On my first day as an intern with TWI, my supervisor Iza stated that just a few feet in elevation can change a habitat dramatically. To what extent, though, I didn't realize until after spending some time in the field at the Lobelia Meadows Restoration Project at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
When gazing out at the landscape from a distance, one could view it as flat and almost unchanging. Only when you start to walk into the meadow can you discover intermingled streams with sporadic pools that a large variety of wildlife call their home.
Small depressions in elevation can have dramatic effects on the moisture level and diversity that can be found in the area. In locations just a few yards from each other, entirely different plant species can be found flourishing. Having these fluctuating plant species in turn draws an abundance of varying insects, birds, and other wildlife. This is very evident after a short hike around the site. In a short distance, a wet prairie can quickly become a sedge meadow and then rapidly become a marsh. This shifting environment creates a collage of various wildflowers over the entire landscape.
After experiencing Lobelia Meadows for the first time, it was hard to believe that just a short while ago the land contained expansive amounts of drain tiles, concrete structures, and gravel. Since then, areas that drained water quickly now have the potential to hold water late into the summer or even during the entire year. This longer-lasting moist soil was crucial as the field crew worked to integrate young, fragile native plugs (seedlings) into the landscape in the summer heat.
The Lobelia Meadows Restoration Project can be categorized into an assortment of different habitats based on the hydrology or chemistry of the soil or water, which is influenced by what type of bedrock lies below its surface. On the site you can find marshes, wet (sedge) meadows, wet prairies, mesic prairies, and dolomite wetlands and prairies. Dolomite wetlands and prairies are extremely rare habitats where dolomite bedrock lies unseen just below the surface.
Dolomite is a calcium magnesium carbonate and alters the soil's chemistry, resulting in a soil that is important for unique and rare plant species to grow. Two of these species growing at Midewin are on the state endangered species list: the hairy false mallow (Malvastrum hispidum) and the leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa), which is also federally endangered. The dolomite bedrock also impedes the drainage of rainfall, leaving the soil moist for much of the spring.
Using maps of the projected habitats that would be restored at Lobelia Meadows, our field team was able to plant young plugs where they had the best chance of survival. After analyzing the previously prepared maps, we could then choose the plants that would grow best there, load them, and plant in that area. As a result of this prior planning, our travel time and driving impact was greatly reduced. This mapping technology greatly improved the ease of getting the plugs where they needed to be.
Specifically, the map indicating where the dolomite occurs less than 12 inches from the surface was crucial in our efforts to plant the native species that grow best in that location. Without this mapping, these areas would otherwise remain imperceptible. Just a few of the plant species placed in the drier dolomite environments are nodding wild onion, heath aster, and northern prairie dropseed. In the wet dolomite locations the team planted Michigan lilies and tufted hair grass. Other dolomite-loving plants include the lead plant, marbleseed, big bluestem, purple prairie clover, and goldenrod.
Using historical records of land surveys and a nearby remnant prairie, TWI staff were able to determine what plant species had grown at Lobelia Meadows before the area had been disturbed. Also, by looking at topography and old maps, they were able to define the hydrology (water patterns) of the area and attempt to recreate what it once was, giving rise to habitats that had been absent for decades.
If you were to take a hike through Lobelia Meadows as a pristine habitat, you would probably initially encounter fairly dry ground. Here you would see patches of coneflowers, blazing stars, and the orange-yellow petals of the black-eyed Susan intermingled with the occasional compass plant reaching towards the sky with its leaf edges oriented north-south. You may also notice the lobelias for which the site is named interspersed in the foliage. The smell of the mountain mint may be drifting through the air as you walk. The cup plant could also be found here, holding water with its leaves and providing an oasis for the insects that call the area home.
On your way towards moister soil, you may notice the red-violet flowers of the prairie ironweed or a purple New England aster. When the soil remains moist underfoot, you might see a few monkey-flowers or Joe-pye weed. There would also be a variety of sedges growing out of the saturated soil. When you start to enter the marsh habitat, you may start to wish you had brought your rubber boots. This is where the hard-stemmed and soft-stemmed bulrushes may be found. The large-leafed arrowhead plant may also be found in this area where the water covers the soil.
Upon my arrival, the Lobelia Meadows still contained some patches of bare ground. Specifically, the areas where old drain tile had to be removed still feature long stretches of bare earth where some invasive non-native species have tried to make their home. The field team has been using these areas as a base point to start invasive management techniques. However, due to seeding early on in the project as well as new plug planting, the areas were also beginning to fill up with favorable species. This made invasive control a more intricate task and slightly altered our approach. We had to work carefully by hand in applying herbicide to ensure that the new native plant growth would not be impacted.
There is still extensive work to be done. Time, natural pollination, and seeding must take place as well for the area to fill up to the lush environment the Lobelia Meadows site has the potential to be. With the return or increase of many of the area's pollinators, the habitats there could become nearly self-sufficient. Many of these plants still need time and invasive control, however, in order to completely establish enough to compete with exotic species.
Since restoration work at Lobelia Meadows began, more than 88,000 plugs of assorted species have been diligently placed in their respective habitats by the TWI team and volunteers. These plants range from species such as Joe-pye weed and monkey flower to fox or porcupine sedge. Other locations are now home to young swamp milkweed, compass plant, Culver's root, and many more. A great amount of planting as well as invasive management has been undertaken at Lobelia Meadows, and will continue over the coming years, so that in the near future one can enjoy the area much as it was many years ago.
Owen is a Biology student at Quincy University (and father to two boys, including four-year-old Aiden!). He interned this summer with the Wetlands Initiative through the Associated Colleges of Illinois' Conservation Careers Internship Program.
Galatowitsch, S. & van der Valk, A. 1998. Restoring Prairie Wetlands: An Ecological Approach. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa.
Prairies in the Prairie State. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. January 15, 1999. Openlands Project and Illinois State Museum Society. http://www.museum.state.il.us/exhibits/midewin