Propagating Swamp Betony by Luke Dahlberg

by Luke Dahlberg with Citizens for Conservation

This work can be seen at this years GRN workshop.

Luke Dahlberg with EPFO

One of my goals that I wanted to achieve this year was to begin trials on the propagation of hemi-parasitic native plant species. The challenge with these is that they need a sufficient host plant for these plants to grow and develop. While some of the methods I have read about didn’t use a host plant, the overall vigor and development of hemiparasitic seedlings without a host greatly declined in their growth, which mostly lead to mortality of the young plants. With this in mind, I decided to first try one species that I thought would be a good introductory candidate for hemiparasitic plant propagation, and that species was Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata).

An uncommon species within the region, Swamp Betony is found in a variety of wetlands that include Sedge meadows, fens, wet prairies, and marshes. Like other Pedicularis species, it is a generalist when it comes to hosts, but generally gravitates towards using graminoids and composites. From my experience, Swamp Betony does fairly well from sowing seeds into restorations, and slowly increases in numbers over time. However, the number of plants is still few compared to what you may see in remnant habitats. The flowerheads of Swamp Betony are heavily browsed on by deer, and this makes it a challenge for seed collection in area where deer densities are high. This along with habitat degradation are some of the factors of why Swamp Betony is declining in the region. By propagating plants within a nursery setting, I wanted to see if I could successfully reintroduce Swamp Betony into the wild with plugs, and if there is the potential to plant plugs in protected nursery beds to increase seed production, or directly into the restoration.

Understanding the nature of Pedicularis species, I wanted to use the right host plants for this trial. Swamp Betony can drain a lot of energy from its host, so having a vigorous host in a plug would give enough energy for the developing Swamp Betony seedling. I chose to use Common Lake Sedge (Carex lacustris) and Hairy-leaved Lake Sedge (Carex atherodes) for the trial since they have an aggressive, rhizomatous nature to coup with the Betony. After their needed stratification period, I sowed the sedge seeds roughly a month before the sowing of the betony seeds. This would allow enough time for the sedge seeds to grow and develop into a sizeable seedling so that the betony will have enough root mass to attach to.

When the seeds of the sedges germinated, I transplanted them in small plugs (88 trays). I did this rather than directly into larger plugs with the idea that the root system of the sedge would be more condensed, allowing the seedling of the Swamp Betony to have a greater chance of attachment before being transplanted into a larger plug. Seeds of Pedicularis were sown with a host on April 8th, 2021, approximately 150 days after a cold, moist stratification period. Each plug received one seed to keep track of germination rates and to not overwhelm a sedge plug with more than one Swamp betony plant. First signs of germination began on April 20th, 2021, and continued sporadically for a couple weeks. Once the host sedge was large enough, and the Betony seedlings had a couple pairs of true leaves formed, I transplanted them into larger plugs, where they would continue to grow for the next two months. Growth and development was slow at first, but increased greatly once the summer months hit. In July, volunteers planted the plugs directly into the sedge meadow restoration.

Plugs of both the host and the betony progressed in growth once planted, but the host sedge was less vigorous than regular sedge plugs. Many of the Swamp Betony plants did flower and set seed this first growing season. I’m planning on trying this approach with Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with upland sedge hosts for the upcoming 2022 growing season.

Seed sowing of Pedicularis lanceolata on 4/08/21 with Carex lacustris host
Pedicularis lanceolata seedlings on 4/20/21 with Carex hosts
Pedicularis lanceolata seedling with first true leaves on 4/29/21
Pedicularis lanceolata seedlings on 5/17/21
Pedicularis lanceolata plant on 6/08/21
Pedicularis lanceolata plug and Carex lacustris plug 7/08/21. Note how the host
sedge is less vigorous in growth than a normal sedge plug.
Pedicularis lanceolata with flower stalk 8/19/21
Pedicularis lanceolata roots under a hand lens 7/08/21. The swollen areas are where the Haustoria have inserted into the Carex roots.
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Save the Date – GRN workshop – August 16,17, 2022!

