Miss You, Midewin!

Once spanning over 170 million acres of the continent, Illinois was one state among many that hosted tallgrass prairie. Within this greater ecosystem was a mosaic of smaller habitats ranging from dolomitic pavements, sand hills, and wetlands. 

Its rapid destruction by drain tile and plow, however, has made it one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. In less than two generations, over 95% of the tallgrass prairie was destroyed and replaced primarily by commercial agriculture. 

Standing upwards of 10 feet tall, the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum) is an iconic tallgrass prairie species. 

There are just twenty designated National Grasslands in the United States — all located west of the Mississippi River. Just 60 miles south of Chicago, however, Midewin is the country’s first and only “National Tallgrass Prairie.” Other nearby natural areas, like The Nature Conservancy’s Indian Boundary Prairies, are located even closer to city limits. 

During a visit to Paintbrush Prairie Nature Preserve, the site manager & entomologist explained how many insects and plants alike may be classified as “remnant-dependent.” And with less than 4% of remnant tallgrass prairie remaining, these sensitive species are at risk for extinction. 

A Black & Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) drone.

Days not spent collecting seed were often used to monitor rare species with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program, such as the state-endangered Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum).This species thrives on disturbed sites, and is believed to have gotten its name from its tendency to grow in buffalo wallows. 

Field days always presented new opportunities, such as accompanying the Wildlife & Range crews for robel pole monitoring and cover board surveys; or floristic quality inventory assessments and meander surveys with the Botany team. And because all seed is processed in-house at Midewin, we also got hands-on experience in native plant horticulture.

A Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) found during cover board surveys. 

My summer spent as a Conservation and Land Management intern was the perfect chance to explore an early career in botany, right in my own backyard.

And although I wasn’t camping in Californian deserts or collecting high-altitude plant species in the Rocky Mountains, Midewin’s unique locale offered relevant experience for an aspiring land manager. 

One of several rare species monitored this summer with Plants of Concern: Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum). 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

A September to Remember

We kicked off the beginning of this month with a visit to the Botanic Garden to see their array of native and ornamental plants alike. There, we got to speak with their land managers, researchers, and horticulturists; as well as touring their greenhouse facilities, bonsai displays, and laboratory spaces. 

One of the most memorable moments was an opportunity to view the plant with one of the largest flowers in the world — the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum). A single leaf from this species is the size of a small tree, and it’s inflorescence smells of rotting flesh to attract fly & beetle pollinators. 

Some of the greenhouse spaces seen during our tour at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  

At home, Courtney and I have been busy raising pollinators of our own for the past month. Hatching from an egg the size of a pinhead, Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillars quickly grow to impressive sizes. 

And after seeming to eat Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) leaves just as fast as you’re feeding them, they finally form their chrysalises before hatching as butterflies. These Monarchs will soon fly southbound to Mexico to roost in Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa) trees during the winter. 

Courtney and I releasing the last of our Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus). 

The month hasn’t been all play and no work, however. Seed collection is in full-swing back at Midewin, as indicated by strange calluses I’ve found on my fingers from hand-pulling and cleaning seed. We’ve also learned how to operate the mechanical seed cleaning equipment to process seed in bulk. 

Many of our afternoons have been filled with the satisfying pulls of Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) or pops from Prairie Coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata). Seed collection is also a great time to explore some of your favorite places on the prairie: be it the view from the top of Sand Ridge, Lobelia Meadows and the blooms of its namesake, or the scattered rock pools at Exxon. 

Collecting Blazing Stars (Liatris spp.) at Goose Lake Prairie. 

Whether passing bunker-fields from the old Joliet Arsenal or overgrown hedgerows of Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) from abandoned homesteads, we are constantly reminded that the prairie is a landscape shaped by human interference. Not only in its destruction by the plow, but also its early maintenance through fires set by local Native American people.

Illinois’ long history of land-use offers a unique perspective on ecological stewardship. Very little remnant prairie still exists in the state today, and with little-to-no native seed bank remaining, most restorations must start from complete scratch. But with the seed we’ve collected throughout the summer, we’re proud to be doing our part in returning native habitat to Midewin. 

American Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis), a state-listed endangered species in Illinois. 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Fall Is In The Air… and Lice Are In The Plants? 

Summer is transitioning into fall, and likewise, the prairie is in change as well. The flowering stalks of Compass Plants (Silphium Laciniatum) now limp low, fading into a haze of purple & yellow from Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and budding Goldenrods (Solidago spp.). 

These autumnal blooms are an important food source for native pollinators as they prepare their nests or migrate for the incoming winter. Even the pollen from grasses may be foraged during times of dearth, offering valuable protein to numerous beneficial insect species. 

A Two-Spotted Longhorn Bee (Melissodes bimaculatus) stripping pollen from the anthers of a warm-season grass. 

The field season, however, is still in full swing at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: Seed collection is ramping up as an entire summers-worth of seed nears harvest; and rare plant monitoring is still ongoing, including American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) in the local woodlands.

It’s also the perfect time for spotting the bright red seed capsules of Hispid False Mallow (Malvastrum hispidum) with Plants of Concern, and the showy purple blooms of the Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa) at Des Plaines State Fish & Wildlife Area. 

