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Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Last Prairie Plant Standing

Travis Kaleo and Stephen Packard - awed by the discovery of thousands of shooting stars in a "young woods."

When a prairie dies from shade, the ordeal is horrible, slow, ponderous. The first to die are the species that need the most sun and fire. Invading little buckthorns and ashes get bigger and bigger. As the ground level darkness increases, the final white-fringed orchid photosynthesizes its last. The prairie clovers survive only as seeds, and their seeds don’t survive all that long. Memories of dropseed grass persist only as mounds of now-bare dirt that their hummocks created.

Toward the end, often, the only plants still doing well are the “ephemerals” like shooting star, the ones that finish most of their annual cycle before tree leaves unfurl.

Typical restored prairies have few shooting stars. Their seeds don’t take well in early-stage restorations. Even later, when they’d do great, it takes about ten years from seed to flowering plant. Also - those seeds are relatively hard to come by, so they often just aren’t added. Take a look at restorations, and you won’t see many.

So when we found thousands of shooting stars surviving in about an acre of Somme Woods East, we rejoiced. We also saw a great opportunity.

The discovered area has three parts – apparent former wet prairie, mesic prairie, and mesic savanna. The savanna has a few open grown oaks. All the trees in the prairie are skinny invader types.

Smaller numbers of other prairie and savanna species survive here too. Golden alexanders, Michigan lily, and a few more. Purple-sheathed graceful sedge, for example, is gone from the savanna (where it probably started out) but survives in the prairie. (We’ll help move its seeds back to the savanna, which will probably be its long-term home.)

Tom Vanderpoel, who has seen sites like this lost from mis-management, offers a caution. If we were to cut the brush before the leaves fell in the autumn (or burn after the leaves fell), then the roots of the shooting stars, which lie near the surface, might “frost heave” out during the winter. That would kill them – after surviving all this time. (That would more likely be a problem on a south-facing slope, but the caution is a good reminder that "ecosystem medicine" is not simple or obvious.) So we’ll be working on a plan. Any other cautions or suggestions?

Photo credit: Rob Sulski.


  1. I grow many plants outdoors in shallow seed starting trays (<2 inches) in a gravel type media which makes plants particularly vulnerable to frost heaving. After snow melt or a frost I am always going around and pushing the growing media surrounding heaved up plants down into the seed tray and pushing adjacent media into the hole to cover exposed roots. Frost heaved plants usually recover fine as long as they have not been left out in the drying late winter/early spring sun for too long.

    The above being said, I do not think the problem Tom has observed is actually due to frost heaving. I grow a number of shallow rooted plants, like Cypripediums, in soil with no other species. I do this because plants tend to grow better without competition. Even without plants with fibrous roots providing added soil strength my established shallow-rooted plants do not have any problem with frost heaving.

    I did have a problem similar to the one Tom mentions this April when the big tornado destroyed much of Rochelle and Fairdale. That storm was so violet that it eroded away the top soil deep enough to exposed the crown and much of the roots of my Cypripedium reginae plants. I noticed this the next day and covered them again with soil. They are now growing well.

    In contrast, areas of the garden where I had put down mulch did not have a problem with erosion. I mulch with shredded deciduous tree leaves from my yard. In the past I used wood chips and these are still under the shredded leaf mulch. My problem with wood chips is they tend to float away during very hard rain events. Mulch that interlocks (like shredded leaves or fibrous woodchips) is needed to prevent a lot of the mulch from being washed away. The only problem with shredded leaves is they decomposed rather quickly and need to be reapplied yearly. Since you are restoring this area to prairie I would suggest mulching with prairie hay to slow down those damaging rain drops.