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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Odd Story about Sanguisorba Canadensis

A bizarre and perhaps unsettling adventure with a rare plant.

It started with a questionable decision around 1980. I'd been ambivalent about it ever since. Also: curious.

Then on October 17, 2014 came an email "Forward" through co-steward Lisa Culp. Lisa's comment: "I have no clue." That was her reply to the innocent note and photo, below, from Tina Onderdonk:

Hi Lisa!
I saw this at Somme today, and wondered what it is.  It was pretty cloudy today, but the fall color was stunning!
Hope you're well!  
See you next time,

I looked at it and said, "OMG, the day of reckoning is at hand." I also said, could this be true? I also said, this is a species I've never seen in flower, but I'm pretty sure what it is, and why.

The nervous excitement was perhaps of a kind only I could have - about an obscure species in Somme Prairie Grove, an 83-acre habitat for which I've been the steward since about 1980. I have detailed records. But I'll say "around" and "about" too often in this blog. I do careful research for many reports, but this post is just a first draft. It seemed worth sharing.

When I got the note on the 17th, I was busy and did not respond to Lisa or Tina that day.

On October 18th I got another note with the same photo (which had apparently been making the botany rounds). It read:

Now I have a botany question for you. This is from Somme and I was asked what it is. Any ideas?

Christopher David Benda, M.S.
Visiting Plant Ecologist - Illinois Natural History Survey
Instructor - Flora of Southern Illinois - Southern Illinois University
President - Illinois Native Plant Society, Southern Chapter
Carbondale, IL 62901

The botanical cat was out of the bag.


In the late '70s I worked for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and was thrilled to be part of a conservation revolution. Always an amateur lover of nature and in recent years an eager prairie restoration volunteer, I had no college botany training but was hired for my communications and political stills. The revolution needed that.

At the same time, some of the natural areas folks were dubious about my restoration background. The discipline of ecological restoration was developing side by side - not altogether comfortably - with the discipline of Natural Area conservation. (Back then, I was honored by an invitation to write a "Perspective" for the Natural Areas Journal, proposing collaboration between "natural areas conservation" and "restoration." Perhaps it was ahead of its time; I got little feedback on it; perhaps it just needed to simmer a while in people's minds; pretty much all the iffy proposals I made then are common sense today.)

In the early 80s, people from "the restoration community" occasionally gave me rare plants, thinking I'd want to plant them at Somme. Instead, we of the North Branch Prairie Project had a rule (officially approved by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, that owned Somme) that we'd get our seeds from spontaneous natural populations within 15 miles.

In all other cases, I gave people's rare plants back to them, but in the case of our mystery plant, which I'll now reveal as American burnett (Sanguisorba canadensis), it was so rare that I couldn't bring myself to refuse help. Originally found in scattered prairies from central Illinois, north and east, people seemed to know about only two surviving populations in Illinois, both on railroad edges, and both threatened. (Today, both may be gone.) The seeds for "my" plant came from about 40 miles away. The species seemed to like limey seepage water, and after agonizing over the ethics of it, I planted my little plant (with New Jersey tea and some other species we were trying to restore) in an apparently somewhat limey, seepy place in the grazed out former pasture at Somme.

That could have been the end of the story. As I monitored, our numerous restoration plantings, I'd sometimes check for Sanguisorba, and it seemed to be failing. Many "restored" plants just die. The spots where they were planted weren't right for them. For many years I didn't see Sanguisorba at all. In a way I was relieved.


But from time to time I did see a few of its distinctive leaves, there among the New Jersey tea and valerian. Last spring when I noticed it again, pathetically persisting decades after decade, I wondered if perhaps its problem was that the deer were eating it down, depleting the roots. Many rare orchids and gentians survive at Somme only because Lisa Culp and I put exclusion cages over them. The deer numbers have been down lately, and a number of species that we thought had been lost were showing up. When we cage such species, they suddenly flourish.

I caged our little American burnett. By the end of last summer, it was bushy, the size of a large cabbage, at least ten times bigger than I'd ever seen it before. I caged it again this spring and forgot about it. (Well not quite forgot. I wondered if this phoenix might be of some importance. Might this plant be the last one in the state - preserving some otherwise lost bit of genetic inheritance? I googled around and seemed to find that the Will County Forest Preserve District had some plants in a program to restore it, so perhaps it wasn't all that unique.)

Then came the emails from Tina, Lisa, and Chris. This morning was my first chance to chase over to Somme and see if those photos happened to be taken by that New Jersey tea patch. Sure enough. When I got there, not only did the 34-year-old Sanguisorba turn out to be the mystery plant, but it was now taller than I was. Amazing. Thirty four years later.

