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Friday, April 19, 2024

How Do They Do It?!? (effective conservation, that is)

How volunteer scientists, advocates, and "people persons" thrive together.

Human communities, like ecosystems, need diversity to function well. "Diversity" in this case includes a number of different kinds of folks with varied abilities and roles. Given our culture as it is, some may come easiest to some extroverts, or some introverts, or some women, or some men, or to seasoned elders, or to impassioned youth.

A thriving community is powerful and self-sustaining. People contribute what they’re best at and most want to do. For an eco-stewardship community, or a religion, or institution, or political party to succeed, many types of leadership are needed. The skills needed for saving biodiversity and planetary health (see Endnote 1) are worth studying and cultivating.
A diversity of skills and interests is what our species has evolved for.

Four skill sets (or four types of people) are described below. Our species evolved as hunter-gatherers – not as rugged individualists. Only groups survived. One member had to be a good hunter, another a good tool-maker, another adept at maintaining group harmony, another at plant identification skills (for food and medicine), another for remembering where the group needed to travel to find food or safety. Is that not why we are born today with such different potentials?

All four of the following abilities can be present, to some degree, in one person. But to work at full throttle, groups need to recognize complementary potentials in many people who join forces compatibly.

There are many variations on how this works. We need to get better at it. Many important Nature Preserves badly need help. Often some dedicated person will have the idea and get the word out, and the various divisions of labor will emerge as other people see need and opportunity.

1. People with Science skills: Botany Buffs and other Nature Enthusiasts  

Many “science types” can’t lead well but readily team with those who can. Some experts on technical matters are inexpert (to put it mildly) at interpersonal dynamics. Many become professionals. Others are so autonomous that they thrive best in their spare time as brilliant photographers, or horticulturalists, or taxonomists on sedges, beetles, mushrooms, birds, or whatever. About independent amateur scientists, the respected psychologist Oliver Sacks wrote:

“This sweet, unspoiled, preprofessional atmosphere, ruled by a sense of adventure and wonder rather than by egoism and a lust for priority and fame, still survives here and there, it seems to me, in certain natural history societies, whose quiet yet essential existences are virtually unknown to the public.”

Then Dr. Sacks (in On The Move, Knopf, 2015, page 330) treks off with a volunteer fern group, all of them happily finding and identifying rare ferns.

Volunteer stewards have helped create a new field, with the advantage of being pre-professional in an important discipline as it comes into existence. And yes, we knew that, in time, the purity of the passion would be challenged by egotisms, competitions, and ultimately bureaucracies and hucksterisms. But in communities, the fervor survives. 

Many types of expertise and perspective best inform our decisions.

Other posts on this blog are rich with accounts of inspiring volunteer leaders like John Navin  Lisa Culp Musgrave, and Robert Betz. Professor Betz, professionally he was a biochemist. But he is not known for accomplishments in that field. He lives today as an exemplar of passionate volunteer leadership.   

2. People with Practical Skills: “Let’s Get Things Done!”

A plant expert may consult with an animal expert when goals are translated into actions. 

These folks seem easier to describe. Everyone automatically depends on them to assure that we have practical plans, that we don’t waste time on dead ends, that everyone stays safe. These folks are often the best ones to coordinate with landowners and bureaucrats. They’re down-to-earth problem solvers.   

Often these people are good at facilitating others so that they will:

  • Keep tools in good repair
  • Teach skills
  • Send reports to landowner staff
  • Get media coverage to attract more folks
  • Bring treats
  • Identify questions where practical research could improve results. Design the experiments and keep the needed records to make it happen. 

We put doom and gloom in the past ... and then celebrate. 

3. Advocates 

Easy to go wrong here. Early environmentalism was big on protest. Long term biodiversity conservation depends on positivity and even (brace yourself) compromise. 

Some advocates can sometimes usefully be protestors. At times (consider Rachel Carson) challenging authorities is important and good. But as a general rule, protestors are losers. They may promote the beginnings of change, but – from national to local levels – they’re not “at the table” where decisions get made. 

