The Midwest is *not* flat and boring

I was born and raised, went to university, and now work in the Midwest. Yet, this job was like learning an entirely new landscape through remnant habitats. Before this job, I thought of the Midwest as the land of corn and not much else. Now, to be fair, much of the Midwest is covered in corn. In Illinois, almost 30% of the land is covered by corn crops. In Iowa, it is up to almost 35%. The cover of prairie habitats is much diminished. Even in the acclaimed “prairie state” of Illinois, less than 0.01% of the prairie remains intact. My closest interaction with the prairie before this job was the hill outside of my high school in Kansas City, Missouri. It was never mentioned to me until a picture of the swim coach smiling next to the burning field in front of my high school went viral. Thus, the strong connection between the prairie and fire was forged in my brain.

Fields of Purple Love Grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)

As part of the Seeds of Success protocol, our crew was only allowed to collect on remnant lands. While this stipulation made it challenging to find this surviving habitat, it was an absolute privilege to visit these sites. Many hours were spent imagining what the Midwest had looked like before the widespread settlement of the United States. I think life in the Midwest is a prime example of how disconnected the general public has become with their land. Honestly, how could they be connected when the land has been converted into suburbia and crop land as far as the eye can see?

Headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca, Minnesota

As a result of seeking out these remnant habitats and spending hours getting up close and personal with seeds, I have never felt more connected to the land that I’ve lived on for my entire life. When I look into a bed of native plants, I can recognize them and call them by name. I recently went back home (Kansas City, Missouri) for a weekend and even in that short time, started to recognize the local plant community more than ever.

The rolling hills of the Midwest and its famous freshwater

I am here to advocate that the Midwest has gotten a bad reputation from the destruction of its habitat. There is the common belief that the Midwest is flat and boring and if you want to see real nature, you have to go out west or to the Appalachians. Sure, maybe Kansas is literally flatter than a pancake, but elevation is not everything. The prairie habitats of the Midwest make it truly special. A rich, full prairie is teeming with life. The plants overlap to what seems like an excessive degree. The underground system of roots is even more unexpected with many prairie plants having more biomass below ground than above it!

I look back on these five months with pride in my work and gratefulness for the opportunity to meet the land.

A deep dive into the bottle gentian

Before going on trips to collect seed, our team does research on every plant on our list so that we can understand what it looks like at every stage and be better prepared to identify it within the field. It usually takes quite a while to learn the key characteristics and the plants sometimes meld together in my mind. For some plants, they are so unique and unexpected that I am ecstatic to find them in the field. One such plant is the bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii. It has 5 fused petals, forming a tube that will never open. This closed tube resembles a closed bottle, thus the name.

the icon, the legend, Gentiana andrewsii

While in northern Minnesota, the team saw one in the parking lot of our site and nowhere else. It is such an interesting inflorescence because it never opens. I could not imagine how it could be pollinated. After some outside research into the scientific literature, I learned that only bumblebees are physically able to crawl inside the tube and rub pollen on their sternum in the process. Oddly enough, the corolla tube of Gentiana andrewsii is much longer than the tongue of the two studied bumblebees. This would make it very difficult for bumblebees to access the nectar at the bottom. Instead, most bees access the nectar through lateral lacerations. The bees studied were not known for being corolla perforating species and no other mechanisms for lacerations were provided. Even as they steal nectar from some inflorescences, it was only observed coupled with also entering the tube to retrieve pollen. My theory is that the stealing is not driving changes on either side because the bees get nectar and the plants still get their pollen spread.

Flowering Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Gentiana andrewsii is a dependable species for bumblebees because no other pollinators are in competition for the resources. I was bummed that we did not find a large population, but future collections of this plant would be great for native bee restoration efforts!

Check out this video on Facebook of a bee diving head first into the plant.

Working in the field is never a dull time with these views

Check out this amazing paper for more details!

Costelloe, B. H. (1988). Pollination ecology of Gentiana andrewsii. Ohio Journal of Science, 88(4), 132-138.

Help from Friends

In July, our team was joined by botanists in the field at two of our sites. With their help, we were able to identify and collect species of interest. It was good fun to hear their stories, puns, and have someone new in the field to interact with.

Our first guest was the director of the seed bank at Chicago Botanic Garden who regularly goes into the field to collect seeds. He has a wealth of knowledge about our region and was able to identify many things with one glance that we would have struggled through the dichotomous keys with. In addition to his knowledge of plants, he also provided us with homework to watch one of his favorite movies, Dances with Wolves starring Kevin Costner.

A new plant that I can identify! (Phryma leptostachya)
I have been seeing Monarda fistulosa all over gardens in the city so it was nice to meet its relative in the field (Monarda punctata).

Our second guest joined us in southern Illinois. Even though we remained in the same state, the composition and abundance of species greatly varied. Upon meeting him, we immediately walked to the side of the road because of his life motto that a botanist always has one eye on the road and one in the ditch. He was able to supply us with information about what is common or hard to find in this area and what might be of interest to restoration projects in the area. He also provided us with puns about what we were looking for. When we spotted spores on the bottoms of fern leaves, it was “a sight for soris (sore eyes).”

The plant our guest spotted from the roadside. (Ruellia humilis)
This specific species is more frequently found in the north so its seeds are of great interest for collection in the south. (Rhexia mariana)

Our team really enjoyed having two botanists join us in the field. It continues to inspire me when I feel overwhelmed by the many, many plants that I am trying to learn.

Beauty in the Unexpected

When we travel to Midwestern prairie remnants to collect from an extremely long list of target species, it can be disappointing to ID a species with a large population that is not on your list. I am here to argue for the beauty in the unexpected undesirables (those not on the list). We see everything from abundant plants that we have more than enough seed from to rare plants to things that are not plants at all. During a recent hitch to northern Minnesota, we were scouting a large prairie remnant when I stumbled upon the Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae). It is the state flower and a beloved symbol of the area. Even though I had previously lived in Minnesota for four years, I had never seen one until this scouting trip. It was certainly not on our collection list and only had a population size of five across the section we saw, but it was still special to see.

Showy Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

Our target species are often difficult to find and/or produce very little seed. This makes it difficult to find the perfect collection population, but also makes the effort worthwhile by filling in the gaps. Unlike our target species, we often see the same plants over and over again in large populations that make us wish they were on our list for ease of collection. One such beautiful plant is the purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea). When it is not blooming, the blue-ish gray spikes predominate the landscape. When it blooms, the spikes turn strikingly purple and the small flowers are quite a sight (even if you have seen them many times before).

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalia purpurea)

We visit large ecosystems that support much more life than just the plant populations. From the less desired ticks and mosquitos to the frogs and snakes that jump out as we walk through the field, the sites are full of life. Some USFWS offices create partnerships with local farmers to use cattle or even bison to graze and help manage the land. While driving away from a field site, we saw one group of such bison. Within the field sites, animals tend to run away quickly or hide from us. Try to find the frog hidden in the photo below.

I spy a frog

June was a month filled with discovering new sites, seeing many plant species for the first time, and collecting populations of successful seeds. I am excited to see what July brings.