The Heat is On

Sea of Gold

[The Prairie] seems to be a constant contradiction of itself. It is delicate, yet resilient; it appears to be simple, but closer inspection indicates that it is extremely complex; it may appear monotonous, but it is diverse and ever-changing throughout the seasons.

– James Stubbendieck

Dry Dry Dry

Dry Dry Dry Photo by Andreas

Here in the Midwest, especially northern Illinois, the summer’s excessive heat and humidity have wreaked havoc on my newly planted native plugs. The National Climatic Data Center  (NCDC) has described the 2012 climate patterns as a drought. Drought is very difficult to define, nevertheless, “[c]ommon to all types of drought is the fact that they originate from a deficiency of precipitation resulting from an unusual weather pattern” (Enloe). The NCDC uses the Palmer Drought Index for annual drought comparisons. The balance between moisture demand also known as temperature driven evapotranspiration and moisture supply in the form of precipitation are the variables used to measure the Palmer drought indices. Short term moisture conditions for the current month are recorded as the Palmer Z Index, while long term moisture conditions are portrayed with the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index (PHDI) and Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). More specifically, the PHDI and PDSI represent the current month’s cumulative moisture conditions integrated over the last several months.

Drought Map for July 2012
by Richard Heim

U.S. Drought Map for August 2012
By Brewer and Love-Brotak

Illinois Drought September 2012
by Brian Fuchs

At the end of June, the NCDC reported that 55% of the United States was affected by “moderate to extreme drought” and 33% of these were experiencing “severe to extreme drought”. On of July 26th 2012, the NCDC reported that 63.9% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions based on the Palmer Drought Indices. At the time of this post, The NCDC has reported that 63.2% of the lower forty-eight states were still experiencing drought conditions despite the some much-welcomed precipitation deposited on much of the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio. Despite the recent wetter and cooler temperatures here in Illinois, the crops and my native plugs have been devastated by this summer’s heat and dry conditions. Nevertheless, blooming two to three weeks earlier than normal and experiencing a shortened bloom time, my established natives have continued to thrive.

Carolyn Harstad, author of Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest has noted that native plants, once established, are more likely to survive and thrive because they have adapted to a region’s climatic swings. The climatic adaptation of deep and extensive root systems by native plants has reduced their need for supplemental watering, fertilizing, and chemical maintenance. Artificial fertilization and herbicide use all contribute to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a force currently degrading our environment through the destruction of natural resources. Scientists have shown that environmental degradation results in climatic extremes or global warming. While some will say droughts and temperature extreme are all part of nature, one thing is for certain, prairies have the resiliency to rebound and diversify in harsh temperatures and hydrologic conditions. Chris Helzer, an ecologist, director for The Nature Conservancy, and blogger on The Prairie Ecologist has cited a fascinating article about the 1934 drought entitled, Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas by prairie biologist, J.E. Weaver detailing the drought response of prairie plants. After reading this paper, I believe the continued survival of my established native plants during the “Drought of 2012”  supports both Weaver’s and Harstad’s observation that established native plants are equipped to withstand climatic stress.

Plugs newly planted in May on the steep, southern facing slope for the most part have all succumbed to the climatic extremes of the excessive temperature and dryness. While I am aware that new transplants require consistent watering and weeding during their first year of growth, the planting site’s topography coupled with the lack of rain, and the inability to access creek water were more than either the plants of I could manage. However, there is hope. Just like Dibol and Doverspike reported in their posts, “Drought of 2012″ and “Plant survival in harsh drought conditions” of Prairie Nursery’s blog The Native Plant Herald, my established creek side prairie garden has bloomed. The garden composed of  Lanceleaf CoreopsisButterflyweedPurple ConeflowerBlack-eyed SusanYellow ConeflowerRough BlazingstarOx Eyed Sunflower, IronweedCrooked Stem Aster and New England Aster seem unaffected by the drought and extreme temperature this summer and flowered magnificently. Little BluestemPrairie DropseedSwitchgrass, and Sideoats Grama, all deep rooted grasses, planted among the forbs also look healthy and have begun to produce fruit. Fruit, sustenance for the the fauna has been produced in spite of the inhospitable weather conditions.