Ecosystem recovery is typically not amenable to quick fixes. Forces of good care need staying power – at least for many years – ultimately for centuries. From global to village questions, grass roots buy-in is key. At some level, all groups need strategy, politics, consensus building, and timing. The “consensus building” part is key throughout.

The advocate is someone who sees potential roadblocks and opportunities, and then acts. How do we change counterproductive herbicide regulations? How do we stop fly-dumping in this prairie? Is there some dramatic initiative that would result in the general public prizing biodiversity?   

4. People persons. 

Human potential facilitators. Glueballs. There’s got to be a better name for this category. 

Facilitators of team spirit? A group needs one or more people who everyone wants to be with. Many times such people stay in the background and are little noticed for their profound impacts. Other good leaders are wise to appreciate them, learn from them, and chip in some of the same kind of work.

These people do what they do because they appreciate or love other people and are committed to the cause. Sometimes their job is to notice that two possibly-a-bit-shy people would hit it off productively ... and just introduce them with a few words that could point them in the right direction. Sometimes they’ll notice a potential for misunderstanding and clear it up. Often they know their power, but don’t let on, because they know that would work against their valuable purpose. At other times, such people become the principal leader – although they try to minimize the “big leader” dynamic. 

And how about the people who don’t fit any of these categories but make substantial contributions? See Endnote 2 for them.  

We learn and exchange ideas ... as we gather seeds to broadcast ... after we cut malignant brush. 


In midwestern North America, agencies (government and not-for-profits) own the land most important to biodiversity. Thus, conservation volunteers and professionals must work together well. To do that, the volunteer organizations need to maintain their independent strength. (See Endnote 2.) Volunteers who “sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do” will not by themselves have the creativity or leadership needed. This post tries to define some of the components necessary for volunteer communities to flourish effectively. Learning to be good at this may be crucial to the future of the planet.  

End Notes

Endnote 1. Diversity of Missions, Strategies and Trajectories.

Various people will thrive best in various relationships. This post is mostly about volunteer communities. But institutions vary also. Saving the planet's biodiversity may be the most crucial and irreversible challenge of this age. To succeed, we need not-for-profits, government institutions, and more. Conservation organizations discover opportunities, change directions, rise and fall. One of this post's authors (Packard) has held leadership roles in The Nature Conservancy and National Audubon Society. The Conservancy may change direction based in part on the views of super-wealthy board members (whose huge support allows the Conservancy to do huge things). Audubon may change direction based in part on unruly local chapters (with internal battles sometimes seeming to benefit from inspiring passions). Local bedrock organizations, untrammeled by national ones, may be the consistent "heart and soul" of the mission. Change isn't always best. 

When we began the Natural Areas Association (NAA) (1974) and the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) (1988), the members were mostly volunteers. Bill Jordan, editor of an influential early journal (Restoration and Management Notes), warned us at the time that his dad had seen what happened to idealism, decades earlier, during the formation of the societies of foresters and ecologists. He compared the process to the American Medical Association. It started as a few generous and visionary medics working toward public health and inexorably evolved into a self-interest vehicle for rich doctors. That’s not to say that it doesn’t do much good. But it’s no longer mostly about generosity, vision, and public spirit. And it does some bad. Both SER and NAA began with mostly volunteers – with the loftiest of ideals – and have become something like labor unions, which have a valuable place in society, but are narrowly focused on improving the jobs of their members. In some ways, we volunteers can do more. 

Endnote 2. Celebrating everybody.

What about the hard worker? The come-and-goer? The rank-and-file?

In addition to the above “keystone” characters, others in a community seem less central, as they may drop in and out of as life allows. Or they’re “regulars” who inspire us with quite dedication. Or people who may have been leaders during their careers but want to relax by spending a bit time outdoors and not think quite so much. Some may in time, unexpectedly to themselves, become great leaders, given tactful mentorship and inspiration. But some may simply show up week after week, ask what to cut or pull or gather, and go home, having contributed. 

