I’m getting excited about this upcoming field season. For the first time in several years, we’re going to be attempting to harvest seed from as many prairie plant species as we can. Between about 1997 and 2005, we spent much of each field season hand-picking seeds from a broad diversity of species – often ending up with over 200 species by the end of the season. It was exciting and fulfilling, and we were often able to create up to a couple hundred acres of new prairie habitat each year.
Since that time, we’ve focused less on converting cropland to high-diversity prairie (we ran out of cropland!) and more on harvesting large amounts of fewer species to overseed degraded prairies. I’m not sure we’ll be able to harvest as many as 200 species this summer – we’re pulled in many more directions now than we were in our “glory years” of seed harvesting – but making the attempt will be fun.
A clonal patch of bracted spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata) in a 2002 prairie planting. It isn’t hard to find these patches (when they’re blooming) despite the fact that we had only about 1 cup of seed spread over about 70 acres.
During those glory years, we worked hard to build the most diverse seed mixture possible. We used to joke about how many seeds we had to get from a plant species before we could add it to that year’s harvest list. It kind of felt like cheating when we’d only find a handful or two of seeds from a species but would add it to the list anyway. However, we justified listing those species because of conversations with people who had much more experience than we did (especially Bill Whitney with Prairie Plains Resource Institute) who claimed that even a few seeds would usually be enough to establish a species in a new prairie. Besides, we figured if the species was appropriate to the site, tiny populations would spread out over time.
Now that I’ve had up to 17 years to watch the establishment of plantings I personally harvested seed for, I can testify that Bill and others were right. Sometimes, just a few seeds really are enough. That knowledge is awfully good for morale when we’re on our hands and knees searching for violet or pale poppy mallow (Callirhoe alcoides) plants to harvest from. Those are just two or many examples of plants that are short, have widely scattered populations in our prairies, and are difficult to find at seed harvest time because the surrounding vegetation has grown tall enough to obscure them from sight. To make things worse, neither of those species produces many seeds per plant, so even when you find a plant, you might only get 20-50 seeds out of it.
Knowing that those 20-50 seeds are worth finding makes crawling on hands and knees seem much less tedious. Ok, a LITTLE less tedious. Read more...