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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Prairie Yells For Help

Weston Cemetery Prairie near Chenoa was a focus of the recent North American Prairie Conference at Illinois State University. It’s famous as one of the finest remnants in Illinois. But some visitors noticed a scary problem.

If you already know the deal on cemetery prairies, you can skip this paragraph. If you don’t, you may be amazed to learn that some of the finest surviving true prairies are in old settler cemeteries that were laid out, fenced, and mostly left alone since the mid 1800s. Often this acre or half-an-acre is the only sanctuary in an entire county where the natural vegetation (and many small animals) survives.

Less than one one-hundreth of 1% of the tallgrass prairie survives.
In Illinois, many of the best remnants are in old cemeteries. 
For 44 years, the five acres of Weston Cemetery Prairie have been managed as an Illinois Nature Preserve by staff and local volunteers. Half is burned annually, and invasive species have been largely banished from the center.
Though tiny, cemetery prairie remnants have a richness that can't be found in millions of surrounding acres. 
The Challenge
But prairie lovers who stopped by to see it in July (during the nearby conference) were shocked to find that after 44-years this precious preserve had a massive infestation of white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) along its north edge. The invasive is a serious threat. None of the people responsible for the preserve had had time to check on invasives this year. Tom Lerczak (Illinois Nature Preserves Commission) and Eric Smith (Illinois DNR) were disappointed to hear of it but explained that they’re both spread so thin they couldn’t be much physical help. On the other hand, Tom was eager for volunteer help and referred potential workers to Jason Shoemaker of the ParkLands Foundation for coordination.  
An evil army of Melilotus (white spiky flowers massed on left) advances into the prairie. 
Don Gardner is one of the most respected prairie managers in central Illinois. He wrote:
Weston Cemetery as well as Prospect and Loda and the railroad near Kempton
have provided guides for me as to what dark soil tall grass prairie here in
east-central Illinois should look like. My goal has been to try to recapture
some semblance of that. Although I started [his own project] in 1974 I did not
attack Melilotus aggressively until 1998 ... Any plants that are bearing seed are pulled and removed from the field. Thus for many years little if any new seed has been added to the soil. However, every year more plants appear indicating the large seed bank that has developed in the soil. In recent years there have been fewer, and this year there were the least to date ... controlling Melilotus is necessarily a long-term continuing effort. This will likely be true for Weston as well.
Help! Help! Sweet clover blots out all else! It can badly degrade a prairie if not controlled. 
People Who Rise To The Occasion
On Aug 8 and 9, ten volunteers including Dr. Gardner and Jason Shoemaker of ParkLands battled the sweet clover:

Don and Espie Nelson (stewards of the Vermont Cemetery Prairie west of Joliet) reported on the 8th:
A good dent was made in the clover patch.  A total of 7 people worked.  Three DNR people came, looked, talked, and took pictures.

We attacked from two directions.  Upon arrival, the one group thought the west entry might be easier because of the tall vegetation in the cemetery.  They entered from the west side along the tracks.  The dead bodies [of the hated clover] were packed in plastic bags ...  our group cleaned north from the parking lot to the RR tracks.  Then we cleared along the north edge of the cemetery.  The clover was quite dense along this side and 7 - 9 feet tall.  Surprisingly, there was no clover in the interior.  Also, there were not many first year plants.  We stashed our trash in tarps and left a pile at the edge of the parking lot... Both [groups] worked until noon ...

A group will be coming tomorrow and they will take care of the clover bags and the clover pile. Plenty of bug spray is needed, as well as drinking water.  There was no breeze.
Among the valiant heroes on the 9th, Ed Wilhite and Teresa DeWill admire the grim corpses
 in one of many tarps of sweet clover.  Photo by Diane Wilhite.
Tom Lerczak wrote: “The folks I met at Weston Cemetery are highly skilled and knowledgeable. I determined that during the few moments that I was with them.”

On the 9th, members of the East Central Master Naturalists and Grand Prairie Friends came down from the Champaign area and “had fun with Jason.” How can doing such work on a hot, buggy day be fun? The answer must be in the results.
On the 11th, Jason was joined by Dr. Roger Anderson and two ParkLands interns to finish the job.