Often, it’s not easy to know who, among new volunteers, will become a nature nerd, a people person, or whatever. (That said, sometimes it’s obvious in five minutes.) But even those who don’t fit neatly into any of the above four categories make up an important part of a group. Perhaps they’re not quite a social engineer – but, over a snack, they might bond with a future leader, inspired by friendly conversation. Or they’ll show up and work tirelessly to eliminate buckthorn in an important area, without asking why or talking to anyone. A thriving community has many leaders, but also many people who join for a day, a month, a decade – and experience a relationship with the ecosystem that may enrich their lives. And whether they fully know it or not – they also enrich the lives of co-workers, plants, animals, and the Earth. 

Other Communities

For the perspective of a varieties of communities, check out: 

Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves

The Prairie Enthusiasts

The Stewardship Network

Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement 

Saint Kateri Conservation Center

Do you have other insightful examples to suggest? Make suggestions through "Comments" (below).


This post was written by many: first draft by Stephen Packard, with many edits and new directions by Jonathan Sabath, Amy Doll, Christos Economou, Eriko Kojima, and Rebeccah Hartz. All of us and many others have been working with Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves to develop much-needed biodiversity conservation communities as described above including the Plank Road Prairies, Langham Island, Shaw Woodland and Prairie, Short Cemetery Prairie, Kishwaukee Fen, Middlefork Savanna, Pilcher Park, Morton Grove Prairie, the Somme Preserves, Illinois Beach, and many others. 

Both ecosystems and people have evolved for diversity.
Only people have evolved for parties!

Friday, March 22, 2024

An Orchid Reveals its Secrets

By Stephen Packard and Lisa Musgrave


Dozens of volunteers have been “species stewards” for the prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) – a plant on the federal Threatened list. Most of the earth’s small populations of this species are in “The Prairie State” – and volunteers for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) carefully monitor every known population. In 2023, a very dry and poor year for these orchids, a total of 223 plants were found at nineteen Illinois sites. At twelve of those sites, five or fewer orchids were recorded. Non-blooming plants can be hard to find; many more plants were likely surviving as leaves only, building their roots and waiting to bloom in a year with better weather. When the FWS approved its national Recovery Plan for this species and began recovery efforts in 1991, the Somme effort was adopted as a model. Seed is spread to potential good habitat, and at many sites emerging plants get “intensive care” to allow populations to build. Illinois numbers have varied from a low of 109 plants in 2006 to a high of 2,287 plants in 2020. In that good year, Somme contributed 540 plants to the tally. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service annually takes pollen and seeds from Somme to begin or enrich populations elsewhere.

Orchid in "Intensive Care." A stake of cut brush supports a deer-exclusion cage. Inside it is a vole-exclusion cage. The pink flagging indicates that this orchid has been hand pollinated.  

In more than four decades of careful work and study, the Somme Team has learned:  

  • These plants don't stay put.
  • A “fairy ring” of orchids suggests a possible explanation.
  • Widely broadcasting seed can produce dozens to hundreds of new plants.
  • Habitat management is key.

Details below: 

These plants don't stay put.

Unlike most conservative plants, prairie white-fringed orchids seem to do well in an area for a few years and then disappear, emerging in other areas where we never saw them before or had not for years. We have in some cases initially broadcast seed in various places that seemed good, with no results. Then after maybe ten or twenty years of occasional seed broadcast, we find a plant or two, then in a few years more, and many more for five or ten years, then few or none in that area. It’s happened impressively in at least eight areas at Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Prairie – both Illinois Nature Preserves. 

Orchid pollinia. Orchid pollen doesnt travel to other plants as dust, like most species, but in dense, sticky packages called pollinia. They adhere to a toothpick or the tongue (or head) of a hawk moth by an adhesive patch, shown clearly above. 

A clue from a “Fairy Ring” 

Why do these populations come and go? A curious phenomenon provides a clue. For reproduction, this orchid depends on a fungus. Some mushrooms are frequently found in circles called fairy rings. Such rings form because, as an underground mass of mushroom mycelia grows, it may use up something in the soil, and the advancing front of underground mushroom “mycelia” moves out to areas that have what it needs. When the mushrooms (the spore-bearing “fruits” of the mycelia) emerge, they rise out of that advancing circle. 

