The Prairie State

Many blog posts will mention the bittersweet feeling of finishing their internship, and mine is no exception. It feels like just yesterday I arrived in Illinois, getting comfortable, and now I’m preparing to head back home. This transition is undeniably bittersweet, but I’m also genuinely excited about what the future holds. This experience has added another valuable chapter to my life.

Tall Grass Prairie restoration

Not only was the work I undertook here rewarding and filled with meaning, but I also had the privilege of meeting many remarkable people. They all had a deep passion for their work, which was always my hope, and I was delighted to discover that the restoration team at Midewin embodied this passion. The field is fortunate to have dedicated individuals who genuinely care about their work and the people who join them in their mission. The team at Midewin has been inclusive, patient, and highly supportive of us interns, guiding us every step of the way as we embarked on our field season.

Floristic quality monitoring

Midewin is truly a special place, a hidden gem amidst the sea of soybeans and corn that dominate the Midwest landscape. In a region where agriculture and development have wreaked havoc on the natural habitat, leaving few intact ecosystems behind, Midewin stands out. It’s unique not only because it was the site of the former Joliet army ammunition factory but also because of its dedicated focus on restoring prairies from what were once fallow fields. Restoration is a time-consuming, costly, and labor-intensive endeavor, but Midewin serves as a shining example for the entire Prairie State and beyond.

Unrestored bunker field

The prairie, eastern deciduous forest, and savanna ecosystems have endured decades of logging, agriculture, and land-use changes, taking a toll on their plant communities. Restoring these ecosystems is a monumental task, and Midewin is taking significant steps to make it happen.

Dolomite prairie and the railroad that runs through it -_-

Cleaning after Collecting

Restoring tall grass prairies demands a substantial amount of seed, approximately 20 pounds per acre. Midewin maintains three seed production areas on their property, and these seed beds produce the majority of the seed used to restore the prairie’s at Midewin. The reality is that there simply aren’t enough remnant prairies to collect from, and the scale of collection needed would have a detrimental impact on plant and animal populations. While we continue to collect from wild populations, our efforts are supplemented by gathering seeds from the seed beds and purchasing seeds from local wholesalers.

As we collect and collect, the bags start piling up in the horticulture building. The sheer volume of seed makes it impossible to rely solely on hand-cleaning. While hand-cleaning can suffice for certain sedges early in the season, when the bulk collections start rolling in, it’s time to put the seed cleaning machines to work! These machines clean seed much more efficiently, completing a task that would otherwise take a full 8 hours of manual labor in under 20 minutes. The result is thoroughly cleaned seed, free of dust, stems, and leaves, ready to be sown this winter.

Rare Plants and Dolomite Prairies

Exposed Dolomite

Dolomite prairies house unique plant communities, the bedrock here is at or just below the soil surface. Like a slab of concrete or an abandoned foundation, the exposed bedrock looks out of place in this natural landscape. These prairies are seasonally wet; in the spring, rain and snowmelt fill the area with shallow water, and by summer, it becomes bone dry. These plant communities have adapted not only to the seasonally wet conditions but also to the high magnesium content of the soil due to the weathering of the exposed rock.

There are many rare plants that are restricted to the Dolomite prairies in Illinois, but one takes our time and attention like no other. Dalea foliosa, the leafy prairie clover, is a curious purple-flowered pea its flowers are arranged in dense spikes and it has the typical pinnately compound leaves. D. foliosa is federally endangered and is very much deserving of our time and attention.

According to NatureServe, there are approximately 8 occurrences in the state of Illinois. Habitat loss, fire suppression, and woody encroachment are still the driving factors of this species’ decline. Midewin is fortunate to have acquired 40 acres of dolomite prairie from a mitigation requirement of the neighboring ExxonMobil refinery. When monitoring and management began back in 2002, only 92 total plants were counted; today, we counted over 500. This population is far better now, but its isolation still poses a threat in terms of its genetic diversity.

We followed a very tedious monitoring protocol that involved counting vegetative and reproductive stems, aborted flowers, and stems browsed of each plant. We also collaborated with Fish and Wildlife to monitor two other populations on IDNR land. Midewin has worked hard to preserve this population, and it has paid off; however, this is never enough in a changing landscape. Threats of changing hydrology and freak accidents from the boarding railroad and refinery unfortunately remain a concern.

