Spa Midewin

Volunteer restoration doesn’t get any cushier than this – soothing one’s hands in downy thimbleweed fluff while undergoing mint aroma therapy.

120114 volunteers

Usually, cleaning seed at Midewin is a loud, dusty job, with volunteers manning several different kinds of seed processing machines. Ear plugs, dust masks and protective eyewear are compulsory. But a near record number of volunteers has led to all the machine stations quickly filling up. That leaves several of us relegated to hand cleaning work in an adjoining room.

120114 thimbleweed

Not all native seed can be cleaned or completely cleaned by machines. And by cleaned is meant separating the seed from the chaff. My job today is to strip the cotton ball-sized clusters of fluff-covered seeds from the woody stems of thimbleweed. The feel of the fluff is like wool. Soft, with perhaps a hint of oil that that makes the work seem more like a hand massage.

There is no scent to thimbleweed fluff, but that is more than made up for by a fellow volunteer working seed-chaff mixes of mint through several different screens. This releases not only the seed, but also an intoxicating aroma that soothes the senses, making me think less about the freezing temperatures outside and more about the time when thimbleweed reclaims its rightful place among the wildflowers of Midewin.

Thimbleweed

According to Midewin Horticulturist Eric Ulaszek there isn’t much thimbleweed – a member of the buttercup family – currently growing at Midewin. He found the plants I’m handling today growing wild along Route 66 in Livingston County. So, this seed is likely bound for Midewin’s River Road seed beds, where more than 150 different species of native plants already are under cultivation. In time, the white flowers centered around elongated seed heads that give thimbleweed its common name, once again will grace the dry and mesic prairies of Midewin in late spring and summer.

Bounty

111008 corn harvest

All across Illinois, on a perfect Indian summer day, farmers become ship captains – piloting massive, half million dollar combines across their ocean-sized fields. At Midewin, we, too, are farmers, but of a more antiquarian nature.

We reap what we have sown by hand. And we may gather far less in volume than our big ag counterparts, but we leave them in the dust when it comes to sheer biodiversity.

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Prior to settlement, there were at least 851 different species of plants native to Illinois. Today, 80 percent of the Prairie State is blanketed largely by only two plant species: soybeans and corn. In 2008, Illinois farmers produced 428 million bushels of soybeans and 1.5 billion bushels of corn, generating nearly $7 billion in revenues.

Compared to that, what value is there in the few dozen bags of native prairie seed we managed to collect today?

Well, for all practical purposes, corn and soybean fields are ecological deserts. They may appear green and lush. But due to a lethal combination of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, nothing much lives on 80 percent of Illinois land except corn and soybeans. That’s it. No bugs. No other plants. Corn fields represent “the poorest bird habitat in the state” according to Illinois Birds: A Century of Change and soybean fields aren’t much better.

111008 praying mantis

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ear of corn and soy milk is my beverage of choice for my morning oatmeal. But what I love more is the expanding number of acres under active restoration at Midewin. Two thousand acres and counting. That’s more tallgrass prairie than you’ll find in any one place in the Prairie State. In any one place practically anywhere. And with those recovering acres are more insects, herps, mammals and birds – especially rare grassland birds – than you can count. (Although we do count them to carefully monitor the progress of our restorations.)

111008 stiff goldenrodIn order to restore the rest of Midewin’s 20,000 total acres, we collect seed. Dozens of different kinds today. More than a hundred different kinds over the course of the season. Some seeds – like stiff goldenrod – strip off in your hand like “buddah.” Others – like compass plant – are buried deep within protective husks and require clipping clusters of entire stems.

111008 compass plant 1

After the weather turns cold, we’ll head indoors and clean the seed, removing all the husks and fluff and duff and whatnot. But today, we are deeply content to be outdoors among friends. In the cool air and warm sun. Humble farmers for a future filled with wildflowers, wild birds and all the bounty of the tallgrass prairie.

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Oh, What a Mi-DAY-win

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From foggy dawn through full moon dusk, a perfect day at Midewin.

At 6 a.m., the skies above Pullman (where I live) are clear. A half hour later, as I exit I-80 onto historic Route 66 (53 South) toward Midewin, I’m driving through pea soup fog. While the suspended moisture obscures much from view, it brings into high relief literally zillions of spider webs. Midewin looks as if staff has tricked out the entire site for Halloween.

110910 bird app

The fog makes for a challenging start to the scheduled bird tour, the grey haze draining even bluebirds of their telltale color. But as the fog lifts, our identification challenges return to normal: is that a mature northern rough winged swallow or a juvenile tree swallow? Sometimes, even checking the Sibley Guide smart phone app can’t settle the question.

