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:
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.
HOW THIS CURIOUS ADVENTURE GOT STARTED
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.
WHY IT HAD FAILED TO THRIVE
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.
|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.