4 Months of Seeds of Success in the Midwest

Early in June, we were lucky enough to be led to a wonderful population of Blanketflower in Minnesota. By our third visit in August, the seed was ripe and ready to collect! I’m a big fan of this species for many reasons. Its deep red disk flowers and multicolored ray sepals are guaranteed to stun, and I find its latin name, Gaillardia aristata, easy to remember. To me, aristata looks like “artist” which I find easily associates with the colorfully painted inflorescence.

Bracts are my new identification besties, at least when it comes to identifying thistles and Liatris spp. Bracts are reduced leaves, or leaflike structures at the base of an inflorescence. Bracts can look so many different ways, even within a genus.

Identifying thistles can be hard. People say the leaves of many natives have fairly white leaf undersides. After I check the leaves, I check the bracts to help lead me to species ID. For example, if the bulbous scaly part beneath the florets (in this case I think you can call that an involucre), is wooly, it may be Cirsium muticum!

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), of which there are quite a few native species in the Midwest, were relatively easy to key out once I learned to observe them for their inflorescence silhouettes and bract characters rather than their florets or leaves.

Early in the growing season, aka during the cool season, I found it difficult to identify big bluestem. All the grasses looked basically the same to me, short…and grassy… Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a native warm season grass that doesn’t flower until July. It’s spikes are often compared to the foot of a turkey- so people sometimes call it turkeyfoot. By July, I was starting to get familiar, and by August I was surrounded by turkeyfeet sometimes up to 7 ft tall. The specimen pictured below had a nice green silly-looking conehead insect on it.

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.

Is Southern Illinois Still the Midwest?

Over the past month, our team has spent many hours traveling throughout the Midwest to visit new USFWS field locations. While many of the sites we have recently visited were a bit closer to our homebase at the Chicago Botanic Garden, some felt quite different in more ways than one. One hitch that particularly stands out was our most recent hitch to visit the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Carbondale.

Crab Orchard NWR is an interesting property, consisting of a series of reservoirs and encompassing nearly forty four thousand acres. There are incredible sandstone features, with some of the most beautiful hiking I have experienced in Illinois, although very different than the majority of the prairie state. If you are in the area, a day visit to the Rocky Bluff Trail is worth the detour! However, like so many of our public lands, there is a weird history with the property here, as some areas were used for the manufacture and testing of explosive devices during the second world war. Luckily, we did not have to survey those areas, and you should avoid these areas during your visit as well!

A scene from along the Rocky Bluff Trail

While conducting our plant surveys, we were joined by a Professional Botanist who was incredibly knowledgeable with respect to regional flora, which was very helpful in locating target species on our list, while also adding a few. Some of my favorite plants that I learned on this trip include the American Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia, the Inland Oat Chasmanthium latifolium, Hibiscus laevis, and the Zig Zag Spiderwort Tradescantia subaspera.

Surveying a refuge with over 43,000 acres meant working up quite the appetite, and we were lucky enough to be blessed to dine at the Famous Lodge at Giant City State Park, not once but twice in one week. World renowned for their Unlimited Family Style Fried Chicken Dinner, this facility (along with the surrounding state park) was completed in the 1935 by the CCC, and not much has changed since then. The taxidermied raccoon and deer really bring in a sense of ambiance lacking in dining establishments further North. Now, I was not going to back away from the meal after reading the words “World Renowned” and “Unlimited” in the same sentence, and was soon to be richly rewarded. I could not have been happier with my choice (except to possibly substitute sweet potato fries for the green beans) and did indeed end up ordering an additional round of chicken. The team was so impressed by the meal, we ended up there the following evening for an encore.

The World Renowned Family Style Meal from the Lodge at Giant City State Park

While our trip to Southern Illinois was enjoyable, informative, and successful, I cannot help but feel something was different about this hitch. The plant communities consisted of a number of different species, unknown to us on the team. The hot, humid environment was not kind to our us or our tents, keeping in the moisture. Most importantly though, as someone who was born, raised and majorly consumed fried chicken in the Midwest, every where you order chicken 1) they serve ranch as a side and 2) it is never as good as at the Lodge at Giant City. Southern Illinois may not actually be the Midwest, but it is a cool area of the country to check out (and decide for yourself). 3/3 recommend.