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To celebrate this National Day of Service, in the afternoon I join a bunch of fellow volunteers at the River Road Seed Beds. All morning, they planted more seedling plugs. In the afternoon, I help them collect seed. Purple prairie clover. White prairie clover. Cream white indigo. And others. All from plants hand planted by volunteers and staff, grown from seed hand collected by the volunteer-staff team. One day – after hand cleaning by the team – to be hand sown in the growing number of restoration areas throughout Midewin.

As the sun bends toward the treeline of Prairie Creek Woods, it’s time for a saunter though one of those restoration areas. South Patrol Road Prairie. On such a late summer day, it’s hard not to think of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” as a love song for the very land itself.

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110910 bike tour

I’m not the only one enjoying nature’s gold. Connie and Jerry Heinrich – the first couple of Midewin’s volunteer program – are leading one of their popular bike tours along a new path through the prairie.

And long after the bikers are gone, long after the sun has fled and a Brigadoon mist begins to creep back over the prairie, the coyotes cut loose with a chilling banshee cry and a harvest moon rises so big in the sky you could almost reach out and touch it…

Arthur Melville Pearson w/ moon

 

Scurfy Peas and Prairie Violets

scurfy pea

Scurfy pea. Sounds like a character right out of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Actually, it’s a native prairie plant. Uncommon in Illinois, its growth and development are slow. Which is why we’re planting it in new raised seed beds today.

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Midewin currently cultivates about 120 different native prairie plant species in three seed bed areas. A few days ago, I joined a Cub Scout troop and a handful of other volunteers planting purple prairie clover and marsh goldenrod in the River Road Seed Beds.

Some species, however, don’t fare well in these locations. The soil is too rich, or the competition from weeds and even other prairie plants is too fierce.

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And so it is with scurfy pea, which we interplant with little bluestem in a lighter, sandier soil mix. Little bluestem will help keep weeds at bay and also provide fuel for a future controlled burn; scurfy pea being a species that responds particularly well to fire.

In the middle of the bed we plant prairie violet. Hang around Midewin long enough and you get to touch different species at different points in their life cycles. Earlier this year, out in the field, I helped gather a little seed from this even more rare native species. Others cleaned and planted the seeds in trays. Today, we’re planting the seedling plugs. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to gather prairie violet seed out of the raised beds and start the process all over. Ditto the next year and the year after that.

Because we need lots of prairie violets in our prairie restorations at Midewin. LOTS. Once we have LOTS, we may have the chance to reintroduce the regal fritillary butterfly, whose caterpillars feed exclusively on violets.

And because prairie violets are such a diminutive plant – topping out at three to six inches – they can be dwarfed and overrun by other species. And so, to give them a leg up, we’ve raised them up into these new seed beds.

110901 scurfy pea

Staring down at the seedlings we’d just spent a few hours planting under an unforgiving sun,  it can be hard to imagine a prairie. Especially when you glance up at the hundreds upon hundreds of acres awaiting restoration.

110901 prairie violet

 

But this is how it begins. A few volunteers. A few dedicated staff. A handful of fragile seedlings. Add sunshine and rain. Repeat as needed. And eventually…

110731 iron bridge prairie

 

The Prairie and the Pea (and the Butterfly)

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Eight o’clock in the morning and already we’re sweating through our shirts. But we’re on a mission. To find a needle in a haystack – a seed pod about the size of a pea in a sea of tall prairie grasses. The return of an endangered butterfly depends upon us.

Finding wild garlic plants is pretty easy. If you know where to look. And Midewin ecologist Bill Glass does. He and other volunteers previously marked the location of remnant populations of these native plants. The clusters of rosy, corn nut-like seeds stand atop tall stalks about waist high. They pop off easily in your hand. We don’t harvest all the seed, leaving some to naturally re-seed the area. But each of us comes away with a tidy sackful.

110705 wild garlic seed

Searching for prairie violet seed is much more difficult. To begin with, it’s an uncommon native plant in northern Illinois. Fortunately, a few remain at Midewin. But they’re hard to find even when marked. Now that the purple blossoms are done, all that’s left are the fingered leaves for identification. And those leaves are on stems no more than six inches high. And those stems are all but lost in grasses and forbs that reach three to four feet in height.

And even when you do find one, not every plant has a seed pod. Or at least a seed pod ready to harvest. About the size of a pea, the whitish-green pod is ready to harvest if it is pointing up. It’s not yet ready if it’s bowed downward. Then, too, some seed pods have already opened, releasing a small quantity of tiny seeds onto the earth.

110705 prairie violet seed

After an hour-long search, we come away with fewer than a dozen seed pods. As Bill explained, there are very few commercial sources for the prairie violet or its seed. If you want it, you have to grow it. And that’s exactly what Midewin’s going to do – add it to the growing number of plant species it cultivates in its seed beds.

