The Dirt on Prairies

I'm a rising junior studying Biology, with a concentration in Physiology, and minoring in Environmental Policy and Culture. This summer I'm working in Dr. Dan Larkin's lab at the Chicago Botanic Garden to determine how soil quality affects the phylogenetic diversity of restored prairie plants. "Phylogenetic diversity" is a quantification of how closely related plants are over an evolutionary timescale, and this type of diversity may be more important to the vitality of a plant community than the sheer number of species. I will be testing pH, gravimetric soil moisture, and soil organic matter for samples from each restored prairie that we visit, and comparing the sites to each other. Other interns are working on a variety of projects that all contribute to the overall research concerning phylogenetic diversity in prairie restoration.

8.10-8.14 – All good things come to an end

Bob and I spent the last week finishing up the soil analysis at the Arboretum. Due to a broken still we were unable to complete the pH and electrical conductivity analysis for the samples, as both of these measurements require the soil sample to be in solution with¬†destilled deionized water. I’ll complete these measurements in January, when I return from study abroad. But since we had some time to kill while the soil samples were cooking, we got to take some beautiful walks at the Arboretum!

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They also have a totally awesome jungle gym that I was not too proud to play on. Plus, there was an exhibit of giant Lego sculptures, and one was of a Galapagos tortoise and finch! (coughcough follow my study abroad blog in Ecuador this quarter coughcough)!

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On Friday we watched Taran, Meghan, and Alyssa give presentations on their projects with the REUs and they were totally awesome! Super super proud of all of them <3 Taran won the prize for best poster too! And we all got field guides from Evelyn and Becky ūüôā

Interns and books

Now down to the deliverables: what did I learn from this summer? Well, lemme tell you…here’s a small excerpt from my wrap-up paper for the URG.

While I cannot correlate the phylogenetic diversity of the prairie plants to their soil yet, I nevertheless have at this point been able to notice a variety of interesting trends in my soil data. For the purposes of viewing these trends, I have created two charts of my data, with the average GSM and LOI for each of the 18 sites. These charts generally mirror each other, with sites with high moisture similarly having high organic matter. Since I had no experience with soil science prior to this project, this correlation was incredibly exciting to me until I looked at a textbook and found that the connection is not unique to my soil. The organic matter is the part of the soil that retains water, and thus the higher the organic matter, the higher the water content. My data is therefore consistent with known trends, increasing my confidence in its accuracy. The lowest GSM/LOI averages were at the 41st St Bioretention, a restoration in the Chicago Park District. This site was between the beach and Lake Shore Drive, making for generally dry, sandy soil. The highest GSM/LOI averages by far came from Harvey Creek, in Sandwich, IL. This soil was incredibly dark, almost black, and reminded me of fully decomposed compost. Sure enough it had very high SOM. Although I have not found out much about the history of this site, besides that it was privately owned, it was in a dip in the land that may retain water, increasing decomposition and thus SOM.

In addition to the soil research, I learned much more about restoration practices, in prairies and in general, than I had ever known before. The key takeaway that I got was this: ecosystem restoration is really hard. I had assumed that once you created the restored ecosystem, you could leave it alone to be wild again. In reality, a restored area requires diligent maintenance in order to retain the qualities of the target ecosystem. A large part of maintenance is repeatedly removing invasives, either by pulling/mowing them, spraying them, or, in the case of prairies, doing a controlled burn. Restoring a site is a never-ending project, not a quick fix.

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Thanks so much for reading!

8.4 & 8.5 – Orland Henslow and Peck Recreation Center

For the last two sites we returned to our old friends Orland Grasslands and Peck Farms. Beautiful days both times!

Orland Henslow

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The Peck site was one of my favorites because of how ridiculously tall it was. All Big Bluestem, so it was plants we had seen before, but boy does it get tall by the end of the season! Here’s me in the midst of it, looking at a huge thistle that I had just run into face first. Right after Bob ran into it face first.

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Here’s one of the views from the top of Peck’s silo, which they’ve converted into an observation deck. To the right of the barn you can see a bit of the site we had just surveyed!

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8.3 – Harvey Creek

This site was notable for me for two reasons:

1. The soil was the darkest I’ve seen sampling, almost like compost. I’m hypothesizing high soil organic matter when I analyze it in the lab. Sorry this picture is so out of focus!