Creek Side Survivors

Pale Purple Coneflower

The essence of a gardener is hope and faith. The hope continues based on Helzer, Muller, and Weaver’s experience that established plants that have succumbed to a year’s climatic extremes re-emerge in the coming spring, stronger and healthier than ever. The butterflies sipping the nectar of the New England Aster remind me that they are symbolic of resurrection. The butterfly forms a cocoon, appears dead, only later to emerge more beautiful and stronger than before. Perhaps even the plugs will be reborn, too. Only time will tell. I have faith, it is supported by my hope that my native plant garden will recover from the Great Drought of 2012.

Yellow Coneflower and Crooked Stem Aster

Related articles


Dibol, Neil. “Drought of 2012.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces. Prairie Nursery. 11 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Doverspike, Sarie. “Plant Survival in harsh drought conditions.” The Native Plant Champion: Restoring balance to our landscapes and living spaces, Prairie Nursery. 9 Jul. 2012. Web. 29 Jul. 2012.

Enloe, Jesse. “Drought Termination and Amelioration.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. N.D. Web. 6 Aug. 2012.

“Greenacres: Landscaping with Native Plants.” Great Lakes, United States Environmental Protection Agency. 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 20. Jul. 2012.

Harstad, Carolyn. Go Native! Gardening with Native Plants and Wildflowers in the Lower Midwest. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, In. 1999.

Helzer, Chris. “The Great Drought (Again).” The Prairie Ecologist. N.P. 29 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Mueller, Irene and Weaver, J. E. “Relative Drought Resistance of Seedlings of Dominant Prairie Grasses.” Agronomy Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1942 Web.1 Sept. 2012.

Phillips, Jack. “Drought Spreads, Half of US Counties Now Disaster Areas.” The Epoch Times. 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 5 Aug 2012.

Plume, Karl. “Drought eases in U.S. Midwest, worsens in northern Plains.” Reuters. 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

“Summer 2012 Drought Update.” National Climatic Data Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 26 Jul. 2012. Web. 27 Jul. 2012.

Weaver, J. E. and Albertson, F. W., “Effects of the Great Drought on the Prairies of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas”  Agronomy
Faculty Publications. 1 Oct. 1936 Web. 1 Sept. 2012.

Bluejackets to Jello

Ohio Spiderwort Bloom

Bluejacket bud

Ohio Spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, also called Bluejacketis a beautiful native forb that produces one bloom each morning. These forbs bloom constantly and profusely from May through July. The flower of the forb is innately sensitive to the day’s rising temperature and each bloom shrivels, essentially dissolving, into a gelatinous fluid by midday. This sensitivity also allows the flora to act as an environmental indicator, responding to air quality and radiation. The spiderwort’s petals change color from blue to violet in reaction to air quality, with the degree of color change an indicator of the amount pollution in the air. As previously stated, this forb is also a sensitive to radiation, and has been used to detect very low radiation levels in its immediate environment. In response to radiation exposure, the forb’s blue stamens turn pink.

Tradescantia ohiensis

Tradescantia ohiensis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This species of spiderwort is a clump-forming, herbaceous native perennial that grows up to 3′ tall with dark bluish-green, arching, unbranched, leaves. Each 1.75 inch wide and 18 inch long vertically-channeled, alternate leaf appears as if it has been folded in half lengthwise as one of a possible eight nodes along a round, smooth or glabrous central stem. The .75 inch to 1.5 inch in diameter, three-petaled, blue flowers occur in a small cluster on the stems at the top of the plant. The forb flowers from late May into early July in the midwestern states and goes dormant in late summer. Each spent flower produces several, tri-sectioned seed capsules that when mature, split into 3 sections, to produce 3-6 oval, brown seeds per capsule. The forb’s root system is thick, fleshy, and fibrous, sending off occasional offshoots nearby making it ideally suited for propagation via root division.

An adaptable plant, Spiderworts tolerate a wide range of growing conditions but prefers moist to medium wet, well-drained, acidic, sandy soil in full sun to part shade. Their leaves respond to harsh weather conditions, competition from other plants, or age by developing brown blotches or becoming yellow in color. Caution should be exercised when planting the Spiderwort in areas with ideal growing conditions since they tend to self-seed and can become somewhat aggressive competition, forming colonies and crowding out other nearby natives. However, it must be noted that when planted in shady conditions, flower production may be less profuse.