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.

Regional Work Requires Devouring Regional Delicacies

This season our Seeds of Success squad has been tasked with piloting a new Midwest Seed collection group, based out of the Chicago Botanic Garden. As this is a new agreement between the CBG and the USFWS, we have been tasked with navigating the territory that comes with a brand new project. Initially, we spent time reaching out to refuge managers, explaining the goals of the program and acquiring a target species list of around 150 species (and still growing :)), before meeting with many land managers and scheduling field work for later in the summer.

Castilleja coccinea in a remnant prairie, with a blooming Phlox pilosa in the background.

Over the first half of the season, we traveled throughout Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin visiting many federal parcels, as well as private and public partner lands, surveying target populations. We have seen Wet, Mesic, Dry, and Sand Praries, Oak Savannas, Woodlands, Wetlands and little bit of everything in between (Yay transition zones!). It has been a little challenging at times to find populations that are both remnant and large enough to sustainably collect from, but we have been successful in making 10 collections at this point in time. Some of my favorite plants that we have seen so far include those in the Orobanchaceae family, including the Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Downy Cup Paintbrush (Castilleja sessiflora), and Scarlet Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea). We have even been able to return and collect from a few of these populations since these photos were taken!

Castilleja sessiflora surrounded by seeding Prairie Smoke Geum triflorum.

With great regional travel, comes a great deal of meals on the road. This has led our “All Midwestern Crew” to branch out and try some of the most local delicacies as possible, some of which have been uncommon even to the most ope-ing, pop drinking, ranch devouring, over “thank you”-ing crew around. While slightly smaller than our target species list, it has been enjoyable growing our Midwest Regional Food List, regularly adding new, rare (and generally high caloric) Mid-American cuisine. Iowa has been special to me in particular, allowing me to try to find the top tenderloin in the region. While there may be many, some are better than others, and my go to for a top quality tenderloin is Goldies Ice Cream Shop in Prairie City. Not too far from the entrance to Neal Smith NWR, you head in for the Ice Cream, but will return for the Magg Special, a sandwich that combines a cheeseburger on top of the standard (extra crispy) tenderloin. Great food and also the best restaurant service that I have been offered since early 2020.

What would a Midwest food list be without food from the heart, good Ol Chicago. Our crew has been fortunate enough to have many Portillo’s and Museums within the general vicinity, allowing us to enrich both our bodies and minds with Italian Beefs, Hot Dogs and Art to our hearts content. There has also been a lot of talk about Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza, which we are yet to sample as a crew, but true fans of Chicago Style Pizza know Tavern style is really where its at. Also hearing that some people do not consider Deep Dish a Pizza?! What is it then people! I will follow up on the CSP if we end up at the famed Pequods or somewhere off the radar.

The Sauciest of Sally’s from the 5-8 Club

Our next stop on our food tour of the Midwest was Minnesota. Land of many lakes, even more fish, and Minneapolis’ gift to human kind-Juicy Lucys! What a saucy stop we did indeed have over at the 5-8 Club just outside of Minneapolis. After a long day of replacing a stuck truck tire, changing out a rental car at the airport and 8 hours of interstate travel, we were quite content at the wonderfully delicious nature of the delightfully cheese filled Juicy Lucys and Saucy Sallys. Sometimes field meals hit harder than others, and this was definitely was one of those occasions. Another meal that swam above the rest was Deep Fried Walleye. There is nothing like some fresh fish out of the lake, and the Cormorant Pub in Pelican Rapids knows how to serve it up, no sauce needed! Minnesota was also gracious in providing us with the opportunity to witness the Showy Ladies Slipper (Cypripedium reginae), Greater Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens) and White Lady Slipper (Cypripedium candidum).

Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens in the flesh, chilling in a remnant wet prairie.

This past week we ended up visiting Wisconsin- the true land of American Style Cheese. While we opted for lighter faire during the first half of the trip (Chipotle), we indulged in true Wisconsinite fashion for the second, enjoying Curds that could stretch around your head three times, Mac and Cheese so rich it could pay back your student loans, and Potatoes au Gratin that made me question my allegiance to France.

Over the next few weeks we are slotted for trips to Northern Michigan and Southern Illinois. While there are plenty of new plants to survey, miles to drive, and tenderloins to taste, as a born and raised Michigander, I look forward to sampling the Pasties of the UP, debatably the original field food. Until next time, a l’aise Breizh!

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.

Where is Vernal?

The right seed, in the right place, at the right time.  This straight-forward goal was synthesized by the Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program, at a conference in Monticello, Utah. It assimilated a broad range of presentations, including the latest research on local plant genetics intertwined with climate variability, new conservation technology, and agronomic requirements for successful seed production. This simplistic goal resulted from a conversation of the various stakeholders involved with collection and production of native plants for habitat restoration.  Often, the center stage of this conversation was Vernal, UT.

I have been an intern with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal now for several weeks. During that time, I was able to attend the conference in Monticello and see where Vernal lies in the big picture of native plant restoration.  When I first arrived in my new habitat, the local flora was covered with two feet of snow after what had been an unusual winter.  However, I have learned it is a botanically interesting region due to roughly fifty endemic species associated with local geology, especially the oil-shale.  The energy sector also finds this area very interesting. Consequently, there are abundant future reclamation needs. The anticipated demand for native seeds played a key role in Vernal’s place at the conference.

While the snow melted, I compiled data to answer the question of “what seed?” I have become acquainted with the local flora of the herbarium and their locations on a map. However, I got my first taste of the field today, checking on seedlings of a milkvetch species that is endemic to a particular bend of the Green River.  The tiny seedlings were exciting to find and identify, being that they are so unique to that location. The landscape was enamoring, and I look forward to a season of discovering its hidden gems.

A view of the Uinta Mountains

Endemic Astragalus species

Endemic Astragalus species

Budsage… enamoring landscape in the background

Interns Unite!

Over the week of July 18th, the Taos and Santa Fe SOS crews joined forces to scour the slopes of the Carson National Forest for native seeds. We met at the Taos BLM field office, our government pickups laden down with tents, sleeping bags, a few musical instruments, plant presses and all the other essentials for an overnight in the field. Joining us on our hitch into Carson was the one and only Jessa “seed czar” Davis, the Taos AIM crew, Kerry Dicks (resident Archeologist), and Olivia Messinger Carril, co-author of “Bees in Your Backyard” (an awesome reference book for the bees of N. America). Together we drove north out of Taos through the sagebrush Mesa in a line of government white Chevy Silverado’s. To the locals we must have looked as much like a convoy of Botanists as something out of Mad Max.

Eventually we turned down the dirt road into the Carson National Forest and made our first stop in the foothill slopes of San Antonio Mountain. There we discovered a population of Oxytropis sericea and Linum lewisii, which we would collect from the following day.

Botanist convoy

Onward and upward we drove, into the aspen groves, buckwheat fields, and alpine lakes of the Carson NF, stopping for plenty of “drive-by botany” along the way. Several times during these stops, Olivia let loose her little tikes, each outfitted with their own bug nets. The cuteness was hardly bearable.

Eventually we arrived at the lower Lagunitas Campground, and set up aside the mountain lake nearby. Olivia then schooled us in some pollinator collection techniques, one of which involved deploying several cups of soap at regular intervals throughout the landscape before returning to collect and pin your specimens. As the light grew dim, the SOS interns, AIM crew, Jessa, Kerry, and the Carril family gathered around an inviting campfire. Alex, one of the AIM crew members, roasted a fish he caught from the lake and shared it with everyone as musical instruments were tuned and played into the night.

