Over the months the seeds we have been collecting have changed. Earlier my mind was so focused on sedges and where they were in our prairie’s. But I haven’t thought about sedges in a long time. Instead my harvesting mind has switched to silphiums. Silphiums are one of the characteristic features of Midewin, and we have a lot of them as you can see from this picture. This time of year is really the time when seeding has been put into high gear, as now we have help from experienced volunteers, many of the other technicians, and even the mighty acorns, an army of 12 year old schoolchildren that help collect seed from easy to access areas like seed beds. Also what has changed is our attitude towards collecting seed. Earlier we tried to find more unique and rare species that were hidden in the tall grasses. Now we are trying to get more bulk collections of our main workhorse plants such as rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). In the past this plant was a thorn in my side, almost literally as it would often snag painfully against my leg, now I get to exact my revenge.
Besides seed collecting, which has occupied a bulk of our time, we also did some more plant monitoring in a more unique way. This method, instead of getting a quadrat out, was more free form and has the title of “Fall Meandering”. For an hour we walked around various areas of our prairie’s and identified any of the plants we saw and jotted it down. It was a nice leisurely stroll through the vegetation. In this exercise, even more than the previous plant monitoring, I really think I learned a lot more of the plants that existed around me. One such plant was Solidago altissima (insert picture) which I had thought was just the invasive Canada goldenrod. But they are slightly different in the inflorescence as the length of those small little petals differentiates them.
As the final leg of this journey comes up on us and we can see the finish line we have to keep remembering to stay the course and keep taking the necessary steps.
Another month of seed collecting commenced with us taking the easy way out. Wonderfully, Midewin has their own seed beds which are populated by many desirable species that have the express purpose of being harvested for their seed. There is no searching and scavenging necessary, we can just go up to a plot and take them. Beautiful Bouteloua curtipendula was taken as well as Ceanothus americanus, commonly known as New Jersey Tea. We didn’t even have to follow the vaunted 20 percent rule because these are seed beds, we just eviscerated the whole population that was ready to be collected, but we’ll be back for them, don’t you worry.
This month the team took a trip to the great state of Minnesota for the Grassland Restoration Network Annual Conference Extravaganza. All the heavy hitters of the prairie showed up as there was a star studded line up of scientists. We went to many sites that Minnesota Department of Natural Resources manages. Summer sites looked quite nice with a good mix of valuable prairie forbes and characteristic prairie grasses. But other sites they took us too were more of a mess and the discussion people had around these sites was eye opening to the management process of grassland restorations as well as just the scientific method in action. As the name of the group suggests, we did some networking and met some really cool people, such as the gals at Cook County Forest Preserve. Instead of a hotel, which is quite expensive, we decided to camp at a local state park which was fun at night with the beautiful night sky above us but when sleeping the bugs came out to play which was bugging me. But it was an overall wonderful experience to be a part of and I hope to be at the next one!
By common garter capturing I don’t mean actually abducting the snake, of course not! I mean capturing beautiful moments with the snake like this. This batch of snake surveys produced more snakes than any other. One snake board had three (!) snakes under it which was quite exciting. The snakes also got excited as multiple times they defecated on me, but that is all part of the snake game. They are absolutely beautiful creatures that I am honored to hold anytime I get the opportunity.
With Plants of Concern, a program under the auspices of the Chicago Botanic Garden, we did some Panax quinquefolius monitoring. A commercially important species, we secretly delved into the forest to find the American Ginseng and count how many existed. More than expected were seen which was quite nice and I also found another animal bone for my collection.
The great war of me v. seed had started long ago when I choked on some sunflower seeds when I was a kid. And now I get my just retribution by taking 20 percent of some Zizia aurea seeds. Admittedly I would have liked my revenge to be more decimating, but I’ll settle for 20 percent.
I’m now getting into the swing of things and I think I’m shining as Midewin is a wondrous place is what I’ve been finding, not only am I surviving but I am thriving. Along with seed collecting we did dinner brush cutting where we took very scary power tools that had a whirring buzzsaw to some shrubs. While in the field I found a bone, whether from a human post them being brush cut or some animal I don’t know, but it is in my home now as a trophy for surviving my brush with brush cutting.
After massacring the shrubs with sharp edges we switched from physical to chemical via the use of a chlorine swimming pool blue gooey herbicide covering of the cut stumps. Carrying the thorny shrubs to the dump trucks left our arms scratched red, but overall the whole experience was so fun and I’m glad we did it!
We also spent some time vegetation monitoring which involves standing around a quadrat and identifying every single plant in that square. No cutting corners with the square every plant must be recorded. As we encircled the non-circle I learned the common and scientific names of all these plants that make their home in the prairie, such as Penstemon digitalis seen here in digital form.
I was born in 2001, the year of the serpent, so it was only fitting that I got to do some snake stuff while I was here. There are many metal and wooden boards all around the prairie here that could theoretically have snakes under them, but usually have wasp nests. I did get to hold and measure a snake.
A beautiful specimen that I was honored to caress in my arms. I related very much to the snake because my own arms from a lack of lifting have the same amount of definition as a snake’s body. Along the way we ran into a large blackberry bush that stopped us in our tracks as we ate from the bush for a while. I don’t have any children and I don’t plan to anytime soon. But in the meantime my surrogate children have been the plants that I have planted at the River Road Seed Beds that we have. I make a home for these plants in the ground that includes Liatris spicata and I nourish them liberally with water. In time they have aged from babies to toddlers which has happened so quickly. They grow up so fast!
For the last Eighteen years of my life I have lived in the state of Massachusetts so the prospect of moving halfway across the country to start my first job after graduating college was daunting. Also, the idea of living alone for the first time was a little haunting. But after my first month here the time I’ve spent at Midewin has been quite rewarding. Life at Midewin has been anything but mid, it has been quite fun! I had to start by learning the lay of the land (which is overall quite flat) which included dangers to avoid such as the Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), that upon touch and upon the sun’s rays hitting you will cause a reaction that causes your skin to burn and create a rash. When encountering said plant while walking through the prairie one needs to either steer clear or raise their arms above their head so that their arms don’t come in contact with the phototoxic plant.
Vegetative villains aside, my overall orientation to the prairie was swift and informative. We went over good places to collect seed, the history of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, all the various facilities and operations they have, and much more. As we got into the swing of things, mornings became essential hours in which to do field work so we could escape some of the most heated hours of the day. In the AM was when we found and collected many plants that had seed such as Carex stricta and Carex bickenellii.
A majority of seed that we are looking for come from sedges, a grass-like family of species that is slightly tricky to identify so we were put through a workshop of how to tell what a sedge is as well as what sedge is what. In that workshop one person gave us a helpful rhyme which goes like “sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints all the way to the ground”.
Besides seed collection we have had the joyful opportunity to partake in other projects that happen at Midewin such as bird surveys and hydrological testing. With those experiences we learned a lot about the different bird species that make a home at Midewin and why certain birds prefer certain grass heights as well as the great importance that hydrology plays in the health of Midewin as we tested streams and ponds for various characteristics. All along the way we have familiarized ourselves with the prairie and its characteristic species that make it different from other places in America, including two of my favorites the prairie dock plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum ) and the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). The dock plant has an ingenious self cooling system that pumps refreshingly cold water up its stem. It’s always fun to go up to a dock plant and lay your hands on it to feel how cold it is relative to the plants around it!