Growing conditions, including climate and soil type have an effect on the geographical distribution of a plant. The Ohio Spiderwort is geographically distributed from Ontario south to eastern Texas and eastward to include populations in the midwest as well as northeastern and southeastern states. More statewide specific distribution can be found on the USDA’s Tradescantia ohiensis distribution map. Common throughout Illinois, Ohio Spiderwort’s native habitat includes moist to mesic prairies, black and bur oak savannas, limestone glades, thickets and woodland margins, moist or riverside meadows, and roadside or railroad ditches. Widely scattered, these plants sometimes appear in sizable colonies in disturbed areas. In nature, the Spiderwort is a companion to Big Bluestem, Switchgrass, and Indiangrass as well as Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Bee Balm, Golden Alexander and Pale Purple Coneflower.

Pollination is vital to the survival both the native flora and fauna of an ecosystem. Pollination ecologists have identified several invaluable relationships between the Ohio spiderwort and native fauna. Perhaps the most important relationship is between the forb and bees for they are the predominate pollinators of these flowers as well as most flowering plants. Bees, specifically the long-tongued bees, honey bees, bumblebees and Halictine bees feed on the Spiderwort’s nectar and in the process carry pollen from one Spiderwort flower to another flower of the same species, leading to successful pollination of the forb. Other fauna such as Karner blue butterfly, Syrphid flies, Leaf beetles, White-tailed deer, Cottontail rabbits, Box turtles, snails, and various species of birds use the Spiderworts as a food source, feeding on stray pollen, foliage, or seeds. The non-toxic foliage, particularly its flowers and stems, are added to salads and said to have a flavor similar to asparagus.

Commonly found in prairies, the beautiful Ohio Spiderworts play an important role in ecological restorations. Not only does it provide a food source for many native fauna species it also acts as gauge in determining the health of a habitat. Plant a few spiderworts in your garden to help establish a sustainable landscape!


“Bumblebee Behavior.” Bumblebee. N.P. 1997. Web. 12 Jul.2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. N.D. University Teas at Austin. N.D. Web. 12 Jul. 2012.

“Tradescantia ohiensis Rafinesque.” Flora of North America. eFloras,  Missouri Botanical Garden & Harvard University Herbaria.  2008. Web. 7 Jul. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Definitions and Line Drawings of Botanical Terminology.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Flower-Visiting Insects of the Ohio Spiderowort.” Illinois Wildflowers. N.P. 2002. Web. 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Ohio Spiderwort.” Illinois Wildflowers. 2002 N.P. Web 6 Jul. Web. 2012.

Ichikawa, Sadao. “Somatic Mutatiion Rate in Tradescantia Stamen Hairs at Low Radiation Levels: Finding of Low Doubling Doses of Mutations”The Japanese Journal of Genetics . 47 (6) 1972: 411–421. Web.

Tenaglia, Dan. “Tradescantia ohiensis Raf.” Missouri Plants.  N.P. N.D. Web. 11 Jul. 2012.

Nature’s Origami

Nature’s Origami
photo untouched

One of the first spring flowers to bloom in my native plant garden are the intricately formed Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Also known as Eastern red columbine or Wild red columbine, this flower presents itself proudly as an elaborate assembly of yellow petals, stamens, and pistils surrounded by upturned, red petals and spurs. The five, outer, red petals extend backward to form tubular, nectar-filled spurs that collectively resemble an origami fortune-teller game or cluster of five doves perched around a fountain. In fact, the flower’s common name comes from the Latin word, columbinus, which means “dove-like.” The relatively large, one and a half inch long dove-like flowers, presented as individuals or in groups of 2 to 3, are supported by slender, round, green to reddish green, glabrous stems. Along its stems, past the basal leaves, the mature plant produces long petioles with alternate, ternately compound leaflets. Obovate in shape, the 3-inch long and 2 inch wide, glabrous leaflet is further divided into round-toothed, secondary lobes. This 1 to 3 foot tall, sparingly branched, native plant has short fibrous root system, and as a result, this hardy perennial is short-lived, lasting three to five years. However, all is not lost, since Columbine prodigiously regenerates itself by self-seeding!