Photo Dump

I though it would be fitting to conclude my August blog with a collection of photos taken while seed-collecting and from our visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. I hope you enjoy

You Blink and You Miss It

July kicked off with the most anticipated task of the field season: vegetation monitoring. Two and a half weeks filled with… Botany! Interns, technicians, volunteers, and specialists worked collaboratively to monitor four different tall grass prairie restorations. At each site, four 100 meter transects were established. Every four meters, a quadrat was randomly placed, and each plant within the quadrat was identified to species and recorded. That adds up to a total of 400 quadrats!

Groups of three would rotate roles, ensuring that there were always two identifiers and one recorder. The recording process was often quite intense; identifiers would continuously call out species like Sporobolus heterolepis, Heliopsis helianthoides, Oenothera pilosella… Meanwhile, the recorder would frantically scroll through the species list, occasionally selecting the wrong species and fall further and further behind. Nevertheless, identifying the plants presented the best opportunity for me to enhance my botanical knowledge and occasionally showcase my skills when I felt confident in my identifications. I relished every moment, from the plants to the people.

The data collected during these two weeks will help in estimating species richness and evenness, providing a deeper insight into the annual changes observed in restored prairies. While it was satisfying to successfully complete this project in a timely manner, I was sad that it ended so abruptly. I can only hope for the chance to participate in a similar project in the future.

Bouteloua curtipendula, Schizachyrium scoparium, Sorghastrum nutans

July brings a breathtaking display of colors and structure to the prairie. The towering inflorescences of Silphium laciniatum and Silphium terebinthinaceum, standing in some cases at an impressive 12 feet in height, inspire awe. Amidst this spectacle, the vibrant red flowers of Silene regia catch the eye from considerable distances. One species that never fails to excite me is Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) this species might have the longest awns of any grass in North America, reaching lengths of seven and a half inches. The seed, heavy and sharp, falls to the ground. The awns then “drill” the seed into the soil, twisting back and forth in response to changes in humidity. While the diversity here is undoubtedly remarkable, it is when you take a closer look that you truly begin to appreciate it. It feels like just yesterday the prairie was only knee-high now, it has transformed into an almost impenetrable thicket of forbs and grasses. I imagine it will go as quickly as it came, and before we know it, it will all start over again.

As our initial phase of seed collection draws to a close, the sedges are wrapping up for the season. Our attention shifts towards the genus Symphyotrichum, which takes center stage later in summer and extends through fall. Additionally, we look for members of the genus Sporobolus – a group of warm-season grasses. Amidst it all, my experience at Midewin has been incredibly fulfilling. The work itself is a joy, and the camaraderie amongst my fellow interns enhances the experience even more. A special shoutout to Dade, Veronica, and Harsha – you’re all truly amazing individuals.

Removing woodies

Orchids & Sedges & Rushes, oh my!

Juncus dudleyi, Carex vulpinoidea, Scirpus pendulus

I have always shied away from the sedge family (Cyperaceae), spotting them on almost every walk through woodlands, prairies, wetlands, or neighborhoods. It would usually just be a passing comment to my partner: “Look, another sedge, and another, and another,” without giving them the attention they deserve. Cyperaceae is one of the most successful and species-rich flowering plant families in the world, explaining their presence in nearly every type of habitat. If you are a fan of water chestnuts, you ought to know that you are actually eating a corm of a sedge (Eleocharis dulcis) – pretty neat! Carex, the largest genus in this family, serves as an important ecological component of wetlands and wet prairies, making them crucial for restoration purposes. As a result, they comprise over 50% of our target species list. This group is notoriously difficult to identify, but with some time, head-scratching, and magnification, it’s not all that bad. I extend a special thanks to the botanists at Midewin (Michelle, Jen, Eric, Grant, and Anna) who have willingly shared their knowledge and provided helpful resources to enhance my understanding of this group. Taking a closer look at this diverse and often overlooked family has opened my eyes to its significance and beauty in the landscape.

Carex meadii

The eastern prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) was once abundant throughout its range. However, the conversion of its habitat, from wet to mesic prairies, into crop land or pasture, has led to a significant decline in this species, as well as in many others. During our monitoring efforts, we had the opportunity to hand-pollinate the flowers, aiming to improve the quality and quantity of seeds. Carefully gathering pollinia on toothpicks at one site, we transferred them to plants at another site. The only successful pollinators of the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid are nocturnal hawkmoths. Despite the presence of these pollinators, the populations of these orchids remain small and fragmented so human intervention is necessary. To enhance genetic diversity, pollen is transferred from one subpopulation to another. In extreme cases, it is even shipped across the Midwest to ensure the success of this species across its entire range.