Fairy ring mushroom photo from University of Arkansas: 

We’d never heard of a fairy ring made up of plants, but we found one. For many years, we had broadcast orchid seed in one swale that looked like good orchid habitat but where no orchids had been seen. Then in 2009, finally there was one beautiful orchid. It stood there by itself for years, quite a big one. We caged it and stabilized the cage with a metal stake. We ended up calling that area “the stake area.”

It flowered annually for 8 years (missing one). That’s unusual. Most prairie white-fringed orchids die a year or two after first flowering. FWS research shows that the average life of these orchids after first flowering is 1.2 years.

Then dramatically in 2014, a full circle of 22 orchids arose around the big staked one. The plants in the circle averaged 2.5 meters from the original plant. Most were young plants (“two-leafers”). Over the years, some bloomed, set seed, and passed into history. But many more orchids, gradually spread up and down the swale, farther and farther from the long-gone original orchid.

To reproduce, the almost invisibly tiny orchid seeds must sprout and live underground parasitically or symbiotically with the fungus, sometimes for years, drawing nutrients from the fungus. With this in mind, there are many possible hypotheses that might explain the fairy ring observations. One is that the fungus this orchid depends on is not everywhere in the soil of orchid habitat. The fungus may deplete the resources it needs in some areas as it spreads to others. Perhaps the orchids reproduce successfully only where the fungus is thriving at that time.

Most of these rare orchids only flower for a year or two before dying and making way for new ones. All seed in early years at Somme resulted from hand pollination by trained volunteer stewards, who feel privileged to do it. In recent years, small amounts of "natural" pollination by hawk moths has been observed. 

Numbers of blooming orchids grown from the 190 plants found in 1991 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife recovery plan began. But annual numbers increase and decrease dramatically. 

Widely broadcasting seed can produce dozens to hundreds of new plants.
We’ve experimented with various approaches to spreading the orchid seed, and more careful experiments are worthwhile. But our only proven practice has been to scatter seeds widely. We like to do it on a windy day; sometimes we just break capsules and wave them around; or we tie capsules on a tall plant and let the wind gradually blow all the seeds in various directions over days or weeks. The seeds find the right places.

One example of an experiment: The Great Transects Test. We measured out a few straight lines near a distinctive glacial bolder in what appeared to be good orchid habitat. Then we marked off intervals, kept careful records, and planted orchid seed by a variety of methods:
  • Planting on the surface, just dropping seeds into the prairie duff
  • Pulling the duff away and dropping seeds on the exposed soil surface
  • Same as above, but we “roughed up” the soil a bit, to get some seeds underneath.
Then, for the latter two approaches, we also tried:
  • Mixing seed with sand (making it easier to separate or un-clump the tiny seeds)
  • Mixing with cornmeal (because we worried that the sharp sand might injure the seeds) 
This was a lot of work, but science requires that. For the results, we found we did not require a lot of statistical analysis. No orchid emerged in or near any of those transects. A couple of decades later, orchids did emerge in a different part of this swale and gradually spread to the area of the Great Transect.

Question: What’s the meaning of this experiment, in practical terms? Answer: We’re not smart enough to figure out exactly where this orchid ought to be. An individual orchid can make 100,000 seeds. Wind and chance may bring a few of those seeds to the right places to start a new plant.

Orchids typically produce tiny seeds in huge numbers. They blow everywhere, but they contain little beside DNA. They cannot grow into a plant without connecting with a fungus that supplies what most plants get from the endosperm, embryo, radicle, cotyledons and other famous seed parts that most plants have, but orchids do not. 

Orchid capsules, tied to a sunflower stalk, so the seeds can blow around at a new possible orchid area. 

An orchid stem cut and sectioned by voles. Early in the year, voles cut stems of orchids (and other plants) that human hands have touched, as we've seen again and again, perhaps because they smell or taste something that makes them curious. Later in the season, as shown here, voles want to get at the ripening seeds. So they cut the stem at vole height, pull down the rest of the stem, and cut it again, and again, until the seeds are in reach, without the vole having to climb and expose itself to predators. 