The ultimate goal is to cultivate enough seed and plants to establish a sustainable population of prairie violets in restoration areas such as South Patrol Road Prairie. But why? Why is this one, uncommon plant so important to add to the nearly 200 of species of native prairie plants already established?

regal fritillary butterfly larvaBecause violets are the sole food source for the larva of the regal fritillary butterfly. Once common in the prairies of Illinois, the regal fritillary is now officially listed as a threatened species in the Prairie State.

To return the regal fritillary to Midewin – as the Peggy Noteabaert Nature Museum did last year at Paintbrush Prairie Nature Preserve in Markham, Illinois – requires establishing a viable population of prairie violets. And that requires first enduring a hot and humid day in search of a few pea-sized seed pods. No sweat.

 

Deerlemma

About this time last year, I came across a newborn fawn at Midewin. Perhaps only a few hours old, it was nestled in tall grasses alongside Turtle Pond; too new in this world to be afraid of the large, two-legged creature staring down at it from three feet away. Wondering if lightning might strike twice, I retuned to Turtle Pond this year in the hope of glimpsing another fresh fawn.

110625 fawn

Not a hundred feet down Chicago Road, which leads to Turtle Pond, I hear a rustle in the roadside grass. A few seconds later, a spotted fawn appears. A little older, but still lovely. Intoxicatingly cute. Truly, you just can’t help but grin like a child.

For me, such chance encounters are the true treasures of life. Chicken soup for the soul. Call them what you will, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for all the world. Even as I wrestle with the fact that as adults, deer are highly destructive.

Deer are voracious. They eat five to nine pounds of vegetation a day. Nearly hunted to extinction in Illinois in the 1800s, there are now more white-tailed deer in our state than at any time in history. To make matters worse, they are concentrated in our remaining natural areas, which amount to but a fraction of their original territory. As a result, many of our natural areas are virtually devoid of vegetation up to the height a deer can reach with its sharp incisors.

110625 seed beds

At Midewin, the native plant seed beds – like those next to Turtle Pond – must be fenced off from deer, which would eat virtually every plant in sight.

So, where I see cute in a fawn, natural area land managers tend to see a future pest to be controlled. And so they turn to hunters, who are just as likely to see a future trophy. Or meat.

hunter safety card

This past January, I passed my hunter safety training toward the goal of going on my first deer hunt. I don’t need the meat. And I certainly don’t want the trophy. But I realize that we, as a people, have created the conditions that allow deer populations to explode. Left uncontrolled, deer will effectively undo all the dollars and hard work invested at places like Midewin to make them havens for a full spectrum of living creatures, both plant and animal.

And so the herd must be culled. And while some might view the opportunity to do so as sport, and others as an ecological necessity, to me the need to do so presents more of an ethical and emotional challenge. And so, later this fall, while sitting cold and silent in a deer blind, hours before the dawn, waiting for my prey, I’m sure I’ll spend no small amount of time thinking back to a warm summer day and the large, liquid eyes of an exquisite creature.

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Out of the Bunker and into the Light

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One of my favorite rites of spring. The annual moving of native plants out of the bunkers. During the arsenal years, the bunkers stored TNT or finished bombs. The reinforced concrete bunkers, covered with earth, are just as perfect for overwintering plant plugs.  The cool, constant temperatures allow the plants to go dormant during the winter, as they need to do, but keep the root plugs from heaving in the natural freeze and thaw fluctuations of winter.

And so, as the sun warms the morning from a start of 27 degrees to what will top out at 50, more than a dozen volunteers and staff pile into trucks and vans and venture deep into the east side of Midewin. Some of the bunkers are open to visitors to explore. But the one we visited has been sealed up since last fall. It takes two pairs of strong arms to unwedge its explosion-resistant locking mechanism. And then, with all the excitement of opening an ancient tomb, the heavy steel door groans open.

110331 bunker exterior

But rather than dead things, the bunker is filled with trays upon trays of native plants that are but sleeping. Many hands make light work and soon the bunker is empty and a truck and trailer filled to the brim.

Back at the “Hort Building,” we unload the plants into one of several outdoor shade houses, where diffused sunlight and warmer temperatures, along with a little water, will wake the roots and send new green sprouts into the world.

Over the course of the next couple of months, there will be plenty of workdays to plant these plugs in seed beds or one of several areas under active restoration.

110331 shade house

The Need for Seed

When Midewin was established in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation. Re-establishing prairies and wetlands on such a vast scale requires an initial 10 to 25 pounds of native seed per acre, depending on the kind of habitat. That’s a lot of seed, especially considering that there are limited sources for a limited number of native plant species.