Self-seeding Columbine

In Illinois, Columbine flowers from early May to mid June. Two weeks after the flowers have emerged they will go to seed. Once ripened, the seed dispersed by man or nature is easily propagated. Propagation occurs via wind-driven self-seeding or by a purposeful gardener who has collected and stored the fruit for later, fall planting. Hand sown seeds should be scattered on the soil’s surface and lightly tamped. Cold-moist stratification treatment is required for over-wintered seeds stored for spring planting. Summer seeds left to self-seed will germinate less profusely than those sown by hand and pressed into the soil. All seedlings, whether they were self-sown or scattered by man, usually flower the second year following germination.

A prolific progenitor, Columbine, specifically genus Aquilegia, made its way into North America via the Bering land bridge that connected the continents of Asia and North America during the Pleistocene period some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and rapidly spread throughout Alaska and the North American continent. As the columbines moved across the continent, new species evolved in response to their new environment and pollinators. These new Columbine species developed characteristics that were similar to their original features, yet different. The evolved columbines produced different shaped and colored flowers, as well as different positions for presenting their flowers, sepals, and spurs than their ancestors. Overtime, the Columbine’s genes changed. These new genes, responsible for both the initial evolution of nectar spurs and subsequent plant diversification, helped the plants physically adapt and respond to their new pollinators. The plant’s structure evolved to control which pollinators could facilitate its reproductive success. Pollination was accomplished only by insects or birds that possessed an appendage long enough to retrieve the nectar from the spur. Nectar retrieval resulted in an insect’s or bird’s body becoming pollen covered from the flower’s anthers positioned above the spurs. Pollen transferred from one Columbine plant to another plant occurred to complete the cross-pollination process. Today, in their current habitats, the Red columbine’s pollinators of choice are the Columbine Duskywing, Ruby-throated hummingbirds, Short-tongued halictid bees, and butterflies, as well as the Boer and Hawk moths.

Columbine’s Spurs

Eastern red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is usually found in habitats with light shade to partial sun, moist to dry drainage conditions, and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. Once it becomes established, a mature plant can tolerate full sun as long as the air temperature does not exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Rocky open woodlands, wooded slopes, sandy savannas, sparsely wooded stream bluffs, shaded limestone cliffs, and glades, fens, bogs, logged woodland clearings, and thickets along railroad tracks are the preferred environment for Columbines. Current geographical distribution of Aquilegia canadensis is from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to northern Florida, western Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Other columbine species in this genus occur in the Western states. This flora is native to eastern and central North America, an endangered species in Florida, and the only species native to Illinois.

Each year, the origami shaped columbines herald in the coming of the spring wildflower season. Whether the Red columbine resemble a cluster of five peace-filled doves or an origami fortune-teller game, one thing is for certain, they represent nature’s ability to adapt. Moreover, change is something we hope can facilitate survival in a somewhat inhospitable world.

Intricacy of Evolution

Related articles


Anderson, J. “Aquilegia canadensis L.: red columbine.” Plants Profile, Natural Resources Conservation service, United States Department of Agriculture. 2002. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: Columbines Natural History.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

“Aquilegia Express: The Columbine Flower.” Celebrating Wildflowers, U.S. Forest Service. 5 Mar. 2012.Web. 10 Jun. 2012.

Aquilegia canadensis L.” Native Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, The University of Texas at Austin. 8 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Jun. 2012.

Hilty, John. “Wild Columbine.” Woodland Wildflowers of Illinois.  2004. Web. 12 Jun. 2012.

Kramer, Elena and Hodges, Scott A. “Dramatic Diversity of Columbine Flowers Explained By a Simple Change in Cell Shape.” Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Jun. 2012.

Massey, Jimmy R. and Murphy, James C. “Leaf Parts.” Vascular Plant Systematics. 1996. Web. 15 Jun. 2012.

Rook, E.S. “Aquilegia canadensis.” Flora, Fauna, Earth, and Sky: The Natural History of the Northwoods, 26 Feb. 2004. Web 11 Jun. 2012.

Alien Alert

Garlic Mustard

We’ve had an insurgence of alien plants invade our creek side this spring. I have to attribute this new uprising of Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, to the unseasonably warm winter we’ve had here in Illinois. I imagine, that given that Garlic mustard appears on the noxious weed list for thirty-seven of the fifty states, I am not alone in my mission contain the beast.

