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.


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.

Out of the Bunker and into the Light

110331 bunker interior 1

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