Habitat management is key

The very first area where we saw these orchids, four or five years after broadcasting seeds in many areas, worked well as habitat for them for a few years. Then it started growing a dense stand of saw-tooth sunflower. The orchids faded out there, as did the diverse vegetation that had comprised the orchids’ associates. We decided to cut (scythe) those sunflowers a couple of times a year to see what would happen. After a few years, diverse vegetation including a few orchids had returned. Then we moved on to other concerns and experiments. Now that area is dense with gray dogwood - again without orchids. This drama is a reminder that Somme Prairie Grove is still in early-stage restoration (or mid-stage? … time will tell).

The overall goal of the work at Somme Prairie and Somme Prairie Grove is to restore the full diversity of natural prairie and savanna grasslands. The management consists of frequent (annual or biennial) burns, reduction of alien or native invasives, and seeding with locally gathered seed. 

The prairie white-fringed orchid has never been successfully grown in gardens. They live at Somme with some human protection - but much impacted by the challenges of nature. Here the photo shows a vole cage, one orchid stem, many stems of something else that the cage also protects (and thus perhaps has unnatural vigor), that same species clipped by voles to the left of the cage, three young tree or shrub stems that will be controlled by fire or loppers, and a crayfish burrow bringing subsoil to the surface. 

We mostly don’t pay attention to individual species except in the cases of especially rare or conservative ones that seem to need some help getting started. But in time those species will have to make it on their own – in the bosom of the ecosystem. Plants sometimes grow for a while in places where we seeded them, only to fade out as the conservative competition increases and show up where we didn’t seed them, but where seeds of those temporary plants had travelled. Good for them! Over the years, larger and larger areas have become diverse habitat for many conservative species, including this orchid. How much intensive care will it continue to need? In 2020 with 540 orchids, Lisa stopped trying to cage them all.  286 of those orchids bloomed, of which Lisa and team caged 156. Of the uncaged ones, 61 were eaten by deer, about half. Many species at Somme are badly depleted by overpopulated deer and need exclusion cages until the deer population is reduced – if they are to survive at Somme. 

An orchid emerging in late spring. As Lisa says, "They are beautiful even then." We try to find and install deer-exclusion cages at that time, or too many get eaten. 

One rough experiment suggested that the needed hawk moths are now plentiful enough to do at least some of the pollination. The time we stewards spend caging and pollinating is time we can’t devote to other needs of this recovering ecosystem. Still at this point, our impression is that if we stopped intensive care, this federal Threatened species would be lost from Somme … or perhaps merely reduced to a small number of plants. We have little enthusiasm for trying the “no action” experiment now. We continue to learn. The adventure continues. 


An earlier blog post on this orchid at Somme is Chapter 1 to this post's Chapter 2. 

Some people ask, aren't you concerned about revealing the location of this rare plant? My first response is always, yes, I'm concerned, but there's a balance to be considered. If no one celebrates rare plants, they won't get the care they need. Many populations have been lost by neglect.

Another response is that that cat is already out of the bag. Somme's orchids are already identified in many books, papers, conferences, and indeed in this blog. 

But perhaps the main reasons that these orchids haven't been poached is that 1) many people realize that this plant is so tied to the ecosystem that if you dig one up, it will just die and 2) the Somme preserves are well populated with caring people who do a great job at keeping an eye on the place. We would call the police, of course, if needed. But it's kind of inspiring that, except for garbage dumping around the edges, only people with reverence for nature seem to spend time here. 


Photos by Lisa Musgrave and Stephen Packard

The Somme preserves are owned and management supervised by the Cook County Forest Preserves.

Most of the day to day restoration is conducted by Friends of the Somme Preserves in partnership with the North Branch Restoration Project

Thanks to Eriko Kojima for helpful proofing and edits (and certainly more for her fine work on orchid habitat restoration). 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

The "Wild and Crazy" Foxglove Returns



Too many so-called ecological studies are superficial to the point of uselessness because they focus on one to three species, for one to three years, on one to three acres. The ecosystem doesn’t work that way.

Stuart Pimm


We reported on the eared false foxglove in 2012 following a mere two decades of study. One hundred years ago, you had to “ride the crazy train” to find this easy-come/easy-go annual plant, as we then explained. Our study of how to facilitate this plant's recovery continues, and year by year we learn. 