It is important for one to know your enemy. Alien identification is critical to eradication!  Gardeners often confuse first year Garlic mustard plants with Wood Violets and the noxious weed, Creeping Charlie.

Wood Violet by Kylee Baumle

Mature garlic mustard surrounded by Creeping Charlie

Creeping Charlie

A description of the adult and yearling plant follows:





  • the adult, flowering plant has alternate, heart or triangular shaped, 1 to 3 inch wide, coarsely toothed leaves, and ranges in height from 12 to 48 inches;
  • it produces one or two stems with numerous white flowers that consist of four separate petals;
  • the petioles are longer on the leaves towards the base;
  • a distinctive onion or garlic odor is emitted from the plant when crushed. The olfactory characteristic of this plant helps to distinguish Garlic mustard from all other woodland mustard plants;
  • its taproot is white, slender and often bent in an S-shape near the top;
  • soon after flowering, 1 to 2.5 inches long seed capsules form, quickly lengthening and maturing to produce more than 100 black seeds per plant; and
  • first year plants have wrinkled kidney shaped, scalloped-edged leaves arranged in a cluster of 3 or 4 round, that form a rosette.

Triangular leaf and white flower


A complete plant profile is available on United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service  web page.

Garlic mustard has been found throughout the northeastern and Midwestern U.S. from Canada to South Carolina and west to Kansas, North Dakota, and as far as Colorado and Utah. Early settlers introduced the plant from Europe onto a new continent, North America, and specifically, the United States. Garlic mustard was brought to the New World because people believed it had medicinal properties. Some settlers even cooked with this cool-season, biennial herb.

Clearly, this alien has occupied our soils for a long time, giving rise to a particular stronghold in the shade of upland and floodplain forests, savannas, yards, and roadsides. Invasion has usually begun along the forest’s edge, with the troops progressing along streams and trails. Light, moisture, nutrients, soil, and space are monopolized by the aggressive Garlic mustard once it has taken hold in an area. Once established, Garlic mustard, a fierce competitor, releases its secret chemical weapon, glucosinolates, into the soil, preventing other, desirable, native woodland wildflowers and trees from flourishing. Aggressive spread of the plant has lead to domination of the forest floor and native herbaceous species displacement within ten years.

Native woodland flora’s survival and the wildlife that depend on them are threatened by garlic mustard invasion. Garlic mustard is spread in two ways: an advancing plant front and population expansion facilitated by animal, flowing water or inadvertent human seed  dispersion. Once dispersed, seeds remain viable for five years. In the Midwest, garlic mustard seeds germinate in early April. Vegetative plant growth begins early in the spring, and flowering from May through early June. Viable seeds are produced within days of initial flowering. Seeds begin to ripen in mid-July, and are disseminated throughout the month of August.

Description: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolat...

Description: Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), seeds. The numbers on the scale are centimeters. Date: 2005-08-19 (ISO 8601) Author: Björn Appel, Username Warden Licence: GFDL, CC-BY-SA-2.5 or CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE (at your option) Related: Comment: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Understanding of the Garlic mustard’s life cycle is key to effective control strategies. Over time, warfare tactics may vary depending on the extent of the invasion. However, after the initial counter insurgence, eradication procedures must be applied for eight or more years to insure that garlic mustard seed bank has been depleted. Each spring, vulnerable areas such as woodlands should be monitored to ensure prompt detection of new invasions and help to prevent re-occurrence. A gardener’s arsenal against Garlic mustard includes:

  • hand pulling followed by bagging and burning or deep burial of the enemy;
  •  decapitation at a height of two to three inches above the soil’s surface before flowering. Follow-up monitoring is required to insure complete enemy elimination;
  • chemical warfare may be needed for instances of extensive infestation. Land-locked, enemy eradication can be accomplished with spring or fall application of a 1% or 2% glyphosate solution. Killzall (TM) and Aqua Master (TM) are safer chemical weapons for use near water; and
  • finally, controlled burns, may be used in the spring to kill the newly germinated seedlings. Permits and certification are usually required to conduct a burn. Contact your local fire control agency for permitting requirements prior to using this method.

