Thursday, February 10, 2011

Returning a bit of prairie to the Prairie State

Returning a bit of prairie to the Prairie State

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A week ago last Friday morning, I joined up with a group of eight other people to sow seed. Not in a greenhouse. Not in a dream. We were planting prairie at the Loda Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve just 30 miles north of Champaign in Iroquois County.

The focal point of the Loda preserve is a 3-acre parcel of land adjoining Pine Ridge Cemetery, which was preserved from plowing or grazing since the time of European settlement in anticipation of burials there. When this parcel was recognized as one of the very few intact remnants of tallgrass prairie in Illinois in the 1980s, it was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Since 1983, the preserve has been maintained by the Urbana-based conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, which took ownership of it in 2004.

Of course, the intact prairie at the preserve, which includes an astonishing diversity of plant life, more than 130 species in all, does not require seeding. We were planting an expansion of the prairie. This land, which was bought by Grand Prairie Friends in 2007, surrounds the prairie remnant on three sides and includes an area of 9 acres.

According to Mary Kay Solecki, who is a field representative for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the expansion is crucial to the long-term health of the preserve. In her words, “We’ve come to understand that these tiny prairie remnants are subject to a lot of stress because they are so small. The things that degrade them, especially invasive plants and animals and herbicide drift, are worst at the edges, and there’s little that’s not “edge” on a one or two or three-acre site.”

Solecki continued, “It’s very fortunate that the local steward at Loda was able to communicate this to the owner of the surrounding property, and that he was willing to sell some land to help alleviate the problem.”

The seeding that I helped with, and all work on the Loda expansion, adheres to a formal plan, the goal of which is to maintain the unique character of the remnant prairie by replicating it as nearly as possible in the expansion.

So the seed we scattered came not from a nursery or a mail-order company, but right from local plants, gathered especially for the purpose in the heat of last year’s summer by an assortment of scientists and enthusiastic volunteers. In the mix were big bluestem and other tall grasses from the Loda remnant itself; pale purple coneflower from the Prospect Cemetery Nature Preserve, just up the road; compass plant from the Short Line Railroad prairie near Gifford, and the seed thirty-some other flowering plants.

The process of planting was every bit as enjoyable as you might expect. We began by using our hands to combine the seeds of all the plants in a large plastic bin. Then, carrying it in buckets or bags, we simply walked the area and scattered it. A thin layer of snow covered the ground, and the air temperature was just warm enough to soften the top of it, so the seed sank in slightly rather than blowing around. To further ensure that it stayed in place, a tractor pulled a roller over the ground as we finished.

Unlike the seeds of crops and annual garden flowers, the seeds of native prairie plants benefit from exposure to winter, so the timing of our planting in advance of last week’s storm was just right. If all else goes well, there will be a little bit more prairie in the Prairie State come Spring.