Here's a key element of our thinking: we're not doing this one species at a time. We facilitate certain needy and possibly important species within the flow of life among Somme's nearly 500 plant species as the formerly lost but now recovering, black soil savanna ecosystem changes radically – on the road to recovery, we hope. 


In 2012 we had quoted the Center for Plant Conservation on the plant then called Tomanthera auriculata and now called Agalinis auriculata:


This species globally has “About 40-50 known occurrences, most with populations of only 25-250 individuals. The largest populations were found in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri. Recently discovered in Kentucky. Presumed extirpated in Michigan, New Jersey and Texas.”


Today there are more populations known, in part because people plant this false foxglove in prairie restorations. Is this hemi-parasite sustainable in its restored and original populations for the long term? 

The eared false foxglove is now found in 17 states, although it is imperiled in 15 of those 

and gone entirely from 4 others. At best, it is considered merely "vulnerable" in 2 states 

and secure in none. Map by NatureServe. 


We first noticed plants at Somme in 1998 after broadcasting seeds from an original nearby population some years earlier. Then, we have no records, probably meaning we found none, until 2003 when 31 plants appeared near where we'd first found them. We caged some after we noticed deer eating them. Then we noticed that voles were sneaking inside the deer-exclusion cages and cutting down the foxgloves to get their seeds. In 2004, eighteen plants bloomed, but only one survived the deer and voles. 

Dense areas of tall goldenrod and saw-tooth sunflower grew nearby. As we'd found these species sometimes inhibited more conservative vegetation, we began cutting them in hopes of expanding habitat for the foxglove, which seemed to work. We began a program of facilitating grown of the foxglove population by caging, scything, seed harvest, and seed broadcast to see if we could give this new species a better chance of finding niches at Somme.  

Our early monitoring is summarized in the graph below, showing modest numbers during this species’ 16-year long, iffy incubation period in the prairies and savannas of Somme Prairie Grove. Would it survive here? And then in 2011 – apparent success – at least for the short term:


Indeed, for three years after that report, numbers remained high. We stopped giving this species “intensive care” and didn't monitor it at all in 2016 and 2017. But when we counted in 2018, we found 54 plants. In 2019 we counted only 20.


Perhaps we should have felt fine about those low numbers, as they were in the range of what the Centers for Plant Conservation cited for the size of most populations. But as an “introduced” or “restored” population, it deserved a more skeptical look – especially for this kind of plant. As an annual, this false foxglove has to start over from seed every year, while growing in an ecosystem of highly-competitive perennials, densely packed. 


Another troubling sign – we noticed that most of the Somme plants predominantly grew in immature, temporary habitats – the very opposite of what we are working towards at Somme. Yes, perhaps this wild and crazy species has always depended on “disturbances” – but to survive here it would need to find niches in the kinds of disturbances that occur within relatively stable communities. Given where we had been finding most foxgloves, our big numbers did not indicate that it had found those niches yet.


Here four foxglove plants grow among slender mountain mint, sweet black-eyed Susan, slender gerardia, gray dogwood, foxglove beardtongue, saw-tooth sunflower, yellow wood sorrel, a few thin whisps of an oval sedge (perhaps Carex tenera), willow herb, Kentucky bluegrass, and a deer-eaten cream gentian. These low- and mid-conservative species comprise an attractive proto-savanna assemblage, but not a long-term stable community. With additional fire, time, and seeding it could develop into a quality prairie or savanna herb community. 


Here, five foxglove plants are growing with spotted Joe Pye weed, saw-tooth sunflower, sneezeweed, grass-leaved goldenrod, and narrow-leaved mountain mint. This is an even poorer-quality restoration at this point. No grasses or sedges. Few shorter-statured plants. No conservatives. Far from relatively stable. Our experience has been that such areas increase in quality over time, with regular burning and seed broadcast. If that happens here, will the resulting habitat continue to work for the eared false foxglove? 

Natural communities have evolved over millions of years to be “relatively stable.” They are characterized by highly-competitive, diverse, conservative plant species. They are now rare in the tallgrass region (and most of the temperate world). When, for biodiversity conservation, a formerly extirpated species is restored to a site, there’s a good chance that it could fail because of missing symbiotic pollinators, fungi, bacteria, and other associates. 

