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

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

The satisfying pull

After the long drought the skies have sent rain down the night before and the morning is ready for the seed collecting day. The air hangs overhead like a mist, bringing a cool touch to your arm. You look overhead to the cloudless sky and sigh with anticipation as a gentle breeze hits the back of your neck. A shiver runs down your spine underneath your field clothes as you tuck your wool socks into your pants. Any attempt to stop the chiggers from finding your ankles is an attempt worth taking. You reach for your trusted wide brimmed hat, your ally in the war with the brutal sun, and slip on your long sleeved over-shirt. The gear is collected: a small pair of cutters, small white paper bags, a big leathery plastic bag, and water. Just enough to collect what is needed and no more. Working with mother nature instead of against her is our number one job today.

Looking over the prairie is different than the last time. The blooming purple of Monarda fistulosa has died down as she gets ready to go to seed and is instead muted by greens and reds. Still too early for the yellow sea to flood in yet we are in a holding period between seasons. The quiet month of August is upon us. But mother nature is still hard at work, you just have to know where to look to see her true beauty. She makes you work for it but these species are the most complex of all.

Secret Ridge Prairie with a tall compass plant (Silphium lacinatium).

Bouteloua curtipendula is finally ready to collect as its deep purple seeds have now tanned to a pale brown. Close up the seeds are no bigger than the broken graphite piece of an extremely sharp wooden pencil. Yet far away the are much bigger. Hanging loosely on the small stem of the grama they are the easiest to spot in an upland prairie habitat. Outcompeting any of the bigger grasses in its way. The most exciting experience besides saying its name, is collecting the seeds.

Bouteloua curtipendula at Secret Ridge Prairie.

My ”task” for this morning is to honor the ecosystem and take 20% of her Bouteloua seeds. This way it benefits us and still leaves enough to have another generation thrive. Luckily it is doing very well in this prairie. With one swift motion you place your hand on the stem below the seeds and pull upward until all of the seeds are in your hand. Pure satisfaction in one swoop.

You continue to walk through the prairie, now feeling the extend of the sun on your back as you pull another Bouteloua seedhead. Satisfaction. Making sure to step light around the wide Baptisa alba plant to more Bouteloua. Pull. Satisfaction. Spot some Amorpha canescens but its seeds arent wuite ready yet, so you make a mental note to come back in a week to collect that. Pull. Satisfaction. And you find a big clump of Bouteloua surrounded my smaller vegetation. Pull. Satisfaction. Pull. Pull. Pull. Satisfaction. You look down at the little plants around it, its light delicate whorled leaves around a tiny little stem. Bright white complex inflourescence among the top of some plants. You think you know what it is! But there is one more step you need to do to make sure. Plucking a single leaf from the stem you look closely at the leaf as a small bubble of white liquid starts to form on the end. Your guesses are correct, Whorled Milkweed has made its way to the prairie.

Asclepias verticillata is one of the smallest milkweeds at Midewin, but what it lacks in size it sure makes up for in numbers in a population! At some points its almost a field of milkweeds surrounded by other plants. The small stature can be overlooked by people looking for the more charismatic plants, but Asclepias can hold its own. It even goes up against monarch caterpillars and survived their munching to produce little seed pods. She is one tough cookie.

Asclepias verticillata at Exxon Prairie with inflorescence in bloom.

The sun is beating down now as the time nears to noon on the prairie. Your stomach starts to call out in hunger and you have drank almost all of your water source in your bottles. You check your bags for your haul, a lot of Bouteloua was taken, but while looking around there is so much more that is left. Success in your collection. We survey our hauls at the truck, each had been successful in their species seed collection. You look back at the prairie, the whispers of bugs in the background as the clear blue sky screams hello. Its peaceful being around so much life and knowing that you are not destroying. Its enchanting knowing you are helping restore more places to look just like this. It is inspiring seeing so many people around you care so much about this planet. It is the satisfying pull of the job.

Castilleja Dreamin

20 Ounce Cheeseburgers,

Locals at the bar,

Fields of Castilleja,

In the old tire tracks of a car.

Seasons change, the Sun disappears.

Autumn is now upon us and in creep the pecuniary fears.

I never imagined that I would enjoy Fargo as much as I do

There’s plenty of large remnants up there, just waiting for me and you.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever make it back to Nelson Prairie

Although the Mahnomen landscape is burned into my mind.

Just getting there, driving over countless ponds, gives you such a rush.

Visions of Showy Ladies Slippers hiding beneath the brush.

But up there, as in many places across the nation, they are in a bind.

So much land, so few people, such little time – its oddly airy.

“We have no funding for permanent staff” the land managers all say,

“Those in Washington are always getting in our way!”

Grandstanding, Misallocating Money, and Freezing Up in real time,

It truly does make one wonder, is this coincidence or design?

But the remnants do not care, and without fire, pruning and love – they will degrade

Alas, it does not matter, as the politicians will still be paid.

Winter is quickly approaching, and it is that special time of year,

Where we send out never ending job applications,

Too many to count,

As we hold our breath in fear.

When will I work next, who will I work for, will I have to travel far?

In these moments, I’ll venture back to Nelson Prairie, mentally,

Then stop for a 20 Ounce Cheeseburger at Mainline Bar.

This poem goes out to all of the Seasonal and Temporary Biological Science Technicians based throughout the country, trying to afford living without healthcare, benefits or any long term guarantees.