|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.