Was the work too late, as some feared? How many of the literally millions of sweet clover seeds already fell? Time will tell.

Jason is looking for “people who may be able to help or be possible stewards who can help monitor the site, letting us know of vandalism or threat from exotics.”

Will enough people keep an eye on Weston, and pitch in, as Jason requested? Most sweet clover is best pulled earlier in the year, before it gets so hot. But there can be more to do than people to do it – a fact that is paralleled in various ways at hundreds of nature preserves across the state. There are plenty of people who care, but how do they get engaged, trained, and empowered?

One person, reviewing this post, wrote:

In fact, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission is in a crippled state at this point.  For example, they've had two field staff retire since 2010, with neither position filled or on the horizon to be filled.  Last year, Director Randy Heidorn retired.  He was hoping to have two "deputy" positions filled before he left and a new director appointed soon thereafter.  But the state budget impasse prevented that from happening.  So Tom Lerczak has been filling in for large parts of the two program manager positions as well as portions of the director position, temporarily covering several counties in far eastern Illinois and his normal load of 21 counties. People need to know this and express their concerns.

Don Gardner wrote:
It has been my opinion that these small high quality remnants should receive the highest management priority. In recent years there is increasing interest in undertaking recovery or reconstruction on larger sites. This is fine, but along with other factors such as lack of funding may lead to diminished attention to the small quality sites, which I am sure you too have noticed even on certain dedicated nature preserves.

I asked Tom Lerczak if I should remove the comment on the staff people who stopped by briefly. Tom replied:
You might mention that I was with the group of IDNR staff ... that we were pressed for time, on our way elsewhere ...  We were not expecting volunteers, but we were pleased to see them ... I actually liked the “looked, talked, and took pictures” sentence.  I sounds a little snarky, but it's accurate.  I'm not offended.  (Note: See "COMMENT ON ILLINOIS STAFF, ABOVE.)

If you’re interested in volunteering to help Weston Cemetery Prairie, here are some contacts:

ParkLands Foundation:
PO Box 12
Normal, IL  61761-0012

Phone: 309.454.3169
Jason Shoemaker: (309)_531_7065

Illinois Nature Preserves Commission:
Tom Lerczak
17500 E. CR 1950 North
P.O. Box 590
Havana, IL 62644-0590

This isn’t much of a photo of Jason Shoemaker, but he’s a hard worker
and not easy to catch up with. Photo by Diane Wilhite.

Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve 
Honor Roll

The survival of rich biodiversity at Weston is credit 
to the wisdom and generosity of many, including: 

Staff and volunteers of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Biologists from Illinois State University, who were the original stewards
Dave Jeffries, former volunteer steward
ParkLands Foundation, current steward
Countless other volunteers who've worked there over the years

Special Credit for leading the recent Sweet Clover Mission 
Roger Anderson and Jason Shoemaker
ParkLands Foundation
Grand Prairie Friends
East Central Illinois Master Naturalists
Don Gardner, Espie and Don Nelson, 
Sara Hostetter, Diane and Ed Wilhite


  1. Great stuff, great work. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Caution. This was a bad year for white sweet clover in two sites that I manage. Watch out next year!

  3. It is a great pleasure to say that I am an East Central Illinois Master Naturalist.

  4. From an ecological perspective, I am not surprised by the observation made that sweet clover was not invasive in the middle of the dense remnant prairie. The question I want to ask is, WHY has the sweet clover invaded a particular part of the prairie that is a long-standing remnant which has survived over a century of surrounding disturbance. One anecdote I have is the 'invasion' of sweet clover I saw at Spring Creek following a cycle of severe drought (weakened the vegetation and exposed soil) and lightening storms (dispensed nitrogen). sweet clover exploded in many areas; at the remnant spring lake nature preserve where it had not been seen before, it also appeared . . . but when it was pulled up by the roots the roots were mere stubs -- they could not get down and compete with the remnant prairie grasses. So, for a biennial weed like sweet clover to survive it needs two things 1) exposed soil for seedling establishment, and 2) reduced root competition in the soil for mature plant establishment.