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Prairie planting #135 Grist Mill unit

By Bill Kleiman

The Nachusa Grasslands seasonal crew were led by Anna Scheidel and Matt Nugent.

The Nachusa crew harvested, processed and planted enough seed to plant two units, including this 25 acres at Franklin Creek Natural Area, FCNA, which is an Illinois DNR site next to Nachusa Grasslands.

They hand harvested seed of 192 species of plants with a total weight of all these seeds at 1,766 pounds, which is nine tenths of a ton. This weight includes chaff as we don’t clean our seed from the seed heads and bits of stems.

This seed was used to make various mix types from dry to wet, savanna to woodland. At this planting they used 300 pounds of the dry-mesic seed mix, 850 pounds of the mesic seed mix, 252 pounds of wet seed mix, and 125 pounds of Canada rye for the border edge.

Dividing up a species of seed into mixes
Planting crew: Matt Nugent, and two fall crew we hired: Veronica Silva and Mathew Togger.

The livestock trailer we use to haul the barrels of seed to the site.

We use antique seeders to drop the seed onto the ground. The seed was planted directly onto the corn stubble. The last several years we have not been burning off the corn stubble. We feel the stubble gives some benefit to keeping winter rains from washing seed away. Also during the summer drought of the first year the stubble may give some moisture benefit to the fragile emerging seedlings.

The crew makes at least two passes with the seeders to get good coverage.

To read the detailed report of this prairie planting is available with the others at Friends of Nachusa Grasslands:

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Twenty years of tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Illinois, USA

by Elizabeth Bach, Research Scientist at Nachusa Grasslands

This blog originally appeared in The Applied Ecologist blog on Dec. 7, 2021.

Nachusa Grasslands prairie restoration photo by Dee Hudson

The challenges facing our planet can feel overwhelming and paralyzing. Climate is changing, biodiversity is declining, people are struggling to be in community with one another. However, there are signs of hope. The United Nations declared 2021-2030 as the Decade on Restoration, upholding ecosystem restoration as a transformative approach to addressing environmental challenges. To understand, improve, and enact restoration practices, it is important to monitor restoration outcomes.

1996 photo of transect 26
2021 photo of transect 26

Our new article Twenty years of tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Illinois, USA published in Ecological Solutions and Evidence, as part of the cross-society special feature on the UN Decade on Restoration, provides one example of long-term ecosystem restoration monitoring. This dataset follows plant communities in native prairies, savannas, and planted prairies at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands preserve. Conservation and restoration efforts began at Nachusa in 1986. Volunteers and staff began right away to remove invasive species, restore historic fire regimes, and plant tallgrass prairie restorations into crop fields. As the vision grew, project manager Bill Kleiman knew measuring restoration outcomes would be vital to honing restoration approaches and building support for large-scale restoration. He established several permanent transects in the mid-1990s, recording plant communities on native prairies, planted prairies, and savanna habitat at the preserve. Amidst the many demands of the project, Bill ensured these transects were resampled several times across the years as the preserve expanded.

Our paper synthesizes the data collected between 1994 and 2016. Plant communities on native prairies have maintained their unique structure, including most of the rare plants that initially attracted the attention of conservationists. Plant communities on native prairies have maintained their unique structure, including most of the rare plants that initially attracted the attention of conservationists.

Planted prairies reached 75-80% native plant species, achieving restoration goals of establishing plant communities dominated with native species. Savanna habitats have transitioned from shrub-dense communities to open understories dominated with native herbaceous plants.

Our long-term results contrast previous studies that have observed declines in plant diversity over time within tallgrass prairie restorations. Few restorations have been monitored repeatedly over time, so previous work has relied on sampling prairies of various ages to infer changes over time. This approach has many advantages, including being able to perceive long-term trends in one or two seasons of field work. However, it can limit our ability to untangle plant community changes over time from changes in restoration practices over time. At Nachusa, as in many places, our most recent plantings included more diverse seeding mixes and denser seeding rates. These younger restorations do have greater plant diversity than older restorations. In this study, we synthesized long-term data from the exact same transect locations, exclusively focusing on plant community changes over time.

