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Seeding the Prairies

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Over the past year or two, both Zoerb and Lookout Prairies in Hixon Forest have been undergoing restoration and have been expanded significantly. This is best seen from Bliss or Grandad Bluff Road, and is especially apparent if you can recall how they looked just a few years ago. Or, check out the before and after photos of the prairies on the Friends of the Blufflands Facebook page. The intact central parts of the remnant prairies have been cleaned up, removing large amounts of sumac, aspen, buckthorn, and other invasive woody plants, and there has also been a lot of work done to expand the prairies into the surrounding woods and form buffers around them by removing heavy growths of brush and trees. Zoerb has had the most expansion work done giving the prairie lots of room to grow. The work on both prairies is not complete and even when the restoration phase is done, there will always be a need for maintenance. Hopefully fire every three to five years will do much of the maintenance work.

To help the prairies expand into these cleared areas, seed is usually collected from the intact prairie by hand in the late summer and fall and spread into the new areas in the late fall or winter. Eventually the prairie would expand on its own, but actively spreading the seed into the cleared areas speeds up the process significantly. On these remnants, only seeds that have been collected on the prairie itself are used on that prairie, with rare exceptions. Seeds are not brought in from the outside because this helps preserve the unique genetic profile that has formed on each of these remnants over the millennia. This is in contrast to planted prairies like Thompson Prairie and the Pollinator Prairie in Mathy which were planted with purchased prairie seeds of unknown origin.

Prairie plants form seeds that mature at different times of year and include native grasses and other flowering plants called forbs. Some are rather precocious compared to other plants on the prairie, like bird's foot violet and pasqueflower, which form seeds that are mature in the spring. We have not collected these "early birds" on Zoerb or Lookout, but might do so in the coming years. Most, however, wait until late summer and into the fall for complete seed formation with the asters and goldenrods being some of the last seeds to ripen. Many plants have a mixture of mature and still developing seeds which can make collection a little tricky. Seeds are ready for harvesting when they are dry, often easily detached, and many times ready to fall from the plants on their own, though some plants with capsules and the legumes will have seeds that persist on the plant well after the seeds are ripe and even into the winter. Some seeds, like the well known dandelions, have a fluffy tuft called a pappus that acts as a parachute to catch the wind and allow for wide dispersal. Here are some examples of seeds that were collected this year:

These were teased out of a bunch of seeds that look like this:

Can anyone pick out the coreopsis, leadplant, and blazing star seeds in the first picture? How about Canada rye and prairie dropseed?

How to collect? Well, we just spread out as a team and canvas the prairie with 5 gallon buckets looped around our belts freeing our hands to strip the seed from various plants. We are careful not to take all of the seed- a common rule is "take half and leave half". Since we are keeping the seed on the edges of the prairie where it was collected, however, we can err on the side of taking a little more than half. Still, it is a good idea to leave about half of the seed especially the annuals or biennials and even to give the prairie a break by completely skipping a year from time to time.

Before spreading the seed, an inert filler is added. Examples of fillers include kitty litter, pet sawdust, vermiculite, and sand. We collected sand from around the prairies for our filler. This was mixed into the seeds before dispersing it. The filler helps spread the seed evenly and may help it from being blown away. It is also important to try to place as much of the seed on bare soil as possible to optimize the chances of germination. For the small areas on Zoerb and Lookout, we spread the seed mixture by hand, but on larger areas a mechanical seed spreader could be used. One area that was seeded fairly heavily on Zoerb was on the top along both sides of Birch Trail where brush was previously cleared. Hopefully this will give hikers a chance to see a nice display of prairie plants without walking onto the prairie itself which we discourage, especially large groups walking in single file during the growing season, because of the damage that can occur from trampling.

Spreading seed is one of the fun activities that Friends of the Blufflands does on the prairies each year. Hopefully we will see the results in the next few years with an array of new prairie plants sprouting on the recently opened up areas. Please consider joining as a member and volunteering to help us out as we continue our work on these prairies and other remnant prairies needing attention in Hixon and the surrounding bluffs.

Last, here are the answers to the seed quiz above:

  1. Coreopsis

  2. Leadplant

  3. Blazing star

  4. Canada rye

  5. Prairie dropseed

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