In may not have been obvious to the photographer, but you can see the green wire cage
that protected Sanguisorba from the deer in spring, when its tender leaves were especially vulnerable.
Other plants nearby include silky dogwood, New Jersey tea, and Culver's root.

Should Sanguisorba stay in this oak savanna where a curious history has lodged it?
I wonder what the various contributors to the decision-making process will decide.  
What's the best way to make this kind of decision - especially in the absence of remotely enough resources to do either the plant or the decision justice?


  1. What a beautiful story! Shows how our understanding of restoration ecology has developed. I feel the plant is now an important part of the history of the site, so I recommend it stay, even though it originally didn't fit the 'radius rule'.

    1. The "radius rule" is a bit more complicated that it seemed worth explaining in the post. Originally 15 miles for prairie species - then 25 miles for savanna species, because they were generally harder to find. But we also made exceptions for species that were once found nearby but now were gone. In those cases, we went to the closest spontaneous sources. Examples included white prairie clover, robin's plantain, and fringed gentian. But in all those cases, we found ample records that they once occurred (and often were plentiful) along the North Branch. We found no such records for Sanguisorba. Might it still be welcome as an experiment? Or is it better to stick to the larger experiment - to restore the full, documented, natural diversity of the site - and then let nature proceed? I just don't know. I'm interested in many perspectives on it.

  2. That is a nice plant. I have only come across it once in the lower 48 when I visited the Hudson gorge in New York. The Hudson river starts at the highest mountain in New York. In the Hudson Gorge the river looks much different than the estuary it becomes by New York City. The Hudson River at the Hudson Gorge has a gravel bottom with many gravel bars that are kept open by ice scouring in spring. The reason for my visit was to see Platanthera psycodes which integrates with Platanthera lacera in this vast wilderness area. The Sanguisorba and unusual Salix I found were merely a bonus. The gorge also had the New York State endangered Triantha glutinosa which I did not observe because my visit was too late in the season. I have since seen this tiny and beautiful lily relative in other locations, even locally.

    I think the highest purpose of this plant follows. The introduced Sanguisorba canadensis should be returned to the place from which it had originated. This might be best done by breeding it with other individuals in the restoration program and returning the resulting seed to areas where it is being restored.

    As for the Forest Preserves, I have a lot of experience with them not liking things I have done. Up until this point they have always just told me to not do it again.

  3. I understand the 15 mile rule and subsequent exceptions, somewhat. Sometimes I think, "do birds know, did bison and wolves know, that they should not distribute seed beyond 15 miles where they picked it up in their fur or hooves or feathers?" It seems that seed got passed along great long routes back in the day, and that wherever it landed is where it tried to survive. Either it did or didn't. I would say let it be, and see how it stands the test of time. Seems to me that it likes it at Somme or it wouldn't have endured. What's the difference if you put it there, a little bird?

  4. Keep it. Nice work.

    1. I've gotten a lot of comments via email, Facebook, and carrier pigeon, mostly saying in various words, "I vote to keep it."

      I wrote to one: "Votes count less than reasons. Of course I appreciate your vote. But keep it how? Just by itself, all alone, as a freak? I wonder if it is or is not self-compatible, sex-wise. Perhaps we'll soon know from experience. It would be yet another weird experiment, I suppose, to see if a genetically-identical population would build up. Weird, but nonetheless ugly in this context, don't you think?"

  5. It is going to be lonely without friends. If you keep it, then you will need more than one. When establishing plants I always aim for a minimum population of 50. This might be the best argument for returning it from where it originated. It is much simpler that way.

  6. I won't vote, but I will make a suggestion. The first experiment was whether the plant would survive at Somme, and it did. If you keep it, why not try a second experiment: will it reproduce at Somme. Midewin is currently propagating American burnet for its restorations (I don't know if it was found onsite, but the wet prairie habitat is there). The Somme plant, having survived for 34 years, might well have something to add to the genetic mix that would contribute to the species' survival in Illinois. Why not contact Bill Glass at Midewin and see if they would share some seed.

    BTW, another previously undocumented Illinois site was recently discovered in Fayette County:

    Charles Deam, in The Flora of Indiana, thought that his state was the limit of Sanguisorba's range, so its existence in Illinois is even more surprising. Apparently only three sites remain in Indiana.

  7. With changing climate, less habitat, I think any place a rare species can survive, and possibly thrive is reason to let it be. Even in small preserves I've seen populations of plants move around. Maybe Somme will become the better place for this species.

  8. My Opinion, manage deer overpopulations.