Tallgrass prairie restoration

This week I attended the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Over the course of four and a half days, thousands of ecologists presented their work to one another in short talks, posters, and informal conversations. Paradigms were questioned, collaborations were struck, and job opportunities were sought.

A personal highlight was an informal field trip to a prairie restoration site in the Cowling Arboretum at Carleton College. About a dozen ecologists (many from UC Davis) came along, and their breadth of expertise made for an engaging walk.

We stepped out of the cars into a sunny, unseasonably temperate afternoon. A few mosquitoes hovered in the shade of the woods along the Cannon River. A Great-crested Flycatcher gave a loud wheeep from the canopy. Matthew Kaproth from the University of Minnesota showed me that the small seeds of jewelweed are edible. They taste like walnuts.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) Savannah and tallgrass prairie at the Carleton Arboretum.

Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) savannah and tallgrass prairie at Cowling Arboretum.

The prairie was at its peak growth during our visit with big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass growing head-high. The color spectrum was saturated with purple mints, yellow compass flowers and black-eyed susans, red grasshoppers and dragonflies, blue swallows, and orange soldier beetles.

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chaliognathus pensylvanicus) mating on a rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chaliognathus pensylvanicus) mating on a rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium).

According to Jens Stevens, compass flowers (Silphium laciniatum) align their foliage north-south, minimizing solar radiation in midday.

According to Jens Stevens, compass flowers (Silphium laciniatum) align their foliage north-south, minimizing solar radiation in midday.

Compass flower leaves, properly oriented.

Compass flower leaves.

The prairie restoration site sits near the northern edge of the Great Plains. Hardwood, deciduous forests dominate across the Cannon River and up through the Twin Cities, transitioning to boreal forest in the northeast part of the state. Seeds for the restoration came from local railroad right-of-ways. Perhaps fires along the railroad beds maintained the native plant communities as other lands were plowed under for agriculture. Prescribed fires in the spring every few years now maintain the prairie.

Thanks to Jens Stevens for organizing the fieldtrip and to my hosts Dan and Tess for their great hospitality.

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About Leighton Reid

Restoration Ecologist
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