    Question 1) Could you describe the plants in the areas being infested, and their relative vigor? From the photos I think I am seeing weakened grass and a few wind-blown natives.

    Question 2) could you describe what you might have seen by potential disturbance factors? I see some growing shrubs that might have shaded and weakened native plants. I see the crop field nearby where maybe a tractor turned around in the prairie at some point, smashing weakeneing plants, disturbing the soil and maybe compacting it/messing with the biota, or dripping fertilizer or some dumping -- a lot can happen on the edge of crop fields. Are there any signs of flooding or impacts from drainage, as the crop fields might be using irrigation, fertilizer inputs, or drain tiling. Are there any ditches nearby that dewater this area? Has this area been known to differ vegetation wise from the middle uninvaded area?

    I applaud that so many are eager to come out and pull the sweet clover. If it were my site, I would like to see the invasive brush removed from the areas meant to be prairie, and maybe put up a hog-wire or other non-shading fence near the edge of the crop field to keep tractors out, and maybe meet with the farmer to adjust fertilizer or other farming practices (or find out what is happening). and correct any ditching or water disturbance.

    1. The line (above) about how "invasive species have been largely banished from the center" of the preserve was trying to say that the stewards have been working for years to control sweet clover by burning and pulling - in the high quality part of the prairie but not so much along the northern edge of buffer and railroad right of way.

    2. Thanks for the info. I was keying in on the middle paragraph under 'people who rise to the occasion, the paragraph 'we attacked from two direction', where the writer makes the comment "surprisingly, there was no clover in the interior."

      A couple years back, it seemed clover was exploding all over. Many NW cook county sites, some lake county sites... areas even where it had not been a problem suddenly became massively abundant. What does it mean when this happens across a broad region? Conditions were favorable for it. Is it plausible that seed suddenly entered so many far-ranging preserves? The easier answer is that with the right conditions, long-dormant seed banks were stimulated to germinate and grow. Which means there is a lot of seeding lurking around, but also that prior to the explosion the seeds were not so successful/active and that conditions can suppress a potential invasion (until conditions change). One good policy is to keep in mind ways to encourage native plant vigor and health, like taking vitamins to stave off a cold.

  5. My bet is that herbicide drift caused the sweet clover invasion on the edge. I have seen excessive non-native grasses along edges of Weston (and other cemetery nature preserves) and this is classic evidence of herbicide drift. Sweet clover, like most weeds, loves disturbance. So many cemetery nature preserves have agriculture on all sides; and how many farmers will apply herbicide only when the wind direction is off the prairie? This would require spraying on at least two different days with opposite wind direction. Show me a farmer who will go to this trouble. I think a 50 foot minimum perimeter buffer of turf grass would help protect the prairie a lot. Such a buffer should be kept mowed with a clean or dedicated mower; not one that has previously mowed gone-to-seed teasel, gone-to-seed sericea lespedeza, gone-to-seed sweet clover, etc.
    Doug Franks, Jubilee Prairie Dawgs, Brimfield, IL

    1. If there is going to be a buffer, it might as well be restored prairie.

  6. I commend the volunteers in east central Illinois. I wish I could help you, but there are so many worthy places near my home in Schaumburg.

    I agree with Don Gardner's comment. The difficulty is some of these irreplaceable jewels are very far from where volunteers live. I personally can only justify travel to work on a quality remnant for a weekend workday. During weekday evenings I work at a restoration near my home. It is not as high of a priority, but does benefit some less rare species.

    My best suggestion for avoiding the heat is to work in the evening. The prairie is lovely toward sunset. I prefer to wear wicking clothing and saturate it with water. This eliminates the need for my body to expend energy on sweating. Shade is also important. Someone should give that hard working Jason Shoemaker a nice big hat.

  7. Kudos to Don Gardener (my hero) and the East Central MN! However, I'm surprised that none of our Grand Prairie MN were contacted to help. Some of us live fairly close to this site, and would be willing to help. As ParkLands is one of our official "Partners", and many of us have already worked with Jason on other projects, it would seem to be logical that we could get in on the "fun" too!