Nick Foster, left, and Elizabeth Bach, right, collect plant community data along a transect. Photo by Dee Hudson

Generally, these data show that long-term restoration efforts at Nachusa Grasslands have successfully reached floristic goals. Active management is central to our approach to restoration. The tallgrass prairie ecosystem developed over millennia with Indigenous people actively dwelling with the system. Numerous Indigenous cultures cultivated fields, planted trees, set fires to select plant communities and attract large game like bison, and harvested food, fiber, and shelter from the landscape. Their actions have been essential to shaping and sustaining this ecosystem. It is hardly surprising the plant communities at Nachusa have responded neutrally or positively to regular prescribe fire, aggressive invasive species removal, and active planting into former crop fields and degraded areas.

Today, Nachusa Grasslands is 1600 ha, ten times the size of the original area. Volunteers, staff, and scientists work side by side actively restoring the landscape. Many animals are also rebounding. Restoration efforts are recreating a medium landscape-scale habitat, large enough to support organisms ranging from tiny insects to the iconic bison. We continue long-term monitoring of plant and animal communities to evaluate how our efforts succeed and how they fall-short. We look forward to continuing to learn from our work and the work of colleagues engaged in restoration around the world.

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Combining prairie

by Bill Kleiman

If you want a high diversity prairie restoration nothing beats picking by hand. You likely don’t need a combine, but perhaps you would find it interesting to see how ours works. Here is a half minute video of this machine harvesting a prairie planting at Nachusa Grasslands

This head does not cut the plant, but rather strips the seed heads with those metal fingers which spin fast on the rotor. This helps the combine by not importing all the stems of a prairie into the machine which can cause a combine to bind up. Combines are made to move corn, soy, wheat and other monocrops.

The harvest looks like this when the prairie has a lot of forbs in it. If you harvest an area with invasive weeds you get those too. We avoid areas with lots of the tall grasses or weedy goldenrods. We tend to harvest from a handful of plantings annually. A combine produces lots of what you got. For our new plantings we use our precious hand harvested seed. We don’t use much of this product in our new plantings. The combine mix has several dozen species and it is good for certain situations, and we trade it with conservation partners.

You are looking down at the grain tank of the combine. There are two augers at the bottom with metal covers hovering over and therefore hiding the augers. If you take the auger covers off the augers will bind from the prairie material, belts will smoke, wrenches will be weilded. If you leave the auger covers on the mix won’t go into those augers unless you continuously poke at the mix. This we do and use the ten foot long two inch white PVC pipe you see. It takes about 30 minutes to fill the tank, and about the same time to get it out of the tank into the grain wagon.

We unload into one of several old grain wagons. We cut a hole in the wagons and installed a perforated drier tube with the red fan which allows the seed to dry in the wagon, saving us a step of unloading damp seed and reloading dry seed a few days later. I see retailer Dultmeier makes a drier fan and I hope to try those as these red ones have motors that are failing early.

This is looking down in the grain wagon at the white perforated metal seed drier tube. I recently added the black 4 inch diameter perforated black tube because we had some very damp seed that was struggling to dry. This seems to work better.

Keeping it simple is always good. Scissors and buckets are our main harvesting tools. Above, Becky Flack Neal is pulling a Prairie Habitats seed stripper back in 2003. That machine still harvests annually for us.

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Growing Comandra with Plugs

By Bernie Buchholz, Nachusa Grasslands Steward

Photo by Greg Baker

Comandra umbelata (bastard toad flax) is notoriously difficult to grow from seed, but we’ve had success growing it from plugs.

Photo by Charles Larry

In 2008, we dug five plugs from inconspicuous spots on the edges of a relic prairie, where the grasslands faded into trees and shrubs. We planted them in both a degraded remnant and in a planting.  We planted those initial five plugs, they prospered over time and eventually became the source for 175 plugs without putting any pressure on the remnants. It’s been a slow, labor intensive, but very rewarding process.