Today’s volunteer stewardship day was all about cleaning seed, seed that had been harvested from Midewin seed beds, natural area remnants, or other approved natural area sites. Since it had been about a year since last I ran the seed cleaning machines, Jennifer, Midewin botanist, gave me quick review of the two machines I’d be running. The first was a brush machine. Think twin rows of soft scrub brushes revolving within a hard mesh drum. It’s good a good first-step instrument for breaking down the likes of smooth white lettuce.

smooth white lettuceSmooth white lettuce (Prenathes racemosa) is not threatened or endangered in Illinois, but it is uncommon enough that it is not listed in any of my native wildflower guides. Nor does it appear in the on-line database www.illinoiswildflowers.info. I’ve never seen this plant in the wild, but according to a 1914 manual about weeds, it is a native prairie plant – “of very stately appearance, with a stout stalk, two to six feet or more in height” with dense clusters of pale purple florets.

Once dried, those florets first need to be separated from the stalks. Into the top of the brush machine they go, like raw meat into a meat grinder. A revolving metal blade first breaks up the stalks, then the revolving brushes dislodge and break up the florets against the side of the hard mesh drum. One output contains mostly broken stems. The other output contains a mix of chaff and seed.

The seed is brown, slender and less than half a centimeter in length. It is attached to a straw-colored pappus – think funnel-shaped dandelion fluff. One could remove each pappus by hand, rather like nipping the end off a miniature cocktail umbrella. Or more efficiently turn to another cleaning machine to tackle the job en masse. The second machine uses a combination of mechanized sifting, aspiration and gravity. The chaff/seed mix gets sprinkled on a top screen that shimmies back and forth, allowing the seed to drop down to a second, finer-grade shimmying screen. From there, remaining heavier chaff is sifted to away and lighter chaff is siphoned off by a gentle vacuum, allowing cleaned seed to drop into a bin at the very bottom of the machine.

seedIt can take a couple of runs through this machine and trying different grade screens to achieve the desired goal of a “clean” batch of seed. Even then, the seed must be viewed under a microscope to ensure that it is viable, meaning that it is capable of germinating. The last time I looked at anything under a microscope was in high school biology class. If memory serves (high school was a long time ago) I wasn’t much impressed by what whatever magnified algae or frog part I was looking at. Some 30-plus years later, I was enthralled by the beauty and complexity of a tiny seed. What looked like a nondescript splinter in a petri dish became a cocoa brown torpedo deeply scored with vertical lines along its entire length. It took a while to master the tweezer point that became a 2 x 4 under the microscope, but I eventually managed to scrape away a bit of seed husk to reveal the “meat” of the seed beneath. This compared favorably to my microscopic examination of seed from various chaff outputs. To the naked eye, this seed looked no different than any other, but under the microscope it was clear that the “meat” was gone, leaving nothing but shattered husks.

From start to finish, it took about three hours to clean two small batches of stalks, resulting in a grand total of maybe five teaspoons of viable seed. If this sounds tedious, crazy, not worth the trouble, well, truth is it’s fun. As someone who makes his living largely sitting behind a computer, it’s fun learning how to operate machinery. I’m not without experience when it comes to working with my hands (I’ve rehabbed two historic homes), but in learning the various steps involved to operate the brush cleaner, for instance, a part of me felt a little bit like Cliff Robertson in the 1968 film Charley being challenged to operate the bread making machine. (That is, after he started receiving the experimental treatments to improve his intelligence.) Install correct mesh drum. Install correct brush set. Set brushes to proper contact with mesh drum. Attach top cover. Attach end plate. Bolt it in place. Attach vacuum hose. Set level of air flow. Set level of output for door one. Put on protective eyeware. Put on dust mask. Turn on machine. Insert stalks one at a time in input. Check outputs. Make any necessary adjustments. Repeat entire process if necessary.

It’s fun to listen to the hum of well-oiled machines, an echo of the many, many machines that once hummed ‘round the clock at the former Joliet Arsenal, churning out a billion pounds of TNT and nearly a million bombs, mines, shells, detonators, fuzes and boosters.

It’s fun to be entrusted with an important step in the return of an uncommon plant species to the wilds of Midewin. Perhaps most fun of all is the cultivation of patience, for it well may be a few years before the descendants of the seed I cleaned blossom on the prairie. The next step for my smooth white lettuce seeds is to propagate them indoors, with the ensuing seedlings to be planted in Midewin’s seed beds. It may take a couple of years before enough plants are established well enough to generate a sufficient amount of seed, which, in turn, would still need to be collected, cleaned and only then used to seed wet prairie restoration areas at Midewin.