The largest and smallest bees found in N. America. Right: Xylocopa, and Left: Perdita. Photo from “Bees in Your Back Yard”, photo by Joseph Wilson (quarter used for scale).

I couldn’t remember the last time I had been regaled by ghost stories around a campfire, but I won’t soon forget the stories told that night.

As the sun slowly rose the next morning, so too did our crew. After breakfast, each group drove began to depart separately. We in the Taos-Santa Fe SOS team then proceeded to descend from the Lake, and made two collections along the way down that surely wouldn’t have been possible if not for the combined man (and woman) power of the group. On our drive towards a third collection in Questa we stopped at the Taos Cow for some world-famous ice cream of the coffee, chocolate, and lavender varieties.

That night, Ella Samuel, Laura Holloway, and Rebecca Schaub of the Santa Fe crew stayed in the modest home of the Taos Crew; Sophie Duncan, Jack Dietrich, and myself. Luckily our synergistic efforts at seed collecting were also transferrable to the grill, and together made a pretty solid pasta salad, some mouth-watering veggie burgers, and fragrant grilled pineapple. Like any good night, we finished it off with a game of Settlers of Catan before falling into well a deserved sleep.

The next morning, we collected seeds downstate in Truchas and Chimayo before parting ways. We’re currently planning another reunion… hopefully it will involve just as much comraderie and Catan as our former gathering.

Until next time,

-Jack Lynch

CLM intern (BLM) — Taos, New Mexico

Transitioning from Seed Collecting to Other Projects

A rare find - Kelso Creek Monkeyflower.

A rare find – Kelso Creek Monkeyflower.

Another rare find - a flowering Cholla cactus.

Another rare find – a flowering Cholla cactus.

Hello again from Ridgecrest CA. As of this week I am entering the third month of my internship. It’s hard to believe. The last two months we have been rushing to gather as many collections as we could for the SOS program. The flowering season is very short in the Mojave, and there hasn’t been any more rain, so it looks as if we may be at the end of our seed collecting. Fortunately, we had more rain this season than any previous years for the SOS program in this area. To give an idea as to what that means in the desert, we have made 18 complete collections so far, whereas in the previous 5 years the average was 6 complete collections. None-the-less, we feel pretty good about being able to provide a good collecting season. We have 3 more months to collect – the hard part will be trying to find something that hasn’t dried up.

The DTRNA volunteers hard at work making a collection of California Poppy.

The DTRNA volunteers hard at work making a collection of California Poppy.

The collection site of California Poppy and Fremont's phacelia in full bloom.

The collection site of California Poppy and Fremont’s phacelia in full bloom.

The highlight this past month: I took it upon myself to work with the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA), an organization dedicated to protecting the Desert Tortoise, to organize future cooperation with the SOS program to provide seed for the DTRNA. I set up a training day in which the DTRNA joined us in the field collecting seeds. We taught them about the protocol, what we take into consideration, and how to identify the target collection. We made three complete collections in one day! It’s amazing how much can be done when you have a few extra hands. All of the details haven’t been worked out but I really hope that there will be a way to continue using volunteer help to collect seeds and use the extra for restoration purposes in this area. There has also been talk of another organization interested in doing the same thing. I am working with my mentor to figure out the best approach to accomplishing this. Jeff Gicklhorn has been a really supportive, patient, knowledgeable and (incredibly) nice mentor.

One of the great things about the position in Ridgecrest is that the office is very supportive of taking advantage of the learning opportunities through the BLM. This week I am participating in NISIMS (National Invasive Species Information Monitoring System) training, and next week we will be traveling to Las Vegas for a NEPA class. This month is basically already booked full!


Leah Madison

Ridgecrest California BLM Field Office

Rain? In the Desert?