Here is how the process has worked best in our sandy-loam soils:

  • We transplant in both early April, as soon as new growth appears, and in early November when the plants are dormant.  You’ll need to mark potential plugs in the summer for fall transplant so you can find them.
  • A straight edge shovel is handy for digging nice square plugs. We like them to be about 8” x 8” x 8”, but deeper can be better.
  • Since we want comandra to have the opportunity to spread across our entire plantings, we chose to plant them on roughly 25 meter centers.  Based on our experience, the plugs might connect in about 15 years.  Like I said, it’s a slow process.
  • Keeping transplants moist is critical while they get established. That’s why we set the plugs 1.5” to 2” inches below the adjoining surface.  Creating this square pool enables us to deliver about a gallon of water with no runoff, both while transplanting and in the following weeks if the weather is droughty. Water your spring transplants before they show dryness. Late watering reduces chances for success.  We never water after the first season.
  • Reduce the risk of your transplants drying out by applying an inch or more of clean mulch in the “pool” and the edges of the plug where water might tend to escape through evaporation.
  • Collect the soil you remove to create the transplant holes and use it to fill where you dug the plugs.  The spots where we dug plugs (grown from our original five plugs) and refilled the holes, these areas quickly blend into the adjacent flora and are recolonized by comandra over a period of several years
  • It takes about 3 hours to dig and replant ten plugs into nearby plantings and repair the borrow site.

Don’t expect to see much growth the first 2 to 4 years.  We celebrate seeing just a couple of surviving stems.  The plugs tend to be resilient.  We average about 90% survival, although some plugs seem unwilling to expand for quite a while.

Working from seed will ultimately be the way to make comandra a routine part of our plantings.  Here is an abstract of recent research into comandra which was funded by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands: science-symposium-abstracts-2019 .  Scroll down to Mycorrhizal fungi community and population genetics of Comandra umbellata, Emma Leavens. One of the great joys of spring is to see which plugs send up a few shoots and how much the clones grew from year to year. 

photo by Charles Larry
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New seed room

Above is our new stewardship building at Nachusa Grasslands. The left half, with the lower roof height, is the seed room and science prep room. A few years back we ran out of room in our old HQ timber frame barn and so we banished the hired seasonal seed crew out of our that old barn and put them in an unheated shed which ended up having a leaking roof. The volunteers stayed in the heated Headquarters. This new Seed Room reunites volunteers and crew and we like that vibe. Here is a photo tour.

Bernie is giving a tour to two folks and the crew is pondering where harvested seed should go to be dried. Here is a ten second video of the crew working the room.

These dangling tubes have room temp air blowing gently through them. They hook to PVC tubes with holes drilled in the plastic that let air filter up from the bottom of the barrel of damp seed and dry it out so it does not mold in storage.

This is a “squirrel cage” fan with the motor inside the cage for maximum cooling of the motor.

We installed a four speed fan switch to save energy and noise and can turn off the fan quick when we want quiet. Details of this drier system were the topic of a previous post

The seed racks were how we dried all our seed before we came up with the dangling tube Medusa drier. They are nice racks with four foot deep trays, and the trays slide in smoothly. Small white boards can be written on. These trays can be used to store little bags of seed for the season.

Cindy Buchholz milling seed, perhaps lead plant. There is a previous post about hammermills:

Matt Nugent filling a barrel with milled seed, which is dusty. The wall mounted exhaust fan is huge and moves the dust outside.

It is seed mixing time! After a long year of harvesting the crew reviews spreadsheets from past years to see where each species of seed could be distributed. Mix choices are dry prairie, dry mesic prairie, mesic prairie, wet prairie, savanna, woodland. Note the Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm and Rericha is open. This Flora helps them think about where a species could grow.