Prairie restoration requires gardener’s to engage in warfare against invasive aliens such as Garlic mustard. The battle can be long and intensive, but territory reclamation is vital to the growth of the forest communities’ native plants and animals. Ethically speaking, this is a just war!

Related articles


Eberhardt, Laurie and Finger, Jonathan. “Mapping and Testing a Possible Control Method for Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Pierce Cedar Creek Institute,   Ecological Society of America presentation, Aug. 2007.

“Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata).” Invasive Species, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 3 Sept. 2004. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Pyle, Charlotte. “Alliaria petiolata (M. Bieb.) Cavara & Grande garlic mustard.” Plants Profile, United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resource Conservation Services, USDA, Oct. 2002. Web. 26 Apr. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Glucosinolate.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2012.

To Sow or to Transplant: that is the question

"Faith in a Seed"

 “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Henry D. Thoreau

Ah, the faith we put in a seed that once dispersed by man, animal, or the elements provides the potential to restore or birth a prairie. Prairie gardens can be established by humans in one of two ways, by either directly sowing native plant seeds or transplanting native plant seedlings into the ground. Sowing native plant seeds directly into the earth’s surface is the least expensive way to add native plants to a garden. Growing native plants from seed however, is a slow process.

Here in the Midwest, the process begins with the sowing of the dormant seeds during months of January and February, when the ground is bare or is covered by just a few inches of snow. Small gardens are amenable to either hand broadcasting or mechanical seed dispersion using a drop seeder. When a small amount is seed is to be dispersed, more even seed coverage of the planting area is achieved when  the seed is mixed with inert material such as wet sand, cottonseed hulls, or wet sawdust. Seed coverage calibration can be determined using false sowing. False sowing is accomplished in the following manner:

  • place a measured volume of inert material it into an empty gallon container;
  • put the container at your side, start walking while reaching into the container with the other hand and grabbing a handful of the material;
  • with the wind at your back, sling the seed in a sweeping motion out in front of you; and
  • once you have run out of the inert material, estimate the “seed” coverage on your site by multiplying the width times the length of the distance you covered with the inert material. 

Now, with the seeding coverage determined, thoroughly mix the seed and the matrix together. Begin sowing the seed onto the finely raked, clod and rock free area. Rake the seed into the soil’s surface or press the seed into the soil by walking on it, and then cover it, preferably with fine soil or sand. Once seeding is completed, one waits. One waits for the earth’s temperature to warm, the snow to melt, and the appearance of spring seedlings to rise above the surface of the soil. One continues to wait as the seedlings develop.

During the first few years of development, most of the plant’s energy is expended on developing an extensive root system rather than producing flowers. The first year is all about vigilant weed control and watering. Maintenance of the developing native, plant seedlings is required during the first year to reduce competition for space, light, and water from the faster growing weeds. Knowledge of seedling native plant seedling identification is paramount to successful maintenance during this crucial growth period. A seedling identification resources are available through this link and this link. Spring of year two requires the removal of residual native plant vegetation and more weeding. And, if one is lucky, the second summer brings the first flowering of the juvenile, native plant! Year three brings a repeat of the spring cleanup process and dependable summer blooming of the adolescent, native plant. In subsequent years, a mid-spring burning or mowing helps to ensure the continued health of your prairie garden.

An alternative to growing native plants from seed is to purchase transplants or plugs from local ecotype nurseries. Ecotype Nurseries for the northern Illinois region,identified in an earlier post, are linked here. The purchase of plugs or transplants can be an expensive proposition; however, costs can be minimized by purchasing the smallest plants. There are several benefits of using plugs in native prairie gardening. Some benefits include: the fact that these young plants grow more quickly than seeds, often blooming the first year after being transplanted, plugs can easily be planted on slopes where sowed seeds would be likely washed away in the winter melt and spring runoff, they allow the native plant gardener to design and plant a landscaped garden, transplants can be easily added to existing native prairies without disturbing the existing plants, and they are more easily identifiable than seedlings sown directly into the soil.

