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.

The Whitebark Chronicles

For the duration of September, along with seed collection, the Tonasket botany team has been working on whitebark pine surveys. Whitebark pine, or Pinus albaulis, is considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, but the Colville National Forest is fortunate enough to house multiple populations of this high-elevation tree. Whitebark is perhaps best known for its symbiotic relationship with Clark’s Nutcracker, the bird that cracks open their cones and bury pockets of seed around the mother tree for later consumption. Whitebark cones don’t open on their own, so they rely on the jays to forget where they’ve cached seeds in order for new whitebark to sprout and grow.

So far, we’ve headed to three different mountains to assess the health and distribution of the Colville’s whitebark. Because they specifically like high-elevation, rocky peaks, just getting to the survey site can sometimes be a full day’s work.

The first mountain we surveyed is Molybdenite, a 6,790-foot peak in the northeastern corner of Washington state. Because this mountain is a 3.5 hour drive from Tonasket, we headed out for a week, staying at a nearby Forest Service bunkhouse that was surprisingly comfortable and well-maintained (besides a little bit of a mouse problem). That week, we summited Molybdenite twice to map whitebark spread across the peak and surrounding area. We were warned that three grizzlies call the mountain home, but our biggest problem did not end up being bears, but holding onto our cell phones, and not getting lost. Two surprisingly challenging tasks when bushwhacking through a forest you’ve never been in before.

A beautiful view from the peak of Molybdenite

The next peak we set out to survey was Mt. Leona, a 6,440-foot peak an hour and a half east of Tonasket. Luckily, there was a road that allowed us to drive almost to the summit. Unluckily, that road was a treacherous mess of rock and loose gravel that made for a white-knuckled ride. By the time we reached the top of the mountain, we were so thoroughly engulfed in a cloud that it was a challenge to ID trees more than 15 feet in front of us. As you can imagine, this made scouting for whitebark a bit more challenging. The howling wind and partially burned forest contributed to an eerie vibe befitting of the first official week of fall. It should also be noted that the temperature at the top of Leona was 45F before the wind chill, an incredibly stark difference from the balmy mid-70s of the week prior. I was very glad to have purchased a new down jacket the day before.

Our most recent whitebark-related adventure occurred on a mountain our team is intimately familiar with, sitting within the project area we’ve been working on all summer, Mt. Bonaparte. This 7,260-foot peak was the highest we’d been to, and one of the longer hikes from our parking area. It was really amazing to get to the top of a mountain that I’d seen countless times from the road and heard about on the radio, but I didn’t necessarily get to see those roads from the other POV, because yet again we were deeply enmeshed in a cloud. I thought I was cold on Leona until I got to Bonaparte. Despite the chill and misery of the peak, there were many whitebark pine trees to be found, and we had a large crew amassed to figure out how far they spread down the unburned half of the mountain, so we persisted, slowly warming up as we descended from the sky.

Despite what felt like a near miss with hypothermia, it was really cool to see a threatened species thriving within the forest we’ve been working in and getting to know all season. In a weird way, there’s a sort of ownership and pride, even though I’ll probably never be back in Tonasket after this season ends. I hope that Colville National Forest’s whitebark outlives me by far, keeping with it a memory that at one point in time, I was here to see it.

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

To the monarchs, with love <3

This month, I wanted to make a quick post to honor monarch butterflies! While conversations about monarch butterflies have been relevant for years now and I’ve always admired their beauty, it wasn’t until working more closely with them that I started noticing them all around me. At the San Bernardino National forest, we work on several projects to help conserve and preserve the monarchs. We’ve participated in monarch surveys, milkweed mapping, milkweed seed collection, and cultivating and outplanting our various native milkweeds to restoration sites.

These are projects we’ve worked on sporadically throughout the last few months, but this month all of these projects have been much more closely intertwined! That’s because recently, many of our milkweed plants (a monarch caterpillar’s only food source) have set seed. This has led us to spend several days in the field, immersed in prime monarch habitat, to fill bags of milkweed seeds.

On our forest, we work with 3 species of milkweed. Like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, they’re each particular about the conditions they like. One species is adapted to a climate that is moist and shady, Asclepias fascicularis, one is adapted to dry soils and full sun, Asclepias californica, and the one pictured above, Asclepias eriocarpa, is adapted to a habitat closer to the middle. While many of our milkweed populations are easily accessible and visible from the road, others require a bit more of a trek to find. We’ve been lucky to have access to a milkweed map on our forest that displays all of the milkweed populations mapped by the botanists that have come before us. This has made it easier for us to route to various populations ripe for collection.

All of this to say that these hours spent around monarch caterpillar food have blessed us with many surprise monarch caterpillar encounters!

These sightings are then photographed and recorded on Survey123 to keep track of the monarch population making use of the milkweed plants in our forest. And the seeds we collect go on to be used to cultivate milkweed plants to outplant in our various restoration projects. That means more food for monarch caterpillars!

With our changing climate and recent decrease to milkweed plant populations (and hence a decreased monarch butterfly population), it’s great to be a part of conserving and restoring monarch butterfly habitat!