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2. Harvey Creek is in an Illinois town called Sandwich. This is, in fact, amazing.

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Actually this site was one of our least favorites, since there were a lot of tall plants with bindweed tangled up in them, which meant we spent a lot of time tripping and getting scratched. For reference, the flag is 5 or 6 feet tall.

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7.31 – Roxana Marsh (aka, the Infamous Indiana Site)

This was our only site out of Illinois, right across the border in East Chicago/Gary, Indiana. I had never been to Indiana before, and boy was this an interesting introduction! It was a day full of surprises for sure.

This part of Indiana is very industrial, as you can see from this view of our site. The restoration is right next to the expressway and a few factories, so it was very strange to see a little preserve among the industry. Gorgeous day for sampling though, and we could see some egrets in the pond!

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We had yet to realize…our site had been mowed the day before! The little patch on the right was left because the plugs were hand-sown by kids from a nearby school. Mowing is a common maintenance technique practiced in restored prairies, a cheaper version of controlled burns that scares the neighbors a bit less. It doesn’t work as well as burning, but serves the same function of keeping down weeds and taking out dead growth. Unfortunately the site had been mowed without the knowledge of our guide from the¬†Indiana Department of Natural Resources, a wonderful woman named Emily who was very apologetic about the mixup.

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Here’s a sign that says “No Mowing”… but it’s been mowed. Model: Bob.

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Since we couldn’t sample our site, Emily took us to a remnant dune and swale ecosystem nearby. It was beautiful! You can see all the water lilies in the pond, which has been extended by beavers over the past few years. We saw bladderworts in the water too! I didn’t know about these plants before, but they’re super cool. They don’t have leaves, so no chlorophyll and no photosynthesis. Instead they get nutrients by collecting water in their “bladder” structure and then consuming the microscopic organisms they capture in it! We also¬†saw a small cactus on the path, and apparently the small ones are native to sandy regions in this area!

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This¬†plant, Proserpinaca palustris (Mermaid Weed), lives half in the water and half out of it, like a water lily. The cool part is that as its leaves get submerged and then go deeper into the water, they become increasingly frilled, while the leaves in the air are smooth on the edges! Hopefully you can see that gradation in this photo a bit. I have a hypothesis for the origins of the genus name, although I haven’t done research on it so it’s a bit of guesswork. But I think that the genus is named after Proserpina, or Persephone as the Greeks called her, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. (You can skip this part if you know the story!) Hades fell in love with her and, in true Greek god style, kidnapped her instead of attempting to woo her and kept her in the Underworld. While there she ate six pomegranate seeds. Meanwhile up above, her mother refused to allow spring to come as long as her daughter was held captive, so humanity was suffering. Finally Hades relented, but Persephone had to stay six months of each year in the Underworld, a month for each seed she ate. While she is there we have winter, and while she is above with her mother we have summer.¬†As Persephone is half in the Underworld and half in the world above, so the Mermaid Weed is half in the water and half out of it! Can you tell I grew up with Greek mythology?

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7.24 – Sri Venkateswara Swami (Balaji) Temple

We took some time to explore the beautiful building that owns this prairie. It is the regional Hindu temple, located in Aurora IL. It was quite the sight to see every time we looked up from surveying the prairie restoration!

View of the front of the Temple

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View of the Temple from its prairie

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Pretty amazing huh? This site had pretty tough soil which was a pain to get the full 15 cm core from a lot of the time, and the site did have a fair number of weeds. But it sure was beautiful!

7.20- 7.22 – Orland Grasslands

This was an¬†enormous site! It’s part of the Cook County preserves. The size of the site meant that the three different sections we visited had visible differences in their soil, with the “Phoenix” section¬†having much drier soil than the “North” section, for example. There were differences in seeding strategies between the sections too – Phoenix is a “boutique” site hand-seeded by volunteers, rather than a huge seeding by Pizzo, and it shows in the high diversity of that section.

Orland, North section

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Chamaecrista fasciculata (Partridge Pea)

A beautiful little yellow flower, with leaves like a vetch, which is also a legume. This is the first site we’ve seen it at.

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Orland, Phoenix Section

A bit more color from forbs (non-grasses, or flowering plants) in this diverse section.

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A kind of Lobelia

A beautiful little flower that we didn’t positively identify since it wasn’t directly in our plots, any ideas of a species?

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Orland, South Section

You can see from the large amount of dead old growth in this section how important periodic burnings are to prairie health. Burnings clear away plant litter and allow new growth, which otherwise is inhibited by the old plant material.

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Tramping around prairies has done a number on my boots, time for some shoe glue this weekend!

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7.15 – Ball Horticultural Center

This site was at a big horticultural center, which was a cool place to visit! My favorite part of the center was their lawn mower roomba, which took about 6 hours to mow a small lawn but boy was it adorable in the process. The prairie restoration was right next to a General Mills factory so it smelled like a mixture of cereal and cookies! The site was right next to a wetland restoration and a retention pond so it was pretty buggy, and the plants were super tall so it was a bit like being in a jungle!

We had a nice day for this site too!

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It’s a¬†Solidago jungle out there!

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7.8- 7.13 – Peck Farm

Sorry for the long absence friends, it’s been a busy July!

At the beginning of the month we went to Peck Farm, beautiful agricultural land converted into a prairie and visitor’s center. The prairie was very dense and had beautifully soft soil, unlike some of the Chicago Park District sites, since it used to be tilled land. Pizzo used a different seeding mechanism at this site which may have contributed to the density of the growth, since the seeds were possibly planted less deeply according to Becky. I’m still encountering far fewer worms than I expect to while coring, although perhaps the worms burrow more deeply into the soil during the hot days.

I’ve got a lot of pictures of this site for you, since it’s one of my favorites so far.

Silphium laciniatum (Compass Plant) in bloom

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One of the coolest parts of field work is that I get to see plants at several different stages of life over the course of the summer, from seedlings to blooms! Here’s a blooming compass plant, much taller than I expected, with the characteristic yellow Silphium flower.

Compass Plant flower, detail

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In a similar vein, here’s another plant that we were only identifying by the leaves before:

Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower)

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A lot of the Solidagos on this site were afflicted with galls, abnormal growths in the plant where insects have laid their eggs.

Solidago canadensis with gall

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A common plant at this site was¬†Sonchus oleraceus, which looks like a very tall dandelion (although they are from different genera.) Unfortunately it’s an invasive ūüôĀ

Sonchus oleraceus (Common Sowthistle)

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We had an absolutely gorgeous day for our second visit to Peck.

Peck Farm, Geneva IL

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And Bob found a bird’s nest lashed securely into a stand of compass plants! Anyone know what they are? Looks like a robin’s egg blue to me but all I saw in the prairie were the dreaded Red-Winged Blackbirds.

Bird’s Nest

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Here’s a false sunflower close-up, so that you can see the disk is made up of little flowers of its own!

Heliopsis helianthoides (False Sunflower)

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And here are three of the five undergrad goofballs that are part of this summer’s Camp Prairie Fun! From left to right: me, Taran, and Bob.

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And one glamor shot of me taken by Evelyn!



7.7 – Lab Day (Chicago Botanic Garden)

Today was a lab day, where we ID’ed plants we brought back from the field that we hadn’t been able to figure out, after which we pressed them so we can continue to look at them in the coming weeks. For some IDs we looked through the Garden’s herbarium, which is stacks of pressed plants ranging from local (Cook County) to very foreign (international) and any distance in between! ¬†We found pressed plants from as far back as the 1930s too!

Herbarium stack (they roll!)

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Example of a herbarium page, dated 1977

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7.6 – Burnham Centennial South (Lakeside)

NOTE: Go take another look at the 6.24 post! I wrote something incorrect about the Rudbeckias, but have replaced it with equally cool information!

This was our last site in the Chicago Park District, just across the path from the Wavy site. It had a gorgeous view of the Chicago skyline! The soil was pretty rocky and inhospitable, which may be why a lot of these Park restorations were particularly weedy.

Ratibida pinnata (Pinnate Prairie Coneflower) seedling leaf

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Ratibida pinnata (Pinnate Prairie Coneflower) adult plant leaf

The seedling and mature leaves look so different!

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Juncus tenuis (Path Rush)

I love the purple fruiting structures of this rush!

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Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem)

This is a characteristic prairie grass that we’ve been seeing for a while, but is finally old enough to start getting its blue/purple coloring. You can tell Big Blue from Little Blue because you can roll the base of Big Blue, while the Little Blue base is flat (and the plant is smaller when fully mature.)

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View of the Loop from site

And this was when the weather told us it was time to go!

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