Allium tricoccum“wild leek” – but then we don’t know whether they’re referring to the traditional “both species or races together” or to the new “split out” wide-leaved one only. So, that’s confusing. Also, common names have a way of simplifying, for convenience, so for now I’m going to go with “narrow” and “wide.” 

Compared to wide leek, the leaves of narrow leek emerge later, but the flowers emerge earlier and for a shorter period of time. In the Chicago region the narrow leek blooms from June 8th to July 2nd (25 days). The wide leek blooms from June 19th to August 16th (59 days) according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Flower stems are comparatively short and stand straight up for the narrow leek   and twice as tall and angled to the side for the wide leek. 

According to Illinois Wildflowers, narrow-leaved leek has 10 - 20 flowers per head while wide-leaved has 20 - 40. According to Wilhelm and Rericha, narrow has “rarely more than 18” and wide has “30 or more.” 

[5]If you haven’t followed the Somme East initiative, you might be interested to know that it is one of the planet’s first attempts to truly restore a rich oak woodland. As may be generally true of the highly fire-dependent oak woodlands on rich soils, there are few or no “very high quality” remnants. There was no very-high ("Grade A") quality remnant part of Somme Woods. There were some smaller areas that could be high quality ("Grade B") as to the herb community, though small. Our challenge has been to drastically reduce shade and broadcast seed (locally gathered) of the hundreds of plant species (grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs) that have been lost (to grazing, shade, drainage, fragmentation, and whatever). It is our hope or “hypothesis” that sufficient original fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates are holding on such that much of the woods ecosystem may recover as a restored whole. 

[6]In Wilhelm and Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region, the two leeks are treated as separate species. Associate lists are somewhat different from those in Swink and Wilhelm.

[7]Jones, Almut G. (1979). A Study of Wild Leek, and the Recognition of Allium burdickii (Liliaceae). Systematic Botany. Vol. 4. No. 1, Potawatomi 29-43. More complete quotes from Jones:

“Populations of Allium tricoccum usually form extensive colonies. Frequently the bulbs are so densely spaced that other vegetation can hardly penetrate the stands. This becomes apparent about the middle of May when the leaves have died. The maroon-colored scapes and inflorescence buds do not contrast with the color of the forest floor, and the colonies give the appearance of denuded patches of ground …” 

“By contrast, the plants of Allium burdickii occur in scattered small clumps of from three to about a dozen individuals. The stands are integrated with and surrounded by dense herbaceous forest vegetation …”

“… vegetative reproduction is the more common mode of population growth and survival in Allium tricoccum… In A. burdickii, the situation is probably reversed. Seed production is at least as important as vegetative reproduction…”

Two photos above illustrate Jones' point: the narrow-leaved leek seems not to have the dominating tendencies sometimes seen with the wide-leaved. But only parts of that Somme East patch are thuggishly "monocultural." Other parts look like the photo below:
Here wide-leaved leek grows with white (large flowered) trillium, cut-leaved toothwort, and spring beauty. 
One feature of this much-talked-about patch is that it has an unusually dense population of trilliums. White trilliums tend to get badly eaten down by deer and in nearby areas are more scattered and smaller. Do the leeks somehow protect the trilliums? 

[8]The earliest academic papers I found that distinguished between the two leeks (giving credit to Justin Burdick for his initial 1877 notice) were published in 1946 (Hanes and Ownbey) and 1953 (Hanes). In 1946 the two forms were tentatively called merely Race A and Race B. By 1953 Hanes was bravely calling narrow leak a named variety (Allium tricoccum var. Burdickii). It wasn’t until her 1979 article that Jones took the final plunge and proposed the narrow-leaved leek as a separate species.

A species can divide into two for many complexes of reasons. Usually subpopulations need to be separated geographically for such "speciation" to proceed. But both species of leeks occur over most of the range of the species. In this case, it appears that a key component in the history was the genetic isolation of two populations by flowering dates. Perhaps the wide-leaved individuals adapted more to shade from trees in denser maple and beech forests. Perhaps the narrow-leaved adapted to lower light levels from dense herb-layer vegetation (in the thinner canopies of fire-dependent oak forests and savannas). Perhaps totally other limitations and opportunities ruled. This species would be fun to study in depth.

[9]If you have patience for yet more detail on the wetness issue, the Somme “signature patch” of wide leeks is indeed in a wetter area than where we typically find the narrow ones. But the other species present are species of mesic habitats (e.g. toothwort and white trillium), certainly not “marshy.” W&R support Chase to the degree that, although they characterize wide leek as a "mesic" species, they place narrow leek in "dry-mesic to mesic." To make it more complicated, parts of Somme Woods east of the moraine are definitely well-drained enough to be called mesic, and the other patch of wide leek occupies one of these drier, clearly mesic areas. Thus, we may have been falsely seeing the difference between the two as “up on the drier moraine” (narrow leek) and “down on the moister relative flats” (wide leek). The W&R characterization is in keeping with the comment by Chase that “If both grow in the same locality the variety occupies the higher ground.” The “variety” – of course – is burdickii.

[10]Curtis, John. The Vegetation of Wisconsin. 1959. On page 148, Curtis described the death of an oak forest: "Due to complete fire protection ... the mesic trees began to spread out, basswood going first ... followed by an almost solid wall of young sugar maples. ... groundlayer ... oak plants gradually died out. ... unusual combinations of dominance because of the lack of competition. Thus the heart of the maple island had high densities of blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), and Gleason's trillium (Trillium gleasoni), which rarely attain such proportions in a typical mesic forest." Are those monocultures of wide leek a temporary component of some such successional process (perhaps in most current cases "artificial succession" rather than "natural succession")? 

[11]Jim Steffen, long time manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s fine MacDonald Woods, reports that: “We have always had both tricoccum and A. t. burdickii.  Generally it seems like the tricoccum occurs in large dense patches while the burdickii is more scattered with fewer individuals.  I would say the tricoccum is much more abundant here than burdickii.  I would also say that burdickii seems to be somewhat drier growing than tricoccum.  Burdickii flowers about two weeks earlier than tricoccum.  I think they both occur in similar wooded habitats although burdickii might have a preference for more open canopy, but that could be my imagination.  Our largest patch of tricoccum (perhaps 3 acres or more) is in a mesic site dominated by white and red oak along with Isopyrum, Caulophyllum, and Menispermum.” Those last three species are false rue anemone, blue cohosh, (which we do not find at Somme) and moonseed. 

Last photo and end:
Wild leek flower cluster, with daddy longlegs. Having 23 flowers (and long, angled, red-based stem - not visible in this photo) it seems to be the wide-leaved leek. This photo by Lisa Culp Musgrave.