Somme Prairie Grove has the potential advantage that it’s partially original savanna and prairie remnants. Some crucial invertebrates, fungi, and other species may be surviving in small numbers. We found that when we broadcast seeds of the federal Endangered prairie white-fringed orchid, the fungus that it totally depends on was still here. A study by U.S. Fish & Wildlife found that very fungus in the restored plants' roots at Somme. Similarly, when we started restoring structure and quality to savanna with fire, thinning, and seeding, entomologist Ron Panzer found the formerly undetectable Edwards Hairstreak butterfly – a savanna specialist – to become the commonest hairstreak on the site. According to Dr. Panzer, it had likely been surviving here in small numbers and responded to restored habitat. 


Panzer’s research also found that larger, merely good-quality areas retained populations of remnant-dependent insects that no longer survived in some smaller sites that had been judged to be high-quality on the basis of conservative plants. Are the false foxgloves and other restored species here reestablishing relations with needed fungi or bacteria? We’d like to know.


Two periods of intensive care have both worked well for this species at Somme – but principally on the largely bare ground of young plantings. We broadcast vastly more seed in 2022 and 2023 than ever before – mostly in fair to good recovering communities. Thus, we expect to learn a lot more in 2024. 


The restoration of the Somme Prairie Grove black-soil savannas is testing a hypothesis. The number of plant species is up from about 250 when we started to about 500 now. How many of those species are here for the long term? Will these methods restore a substantial, high-quality, diverse, conservative community that has otherwise been lost? And might various now-rare species turn out to play a substantial roles? Or not? 


In areas with hundreds of big plants, cages somewhat protected some, but hundreds of other uncaged plants fared just fine last year. 

Some might argue that the eared false foxglove doesn’t even belong in the Somme savannas. Many modern sources refer to it as a prairie species. But one possible reason for that is that there’s so little savanna left to study. The standard old floras – Fernald (1950) and Gleason (1952) – both list its habitats as prairies and open woods. Like savannas, open woodlands aren’t what they used to be, but if a species lived in both prairies and woods, it seems likely that it inhabited the savannas too. Wilhelm and Rericha (2017) give today’s habitat only as prairie, but the prairie associates listed include slender gerardia, Canada rye, tall coreopsis, and cream gentian – species that may be less characteristic of prairie than of savanna. 


Ecologist Ken Klick with the Lake County Forest Preserves prepared a list of species that “may become extinct within Lake County Forest Preserves within the next decade.” The list included glade mallow (Napea dioica), bearded wheat grass (Elymus trachycaulus), Seneca snakeroot (Polygala senega), and awnless graceful sedge (Carex formosa) – all species that have dramatically increased in Somme’s savanna areas. Because of the way patches of shade and sun vary dynamically in savanna – as trees grow, blow down, burn, and die – it could be that savannas offer special advantages as annual species look for niches where they fit.  


Klick expressed concern that some of these species may depend on the restoration of natural conditions that are not today part of most natural areas management regimes. We hope that our “savanna restoration” experiments at Somme might help answer the questions Klick raised and inform biodiversity conservation efforts generally. 


As Reed Noss wrote in 1996, “If you think protecting species is hard, just wait until we try to protect whole ecosystems.” Many such efforts are now under way. Some fail. Some seem to be heading towards successes. We can learn from both.




Carter, Dan. Good discussions about similar issues in Wisconsin can be found at: 


Fernald, M. L. Gray’s Manual of Botany. 1950


Gleason, H. A. The New Britton and Brown Illustrated Flora 1952 


NatureServe info is at:

Noss, Reed, Ecosystems as conservation targets. 1996. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 11(8):351


Ron Panzer, personal communication, 1992


Stuart Pimm, personal communication, 1995

Our previous report on this species at Somme can be found here

A good overall conservation summary for this false foxglove can be found at:





Endnote 1.


What have we learned so far about the eared false foxglove?


Although this species often does well where brush was cut, in most such places it goes away after a couple of years and doesn’t come back. Bare ground where brush was cut is not a long-term habitat here. We will not for much longer be cutting dense brush at Somme Prairie Grove. It’s almost gone. 


