Prescribed Fire On An Illinois Prairie

Prairies are fire adapted ecosystems. For far too long, fires were sequestered. Today, more and more communities are coming around to the fact that fire can be used as a tool to bring life back to these endangered ecosystems. In this video, we get hands on experience with fire as a prairie restoration tool.

Producer, Editor, Camera: Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

Music by
Artist: Stranger In My Town
Track: Terra
https://strangerinmytown.bandcamp.com/

 

Exploring a Sand Prairie

In this exciting episode, In Defense of Plants explores the fascinating botanical communities growing in a sand prairie in central Illinois. The unique soil conditions makes this place a hotbed for rare plants. Many of these species are disjuncts from further west. 

The story of this place began some 14,000 years ago as glacial outwash from the long gone Lake Chicago blew across the landscape and piled into great sand dunes. Join us for a fascinatingly beautiful botanical adventure. 

CORRECTION: The cactus is not Optuntia fragilis, it is actually the eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)... Woops!

Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Matt Candeias (http://www.indefenseofplants.com)

Producer, Editor, Camera:
Grant Czadzeck (http://www.grantczadzeck.com)

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Twitter: @indfnsofplnts
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Music by: 
Artist: Lazy Legs
Track: Sparks
Album: VISIONDEATH
http://lazylegs.bandcamp.com

Spring Surprise on the Tallgrass Prairie

I have no frame of reference for spring on the tallgrass prairie. Everything is new to me. It is amazing to see what starts to come up before all of the grasses wake up and make things a lot harder to find. Diminutive herbs take advantage of sunlight while they can. What I also like is how well certain species stand out against a backdrop of last year's dry stems. This is how I was able to find wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides). 

The first time I laid eyes on this species, I was actually looking for birds. The spot I was in is known for harboring pheasants. I could hear the males calling but I was having a hard time locating these colorful birds. As I scanned the prairie for shots of color, something else caught my eye. From where I was standing, it looked like a green stick covered in foam. I couldn't quite make out enough detail. I knew it had to be a plant but the search imagine simply wasn't there. I had to investigate. 

Gingerly I tip toed out into the grasses trying to avoid stepping on emerging vegetation. Luckily some deer had already beat a path pretty close to where this mystery plant was growing. When I was only a few yards away I quickly realized what I was seeing. It was a small patch of wild hyacinth. From a distance it was hard to resolve the outline of the tightly packed flowers. From up close, however, it is one of the most stunning spring displays I have ever seen. 

They were covered in ants. As it turns out, these flowers produce copious amounts of nectar. Whereas ants offer nothing in the way of pollination, myriad other insects like flies, bees, butterflies, and wasps visit these blooms in search of a sweet, energy-rich meal. This plant seems to have no trouble getting pollinated. This is a spring species, emerging from an underground bulb not unlike the hyacinths you buy at nurseries. It has slender, grass-like foliage that isn't always apparent mixed in with all of the other vegetation. 

I was a little surprised that such an obvious plant could exist unharmed so near a deer path until I did some research. Like many of its relatives, wild hyacinth is quite toxic to mammals. As such, the deer were smart to pass it up. After years of seeing nothing but its introduced Asian relatives, I was quite happy to be meeting an eastern species native to North America. 

Further Reading:

http://bit.ly/1NBPF9z

Pasqueflower

The true harbinger of spring on the northern prairies of North America, Europe, China and Russia is none other than the pasqueflower (Anemone patens). It bursts forth from the ground with its fuzzy, dissected leaves often before all of the snow has had a chance to melt. It then proceeds to put on quite a show with flowers that range the spectrum from white to deep purple. Everything about this plant is adapted to take advantage of early spring before competing vegetation gets the upper hand. 

One of the coolest aspects of pasqueflower life are its flowers. These parabolic beauties need to be able to function despite the constant risk of freezing temperatures. To stay warm, the flowers will actually track the sun's movement across the sky. In this way, they are able to absorb solar radiation all day. What's more, the parabolic shape and reflective surface of the petals serves to bounce solar radiation towards the center, thus amplifying the amount of heat. Pasqueflower blooms can actually maintain a daytime flower temperature upwards of 18 degrees Celsius above ambient temperatures, not only providing a warm spot for pollinators but also increasing the rate at which the seeds develop. 

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The seeds themselves are quite interesting structures as well. Getting into the soil can be a difficult task when your neighbors are thick prairie grasses. Pasqueflowers get around this problem by producing seeds that literally bury themselves. Each seed is attached to an awn that is made up of alternating strands of tissue. Each strand varies in its ability to absorb moisture. As spring rains come and go, the awns will twist and turn with the resulting effect of drilling the seeds directly into the ground. 

Once the surrounding vegetation begins to wake up, pasqueflower is already getting ready to go dormant. By mid-July it is usually back underground. It is a prime example of how breaking dormancy early can help a plant beat the competition of the growing season. Also, pasqueflower can be very long lived, with individuals persisting upwards of 50 years in a given location. Not only is this plant is both hardy and beautiful, it also has the added ecological benefit of providing early prairie pollinators with a much needed boost of energy. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]