Materials for indoor sowing

Native plant seeds sown and labeled in tray

Seeded, labeled, & covered tray

Seed trays under grow lights

In an earlier posting, we established that our prairie restoration location involves a creek side slope; therefore, transplanting native prairie plant plugs is the method of choice for establishing our garden. As a cost saving measure, the first week of March, we started seed trays with some native grass seeds. The native plant seeds requiring dry stratification were sown indoors in the following manner:

  • clean, three-inch deep, plastic, partitioned seed trays, with drainage holes, were filled 2/3 of the way full of sterile or good quality potting mixture;
  • a couple of seeds were placed in the each partitioned area;
  • the seeds were pressed into the soil to a depth equal to its diameter, and covered with potting mixture or sand;
  • the seed tray was labeled using a Sharpie on Popsicle sticks or tape, marking the tray with corresponding plant name;
  • to encourage germination, the soil of the seed trays will be kept consistently warm by placing the trays on top of heat mats or by using grow lights, fluorescent lighting, or heat lamps for 12-16 hours daily;
  • the newly sown seeds are to be watered as needed to maintain “soil” moisture and to promote seedling germination;
  • a humidity dome or plastic wrap was placed over the container to slow evaporation;
  • the trays should be checked daily for signs of germination. At the first sign of seedling development the cover is to be removed to promote air circulation;
  • seedling development is dependent on keeping the plants well watered. Water the seedlings with warm water from either the top or the bottom of the tray;
  • thin the new seedlings as soon as their first “true” leaves appear. Cut off,  rather than pull out, the weakest and spindliest seedlings at soil level, to increase the strength of the strongest ones;
  • transplant the flat grown seedlings into larger pots when they have acquired four leaves. This step can be eliminated if the seeds were germinated in partitioned seed trays;
  • once the seedling has four leaves, it is time to prepare the young plants for transplantation into the ground. One week prior to transplantation, place the young plants in a shaded, sheltered part of the garden for a few hours each day, gradually increase the daily their sun exposure. It is important to remember that during this hardening off period, the young plants should be moved back indoors each night unless the ambient temperature is going to stay above 50°F at night; and
  • finally, once fully acclimated to the elements, dig a hole in the soil twice the width and one-half inch deeper the length of the plug. Using a plastic knife, gently cut around the edges of the container and lift the seedling by grasping its’ leaves, not the delicate stem. Insert the plant into its intended location, firm soil around the seedling, and water immediately. Repeat this process for all the seedlings.
Once all the young plants are safely tucked away in the earth, remember to sprinkle them generously with water. Continue to nurture the plants for the first three years according to the steps outlined above in paragraph four of this post. Minimal maintenance is required beyond this timetable. Allow Nature’s hand to disperse the annual native seeds through the air, belly of a bird, or runoff trickle for “every plant can be born again in every seed” (Robert D. Richardson, Jr.).

Related articles


Thoreau, Henry D. Faith in a Seed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. Print.

Smith, Darryl, Williams, Dave, Houseal, Greg, and Henderson, Kirk. Tall Grass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. Print.

Wilson, Jim. Landscaping with Wildflowers: An Environmental Apporach to Gardening. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1992. Print.

“When to Seed Your Prairie.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 29 Feb 2012.

“Prairie Seeding Procedures.” Prairie Nursery, The Productivity Source, LLC., 2012 Web. 29 Feb 2012.

A Jump Start to Spring

Little Bluestem Seed

Sideoat Grama Seed

Purple Coneflower Seed

Winter here in northern Illinois has been unusually mild, resulting in a faster than normal beat to the rhythm of spring. Daffodils, one of the early indicators of spring, have begun to break through the soils surface. Gardening catalogs and Bluebirds announce spring’s arrival, too. Each of the previously mentioned occurrences suggest that the time has also come to start preparing some native plant seeds for germination!

In nature, spring’s rising soil temperatures and increased daylight wake dormant seeds from their winter slumber. When native forb, sedge and grass seeds are started indoors, unique stratification and germination requirements are required to break the seed’s dormancy. With a little research on each seed species, prior to planting, one can artificially break its dormancy and successfully grow most native plants from seed indoors. Species specific methods of stratification described by Prairie Moon Nursery in an earlier post entitled, “Lady Aster” is linked here for your convenience. However, some of the easier methods for breaking seed dormancy are described below:

DRY, COLD STRATIFICATION: (mimics volunteer seeding)

  • Store the seeds in an airtight container in a cold, dry refrigerator at a temperature of between 33-40 degrees Fahrenheit; and
  •  in response to warmer temperatures the sown seeds should begin to germinate.