If we give this false foxglove “intensive care” (caging, seed harvest, and seed broadcast), it can increase exponentially. We try not to rely too much on our limited expertise on this plant. While we broadcast some of the seed we harvest in new areas that look similar to where the foxglove has prospered, we also add some of the seed to our wet-mesic prairie and savanna seed mixes, so that it ends up in more "random" places. Often it emerges where we've planted the seed mixes in areas that "didn't look right" for this plant ... and fails to emerge in the areas that seemed "just right." 


Little tubular vole exclusion cages can help. Taller ones (10” to 12") work better than shorter ones (6”), but do not work all the time. Indeed, the voles sometimes climb over the top, then down to the bottom, then section stems, gradually pulling seed heads down. (Tying the seeds to the tops of cages prevents the voles from pulling them down.)


If we just wait for the seeds to spread, mostly they don’t spread very far.


We haven’t yet found this species doing well in any of the higher-quality associations at Somme. But then again, it’s a wet-mesic species, and we have very little wet-mesic high quality so far. (Recovery seems faster in our mesic and drier communities, perhaps because these burn more frequently under today's conditions.) Our goal is to establish high-quality prairie, savanna, and woodland throughout the site, as much as possible. 


This false foxglove does well at the edges of saw-tooth sunflower patches – not in the centers of them.


Two species of parasitic morning glory called dodder (Cuscuta grovonii and glomerata) seem to help the hemi-parasitic false foxglove. Dodder is a valuable "regulator species" that can dramatically set back over-dense patches of saw-tooth sunflower, slender mountain mint, and others. Where dodder thinned out such species, it seemed to leave intermixed plants of the foxglove mostly alone. 


A highly-respected botanical research institution, at our request, recommended scientific experiments to help us better understand our eared false foxgloves. The recommended protocols included carefully counting numbers of seeds and placing them in a wide variety of plots and transects in spots carefully chosen to represent a variety of factors. All seeds were placed in areas of relatively stable vegetation, sometimes near existing false foxglove patches in similar vegetation, but not within them. It was a lot of work, compared to what we usually do. The educational result was that not a single false foxglove emerged from any of the seeds planted for these experiments. We learned that you can’t just pick small areas for it and seed there. It could be that this species, in areas of competition, requires special conditions that we don’t recognize. Thus, we seem to find it succeeding among competitive vegetation only here and there, and only when we broadcast seed to the wind over wide areas.  


Endnote 2


What do we want to learn?


Does the fact that the voles seem to eat all plants of this species in many places reflect a) some artifact of the modern world, b) this species lack of adaptation to this site, or most parts of this site c) the fact that we broadcast its seeds in the wrong places?  Perhaps this foxglove doesn’t normally survive to produce seed in thriving grassland but instead in thin areas where brush recently burned back or bison trampled a lot. Such areas represent both less competition from other plants and less cover for voles.) 


Voles tend to get it just as the seeds start to set. Are there approaches to spraying stinky vole repellent that would work better than caging? The repellent does seem to work. Would it also repel pollinators if we spray it too early? 


Might this species do better in some other specialized niche – that we’re not recognizing and where we are thus not broadcasting seed?


Will it in time adjust and show up sporadically (perhaps in places where brush has burned back or where dodder, fungus or some other stress has reduced competing vegetation)? 


Does it not belong here, in the relatively stable communities we are striving to restore? Will it fade out and be gone from Somme without a lot of "horticultural" work, that would violate our current long-term goals here?  


Are there better approaches through which we could continue to pamper it for a while and at the same time do a better job in facilitating better adaptation to existing or emerging niches? It’s a globally rare savanna plant that could be another Somme Prairie Grove success story. Or failure story? 



Thanks to Christos Economou and Eriko Kojima for many helpful edits. 

Graphs by Linda Masters

Most "intensive care" work on the eared false foxglove in recent years has been done by Eriko Kojima and Sai Ramakrishna. 


Prescribed burns and overall supervision credit goes to the Cook County Forest Preserves staff including burn manager Steven Ochab and ecologist Anna Braum. .