In 2014, the Northwest Illinois Prairie Enthusiasts undertook a new conservation project for Jo Daviess County, the Species Conservation Project (SCP). For over 20 years we’ve been creating new prairies and savannas. Now we will also work to create three or more safe populations of every native prairie plant on protected, well-managed sites, in Jo Daviess County.
This will be very difficult to do, but it is a goal worthy of our efforts. To grasp the scope of the problem, consider the following. There are 617 prairie and savanna plants native to Jo Daviess County. Of these:
- 174 species are now safe, over 80 due to our previous efforts
For example, in 1985 there were only a half dozen rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) plants growing in Jo Daviess County. Today, there are thousands. All of them growing on our prairie restorations.
-127 species are not now safe, but can be made safe in the short-term
For example, there are now several populations of white prairie clover (Dalea candida). But all of these are too small to be stable and/or located on unprotected sites. Generally, a population needs at least 100 individuals to be considered safe.—and the site needs to be well-managed.
-126 species can be made safe, but it will take a long time
For example, cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata leucophaea) lives at three protected sites in the county. However there are so few plants that there’s not enough seed to include it in our restoration projects. This plant requires “seed amplification,” that is, growing more plants horticulturally to increase the supply of seed. Alternatively, we could buy seed but at a cost of 55 cents per seed. Still, it will be 8-10 years before these plants mature sufficiently to produce seed.
-190 species lie somewhere beyond our present abilities or resources to make safe
For example, whorled yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) was found at one site ten years ago and is no longer there. Downy yellow foxglove (Aureolaria grandiflora pulchra) is extremely rare and parasitic on the roots of oaks trees; no one knows how to grow it. Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) has one good site, but the seeds are very difficult to collect, you can’t buy the seed and no one knows how to grow this one either.
Obviously the Prairie Enthusiasts’ “Species Conservation Project” will be technically difficult and take years to complete. Nonetheless, we’re moving forward. We’ve created:
- three gardens just for native prairie plants. These are used for public display and for seed augmentation. The results have been moderate but very useful. We could use many more of these, but required labor is daunting.
- two “plug gardens,” that is, plots with thousands of home grown plugs overseeded with a regular mix of prairie seed. These have been near complete failures. The plugs, we discovered, couldn’t compete with the other plants starting from seed.
- twelve “short prairie plots” varying from 400 to 4,000 ft. These plots have a few carefully chosen Eurasian grasses (as background) and one or two small native species. The goal is to turn scattered, hidden, little plants (which are difficult to collect seed from) into easy, reliable seed sources. More short prairie plots will be needed for savanna, sand, and wetland species.
- fifty-three “Species Conservation Plans” that detail how to conserve a single species. Each plan includes a description of the current status of the species, a list of restrictions on how the seed can be used, a list of actions to be taken to improve its status, and a journal of our conservation efforts. Each year we’ll create 50 more plans until all are completed.
- 108 tasks to be completed this fall and next spring. Many of these are overseedings (moving a limited amount of seed from one place to another) designed to expand existing populations. Other tasks involve monitoring threatened populations, inventorying sites for rare plants, and dealing with threats to existing rare plants.
-sites receiving SCP seedin 2015 included Casper Bluff, Hanley Savanna, Horseshoe Mound, Lonetree Farm, Wapello Preserve, both in natural areas and in numerous special plots.
And this year, we’ll start using plasticulture—planting plugs into landscaping fabric—to speed up the production of rare seed. Our newest plot will be located at Lonetree Farm and will be fenced, partly shaded for growing savanna plants, cover around 4,000 ft, have an automated watering system, and be designed to last decades.
If you have gardening skills and a yen to help Mother Nature, stay tuned. There will be plenty of opportunities to help.
Hopefully, within a decade, we’ll be able to provide good homes for another 150 species of native prairie and savanna plants.