    1. Thanks for the note. I agree. Let me explain how people were recruited. Personally I emailed and called every possible interested person I could find. (My "sent" box shows I emailed 38 different people - and then also many phone calls.) Others who reached out, so far as I know, included Ed Wilhite, Sara Hostetter, and Jason Shoemaker. But it was a "rush job" - as the seed was soon to fall, and then it would be too late. I'm very sorry if we missed people, especially local people who would stick with it over the years. There's a lot more work to be done, so please let Jason know, if people are willing to "share the fun." Weston Cemetery Prairie very much deserves the additional steward help.

    2. You know you're popular when people complain about not getting to pull/cut weeds with you. :)

  8. It is good to hear so many nice comments. Don Gardener and Roger Anderson are two of my heroes also. Prairie Restoration is an art form and a process.
    But that is where we sometimes learn good science.
    I am still learning...

  9. It is good to hear so many nice comments. Don Gardener and Roger Anderson are two of my heroes also. Prairie Restoration is an art form and a process.
    But that is where we sometimes learn good science.
    I am still learning...

  10. Bewqre. The pollinator people love yellow and white sweet clover.

    It seems that the seed is still planted along the roadsides, often in competition with remnant prairie These clovers were brought i n to provide spring calving in March and overwintering livestock with fodder when the native plants do not make it in the fodder sense till June. There are a bunch of other clovers and trefoils that serve the same purpose but they are not so productive for the farmer The sweet clovers were revered by livestock farmers and although most livestock farms have been converted to row crops there are older farmers who cannot understand why conservationists would want to remove such plants. Sweet clover can be mown and hayed eight times a year..It veritably delights in being mown . It's crown is adapted to mowing and re-sprouts. The most vulnerabae time for the sweet cloves is August. So if you have to mow that is probably the best time. An old sickle style mower is the best because it leaves the stems intact and the stems can be hay-raked or picked up so they don't drop seed. Rotatry mowers spread the seed around. The very best time for hand pulling is immediately after rai.n. A gentle lift with a narrow spade will get the roots but stomping on the rsoil with your heal hardens the soil and prevents the seed already in the soil from germinating. The plant loves disturbed soils so making the site firm is helpful. The prairie plants and seeds can handle firm and dry soils. If you pull sweet clover after the soil has dried even only in a few days after rain the sprouts will break off leaving the crown in the ground to grow again. Sweet clover is like teasel . The biennial young plants will grow. So constant surveillance is in order.

    If you want to make sure DOT does not plant sweet clover side on a road widening you have to be in on the planning process which may be eight years ahead of the planning and implementation process. The plans are invariably farmed out so you have to find the planning contractor and beg for other roadside seeds. When the roadside construction begins that is too late. The seed usually has been ordered up by that time. If you have a road side remnant then you have to get ditches remodeled without a huge amount of disturbance. For example you can sit a high hoe across a ditch that has to have three inches of soil removed the prairie will grow back from adventitious buds. The Docks and Compass plants will be te first to return. BUT that technique is sledon available to roadside construction managers because it is much cheaper to have the whole ditch dug up and resculptued with a lazer beam bulldozer travelling the length of a ditch. That totally manicured ditch is an ideal place for sweet clover to grow at its very best and the seed bank is incorporated. To some extent sweet clover and other weeds can be quieted some by a slight rolling to firm the soil that prairie seed can tolerate but sweet clover is not encouraged.

    Mowing has a lot to do with the edges of road sides and small plots. John Taft advises us that small prairie plots get smaller when they are mown to the edgesand the weed plants keep growing in. Edges also "strangely" get mown in a little further every year. It ist he neatness and job syndrome sometimes even recreational mowing is a bug. There is a need for small tractor mowers rather than 15 foot Bush hogs that feel they have to go down and up the ditch rather than just down when that is an alternative. The bush hogs are so large they do not want to hang over the road so the wing flaps extend into the possible roadside prairie and make more room for sweet clover. growth. There is a need for alternate rules for roadside mowing where there remnant prairies. Small tractors do well and save labor fuel and wear and tare on equipment.

    Thanks to you all for working the Western Prairie and looking to its future.

    Dave Monk

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