The past month has been full of new adventures, including our first time working under Jeff, on the plant component of our internship. We have had two visits from a group of contract fishers out of Tempe, AZ [and I apologize for not knowing the name of that company]. They come into Bonita Creek and act as a high-effort and high-impact fish removal squad. On a typical overnight set of our nets, Heidi, Rosalee and I typically set out a maximum of 120 nets per trip. These contractors set 500+ nets each night and camp in the area in order to set for 2-3 nights in a row. This allows them to remove fish from a greater area, and in greater numbers, than our BLM staff is capable of doing.

Bonita Creek had begun drying up in a lot of places. Some of the drying pools contained native fish that Heidi wanted us to move to pools that were more likely to stick around until the monsoons came in to raise the water levels. On the day we were out in Bonita Creek cleaning out some drying pools I was stung in the finger by a bee of some kind. I am not allergic (luckily), but I have since learned that you are not supposed to just grab the stinger and pull it out (like I did). This squeezes extra venom into the wound and will greatly increase your body’s reaction to the sting. Needless to say I was surprised when I woke up the next morning to a finger that was so swollen that I could not bend it at all!! I was on Benedryl, elevating my hand and keeping ice on it for 2.5 days before I was able to bend my finger normally again! It wasn’t how I intended to spend the better part of my 4th of July time off, but what can you do?

The Monday after the 4th of July weekend, we traveled for almost two hours to a site along the Gila River called York Canyon. Here we performed electro-fishing monitoring of fish populations. We then turned our sights to preparing for our upcoming weekend “camping” trip. We participated in a restoration planting weekend alongside members of the Sky Island Alliance and the Nature Conservancy in Turkey Creek and Cobra Ranch (in/near the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness). We spent the preceding week testing and coiling over 600 feet of garden hose and loading trucks full of plants and a product called DriWater. So much cool stuff happened over the course of that weekend and I took so many pictures that I plan to have another post just about that trip (coming soon, I promise).

We have also participated in a Spring Snail survey with Arizona Game and Fish staff on BLM lands. I also spent a couple days calibrating and constructing a Rain/Temperature Gauge that will eventually be deployed at a site called Sands Draw in order for our supervisors to get a more accurate representation of local precipitation levels received by restoration plantings in the area. The most recent project that we have started is a re-organization of our office’s Herbarium. Over the years, specimens have gotten out of order, mis-numbered and mis-entered in our database. It will be a fairly long term project that we will complete before we leave to get everything updated and organized. I know it might be strange, but I enjoy semi-grueling organizational tasks, so I am excited to be working on this during our office time! We are also using this herbarium collection to learn to identify our Seeds of Success Target Species for this year. Once we are able to identify these species (and the rains slow down) we will begin SOS scouting, and further down the line, collection of native seed materials.

And now for something COMPLETELY different: Who knew that the desert could be this HUMID? Well, this California girl certainly didn’t!! June 28th, monsoon season was off to a bang with a huge thunder and lightning storm that passed right by our house. We went to take the dogs for a walk before it started raining too hard and at one point we had lightning strikes on all four sides of our complex. For the next two weeks straight, we had storms roll through nearly every evening. It was pretty incredible to lie down in bed and have the room lit up sporadically by lightning strikes. I have seen lightning in every hue, from white, to blue to orange, and in so many fascinating patterns.

Storm clouds near Cobra Ranch at Sunset

Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE thunder and lightning, but I highly don’t approve of the humidity that comes with them. Give me dry heat over 105 any day rather than being in the mid-90s and 50% humidity. It just makes you sweat like crazy!! [Or as my boss Heidi says, “Women don’t sweat, we glow”, so GLOW like crazy.] The toughest part of the humidity is that it stops our evaporative swamp cooler in our trailer from cooling down the air. It will still move the air, but it’s not cold by any stretch of the imagination. I actually look forward to driving into town/home from work because my car has actual AC and I can feel cold air!!

It’s hard to believe that with the timesheet I turned in last week, I have completed over half of my hours for this internship. With weekend plans filling up between now and the end of September, I somehow feel like the rest of this experience is just going to blow by! I am still enjoying everything I am learning and doing and I hope to absorb all I can in the last two months I have here!

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Heather Paddock
Safford, AZ