Crew leaders Matt Nugent and Anna Scheidel. Behind them are some barrels of seeds of various species all layered up in the barrel. Later they will take all the dry mix barrels, dump them on the floor, use a shovel to mix them and then refill the barrels. Then they do this for each mix, a dusty job. Then they will be ready to plant.

Matthew Togger splitting seed to various mixes.

The seed room can get crowded with barrels and bags of seed. To lower chaos we have the hired crew using white seed tags and white barrel tags while the Stewards use green.


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Saving Bell Bowl Prairie

By Bill Kleiman

If you are from northern Illinois you have heard about Bell Bowl Prairie, a remnant prairie that sits in the way of the current design for the Rockford Airport expansion.   There is a website created for the purpose of saving this remnant,   Perhaps the airport authority can be convinced that a rare prairie remnant can coexist within an airport’s footprint.

This is a blog site about habitat restoration.  We who work to recreate/restore grassland habitat are keenly aware of how irreplaceable remnant habitats are.  We share best practices and lessons learned. Many of us claim success when we create habitat that has enough similarity to a remnant that our goals are met, such as a certain plant diversity, a return of birds, insects, and other critters calling our restorations home.

However, we don’t want remnants destroyed with the belief that the same habitat can simply be created elsewhere. Think of an art metaphor: a Rembrandt painting is not replaced with a pretty good copy.

There have been a few times when a remnant was to be destroyed and so plants were dug up and transplanted to new areas.  This would be the Rembrandt painting cut up into pieces and moved from a museum to a warehouse.

We who create habitat appreciate remnant habitat.  

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Lisa Schulte-Moore

by Elizabeth Bach

It’s not very often that prestigious national awards recognize the hard work and positive change happening to restore grasslands in North America. Last week was one of those rare moments. Dr. Lisa Schulte-Moore was named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as the “genius grant,” is awarded to individuals in recognition of exceptional creativity, promise of important future advances, and potential to facilitate on-going creative work.

Lisa Schulte-Moore

Dr. Schulte-Moore is a professor of landscape ecology at Iowa State University and the key driving force behind the Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) project. The STRIPS project works with farmers to plant native prairie buffer strips within row-crop fields. Incorporating prairie plantings into 10% of a field can:

  • Increase insect taxa richness 260%
  • Increase pollinator abundance 350%
  • Increase bird species richness more than 200%, including species of greatest concern
  • Reduce water run-off 37%
  • Reduce soil erosion 95%
  • Reduce phosphorous loss by 90%
  • Reduce nitrogen loss by 85%

The STRIPS program is integrating native prairie restoration within working landscapes as a tool to improve biodiversity and environmental quality across the Midwest and downstream.

The MacArthur Fellowship brings well-deserved attention to Dr. Schulte-Moore’s work. It also provides an exceptional opportunity for her emerging work, including continued efforts to scale-up the STRIPS project and adoption on the landscape. Congratulations!

Photo above is from our 2012 GRN workshop at Neal Smith NWR. This is a flume at one of the initial STRIPS trials. Flumes capture water run-off  from a watershed catchment so they can measure soil, N, and P run-off from the whole field.

Learn more about Dr. Schulte-Moore and her work:

Schulte et al. 2017. Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

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Grazing Bison at McHenry County Conservation District- A New Venture

By Adam Rex- Restoration Ecologist, McHenry County Conservation District

Entrance gate into the new bison pasture

McHenry County Conservation District has been leasing ground at the 2080 acre Pleasant Valley Conservation Area for cattle grazing for many years. Even before the district owned Pleasant Valley the land was utilized by a large cattle operation on the north end of the property. This was an intensively managed cattle operation with concrete corrals and complex feed lots. Like so many large scale cattle grazing operations the land was overgrazed resulting in little to no ecological diversity.