As its seed ripens, Hispid False Mallow (Malvastrum hispidum) changes from green to red in color. 

Botany workshops have also been underway, offering opportunities to learn the graminoids and fully-aquatic plants of Midewin. During one lesson, two seemingly-different species of rush were placed at our table. Yet despite their wildly distinct inflorescences, both were actually an example of Torrey’s Rush (Juncus torreyi). 

One specimen, however, was inhabited by a gall-making psyllid, or “plant lice.” After laying its eggs, plant growth hormones are stimulated and a gall is formed, offering both food & protection to the developing nymphs hidden within.  

The specimen on the left is a galled form of Torrey’s Rush (Juncus torreyi); the one on the right displays its typical inflorescence.

Although Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) seed is not yet ready to collect — as indicated by its swelling green seed pods — we keep ourselves entertained by watching the equally-swelling Monarch caterpillars chow hungrily at the plants’ leaves. 

Soon these caterpillars will molt one last time to form a chrysalis, digesting and re-assembling itself until finally emerging as a butterfly — a transformation fit for the season of change. 

The caterpillar of a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in its fifth and final instar. 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Botany, Bison, & Bees

Summer is the height of the field season at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, making it time for annual cover board surveys, robel pole monitoring, and floristic quality assessments. While walking our transects, it became increasingly clear that we were not alone on the prairie, as evidenced by an ever-abundance of fresh buffalo paddies often discovered already beneath your boot. 

As we approached, the bison (Bison bison) were quick to greet us — eager to use the grill of our truck as a scratching post. Weighing in at nearly a ton and standing over six feet tall, Richard is Midewin’s largest bison. And although he may sire the most calves each year, he is far from in-charge. Rather, the herd is led by a matriarch who decides when and where the group grazes.

Midewin’s bison (Bison bison), once again roaming the prairie. 

Although Midewin hosts a growing herd on its prairie restorations today, bison were extirpated from the state during the 1800s by Euro-American settlers. With them, these homesteaders brought Old World agricultural species such as horses, cattle, and honey bees. 

Early American author and diplomat Washington Irving documented his surprise of the westward spread of the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in 1832, writing: “The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and buffalo retire.”

An exotic European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) on native Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium).

When most people think of bees, they imagine hives constructed from wax which house tens of thousands of workers, making honey to feed their colony during the winter months. Most of these characteristics, however, are only true for the non-native Honey Bee. Native bees, on the other hand, live incredibly diverse lifestyles.

Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.), for example, live in seasonal colonies typically composed of a few hundred individuals. Young queens mate during the late summer and fall before hibernating throughout the winter, when the rest of the colony dies. Come spring, they will emerge from the soil and start collecting nectar and pollen to build colonies of their own. 

A mating pair of Black & Gold Bumble Bees (Bombus auricomus).

Other bees, such as members of the family Halictidae, may be flexibly social. When floral resources are abundant, individuals of a species may live communally or even form colonies. During times of dearth, however, that same species may live solitarily; stockpiling a subterranean chamber or hollow plant stem with pollen, nectar, and eggs by herself before sealing it shut and dying soon after. 

Whether encountering bison or bees at Midewin, days spent working at one of the nation’s few federally protected grasslands are full of reminders for the need to protect the residents of the prairie — both big and small. 

A Halictid bee species, a common hitchhiker during hot afternoons on the prairie. 

Dade Bradley
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Home Sweet Home

Headed northbound on I-55, I found myself surrounded by fields of familiar Illinois flora: Zea mays and Glycine max, better-known by their common names “corn” and “soybeans.” 

Upon my return home from college, however, I now also eyed scattered blooms of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in preparation for the next six months spent at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. 

Native Michigan Lilies (Lilium michiganense) in full bloom. 

Formed by glacial outburst floods during the Ice Age, Midewin and the surrounding areas host some of Illinois’ last remaining dolomite prairies. Numerous rare plant species call this habitat home, spared from the plow due to its characteristically thin soils.

This unique plant community has presented the opportunity to work alongside the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant of Concern program, monitoring sub-populations of Small White Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Slender Sandwort (Minuartia patula), Butler’s Quillwort (Isoëtes butleri), and Buffalo Clover (Trifolium reflexum).

The Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa), commonly found among bedrock scrapes. 

Many weeks have already been spent stumbling through sedge-meadows and honing my plant identification skills — much needed for the intimidating amount of Carex on our Target Species List.  

Other days have been used to put my CLM training to the test, collecting seed from Yellow Stargrass (Hypoxis hirsuta), Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), and Prairie Violet (Viola pedatifida) from a patch of remnant prairie at Lobelia Meadows. 

Bicknell’s Sedge (Carex bicknellii) ready for harvest. 

Despite being raised less than 10 miles away from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, I’ve already explored it more this past month than I have my entire life. 

And although it’s no Chugach or Tongass National Forest, Midewin is nevertheless a gem of the Prairie State —  no matter how many acres of corn and soybeans hide it. 

Exploring Goose Lake Prairie, one of the many other natural areas that Illinois has to offer. 

Dade Bradley

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie