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Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

A Lot of Gall

All that is gold, does not glitter. Especially in September… when the goldenrods bloom.

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Ahhhhh chooo!  I don’t like that plant. Goldenrods make me sneeze! So you might say.

Not so fast. Goldenrods get a bad rap for fall allergies, although they are unlikely to be the culprit for your itchy, watery eyes. Goldenrod pollen is insect pollinated and has a difficult time finding its way to your sinuses.

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Ragweed is the likely suspect, as it blooms about the same time as goldenrod and is wind pollinated, making it more likely to be inhaled. Blame it if  your eyes water and your sinuses are congested.

Now that you’re not nervous about getting acquainted with goldenrods, take a closer look. Do you see interesting-looking formations on some of the plants? Those are goldenrod galls. An gall is simply an abnormal growth, and in this case, caused by an immature insect.

The two most common goldenrod galls you’re likely to see on the Illinois’ prairie are the ball gall…

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…and the bunch gall.

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The ball gall is made by the tiny goldenrod gall fly. She lays her eggs on a goldenrod stem, and about a week or so later, the larvae hatches. It chews a tunnel into the stem where it sets up housekeeping for up to a year. The goldenrod stem gradually swells around the larvae, providing a safe spot for it to live and feed. Think of it as a spherical bed and breakfast.

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If you enjoy fishing, as I do, you’ll know a ball gall is a good place to find bait. Cut open the ball gall, scrape out the larvae, and you’re in business. Woodpeckers and hungry, insect-loving birds are also in the know. You’ll sometimes find them pecking at ball galls, looking for dinner.

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Bunch galls are formed by the goldenrod gall midge, a tiny fly which lays its eggs in the leaf buds. The larvae short-circuits the normal growth of the plant, resulting in a an explosion of leaves that sometimes look like a stacked rosette, as you see in the photo above.

If you’re lucky, you might find a ball gall and a bunch gall on the same goldenrod plant.

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And — no worries. Although they do take nutrients from the goldenrod,  most goldenrod galls are believed to be harmless. The plant is irritated, but tolerates them. Sort of like you might put up with the out of town relatives that were supposed to come to your house for the weekend, and stayed for a month.

Looking for different goldenrod galls on the tallgrass prairie is a great excuse to go for a hike on a sunny day in September.

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But really…who needs an excuse?

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldenrod, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall, RKP; bunch gall, RKP; ball gall, RKP;  bunch galls, RKP; ball gall and bunch galls, RKP; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Some of the information in this essay is taken from the following sources: Brandeis University: http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/galls/galls.html; http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/goldenrod_gall_fly.i.cfm.; http://www.hiltonpond.org; www4.um.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/galls_i.cfm; http://prairieecologist.com/2013/08/27/goldenrod-allergies-and-spitballs/;  Web MD: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/ragweed-pollen

The quote that begins the essay is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.