After the district purchased the property they started leasing ground to local cattle farmers splitting the north side of Pleasant Valley into two grazing areas which we refer to now as the east and west pastures. The contracts that were initially agreed to definitely favored the farmers as opposed to the ecological benefits of the grasslands. When the cattle leases ended for the previous tenant on the east and west pastures MCCD started thinking of other ways to manage the grasslands with grazing. We started learning about rotational grazing, patch burn grazing and continuous grazing methods using sheep, cattle or even bison.  After a lot of research and attending a grazing workshop with Wisconsin DNR we felt that a patch burn grazing/rotational grazing method was the right direction for us. The 188-acre East pasture is now leased to a local farmer who is rotating significantly fewer cattle and sheep with great results. District staff felt the West pasture would provide a great opportunity to incorporate additional grazing on a large newly created prairie restoration.

Former cattle operation corral and feedlot buildings.

A Request for Proposal was put out to the public for a rotational grazing plan at Pleasant Valley Conservation Area with optimizing grassland bird habitat as the focal point. This proposal was to be for either cattle or bison.  

Once the proposals came in, the winning proposal was from Ruhter Bison ( Their plan is to graze a non-breeding herd of bison for meat production. This herd of 1 to 3 ½ year old animals will remain on the site until sold.

On the top of their priorities is the importance of using the bison to meet the ecological goals that we have for the area. It is evident by viewing their own ranch that this is something very important to them which is obviously very important to us. Educating the public on bison and the project itself is also important to both parties and will be a large part of future planning. MCCD plans on using the bison as a tool to assist us in restoring the ecological system to our prairies as well as educating the public on this iconic part of the American prairie and the part it plays.

Since we now knew there was a high likelihood of bison being on conservation district property we felt that we needed to educate ourselves on bison and bison handling. Although Ruhter Bison would ultimately be responsible for the care and control of the bison, we felt we need to be ready for whatever situation could arise. We began talking to other agencies including Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, who have both successfully reintroduced bison. We spoke with a bison professional from a Turner Bison Ranch in Nebraska, which was extremely informative. We also gathered as much knowledge from literature and lessons learned from the bison world as we could.

Finally and most importantly we visited the Ruhter family bison ranch in central IL. We observed their corral, fencing and assisted in loading two of their bison onto a trailer. It was a great time to discuss their procedures and philosophy on bison handling. They exercise a low stress method of handling, using positive reinforcement by luring them with mineral cakes, which is very effective and used by many bison managers.

Ruhter bison herd
MCCD Restoration Ecologist Chris Zeiner manning the trailer awaiting a young bison bull to load.
MCCD Restoration Ecologist John Peters using the big guns to take down an old corn crib.

As part of the lease MCCD agreed to remove all remaining cattle fence as it was inadequate to hold bison. We also needed to get rid of an old corn crib, concrete slab, and many old tires and other garbage. This part of the project took a team effort including a great volunteer group who knocked out a large chunk of the fence in one day. The natural resources crew took care of the rest, and after four large metal dumpsters and three large garbage dumpsters were filled, the first phase of the cleanup was done.

MCCD Restoration Ecologist Jeff Murray, Nathan Grah, and Paul Bruett pulling fence.
Piles and piles of old fence and posts that were not adequate for bison.
Pulling fence posts and fencing with the Terex track loader.

In early September the tenant began building the fence. The whole fence was up in about a week with a five foot woven wire fence with a three foot stand off and top electric wires. Gates were strategically placed to accommodate expansion onto an additional 80 acres that is currently corn and will be planted to tallgrass prairie this coming winter. The first phase of the project is 30 acres in size and will begin with a small number of animals increasing when the new acres of prairie are established for grazing. The final acreage that will be grazed is about 188 acres.

This is a long term project with potential to grow and we are excited to see where this partnership goes in the future. Even in the early stages this project has required and will continue to require assistance from every department at MCCD, this is definitely a district wide team effort including the support of our board. With proper management it should improve the ecological value of the site, provide great grassland bird habitat and also provide the public with an opportunity to see bison on a native landscape in McHenry County.  

Example of the bison fence showing electric wires and woven wire, bison capable fence.
Map of the total 188 acres that the bison will graze, expanding gradually over the next 3 to 5 years.

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