COLD, MOIST STRATIFICATION (mimics over-wintering):

  • Combine equal parts sand and perlite or vermiculite and moisten the mixture with 1/2 part water;
  • add seeds to the mixture, place in a labeled, sealable polyethylene bag;
  • place the bag in the refrigerator (33-38 F) NOT the freezer for cold storage;
  •  3-18 weeks of cold storage time is needed to break dormancy, however, the time may vary from, depending on the species;
  • at the end of prescribed stratification period, sow the whole batch of seeds immediately into their final planting site or into individual planting containers 2/3 filled with a good quality potting mix;
  • lightly cover the stratified material with potting soil, pressing the top layer down to remove all the air space, and moisten the soil surface;
  • for potted plants, cover the container with plastic to promote germination; and
  • continue to water the seedlings as necessary until the plants have 2-3 true leaves. Once the true leaves are present, the seedlings are ready for transplantation.

HOT WATER TREATMENT (mimics passage through a stomach or heat from a fire):

  • In a non-aluminum pan bring un-softened water to a boil, remove the pan from the heat and let the water cool for 1-2 minutes;
  • place the seeds into a bowl and pour the hot water over the seeds;
  • allow the seeds to soak and come to room temperature for 24 hours; and
  • plant or cold, moist stratify the seeds if needed by the plant species.

SCARIFICATION (mimics passage through a stomach):

  • This stratification method is good for species that produce a berry or a pulp-covered seed. The objective is to abrade seed coats, a process that can be accomplished by rubbing the seeds between two sheets of medium grit sandpaper;
  •  seed that will be sown directly outdoors in the fall or winter should not be scarified in order to prevent premature germination and winter kill; and
  • plant or cold, moist stratify if needed.

These methods of stratification replicate the process native plant seeds undergo to break their dormancy. When mimicking nature’s stratification steps as closely as possible, gardeners are afforded the best possible germination rate for their native seeds. Now is the time to start your native plant garden by ordering seeds from a native plant nursery within 90 miles of your home or ecotype region and begin stratifying them for germination!


“Germination Instruction for Seeds,” Prairie Moon Nursery, 2012 Web. Feb.18 2012.

Hansen, Jeff, “Growing Native Plants From Seed,” Kansas Native Plants, 13 Sept. 2011 Web. 19 Feb. 2012.

Phillips, Harry R., Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers, An easy-to-use guide for all gardeners, The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

The Field Has Eyes

Cooper's Hawk by Ken Weik

The field has eyes,
the wood has ears;
I will look, be silent,
and listen.

– Hieronymus Bosch

The Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, has returned to perch in the Green Ash and scan the creek’s edge for its next meal. These carnivores mainly eat other medium-sized bird species like Robins, Grouse, Mourning Doves, Starlings, Jays, and Northern Flickers, which they stalk at nearby bird feeders. In addition to birds, the Cooper’s Hawk will also make a meal of small mammals.

Cooper’s Hawks usually dwell in forests and woodlands, but our suburb seems nearly as good as their preferred habitat. Regularly seen in parks, quiet neighborhoods, over fields, and at backyard feeders, these hawks build their nests in nearby dense woods of pines, oaks, Douglas-firs, beeches, spruces, and other tree species. The geographical distribution of these hawks range throughout all of North America and their breeding range extends from southern Canada to northern Mexico. During the winter months, hawks from Canada and northern U.S. migrate as far south as Panama.

The male hawk prefers building the nest in trees that grow on flat rather than sloped ground. The nest sits in a tree crotch or on a horizontal branch at a height 25-50 feet above ground. The nest is quite large, measuring 27 inches in diameter and 6-17 inches high with an 8-inch diameter concave depression in its center. Bark flakes and, sometimes, green twigs line the center of the nest.

Cooper’s Hawks fly using an accipiter style: a few stiff wing beats followed by short glides. When in pursuit of prey, the hawk maneuvers through tree branches precisely and powerfully at top speed. During their courtship display, the hawks fly using slow wing beats and then glide by their potential mate with wings held in a V formation. After pairing, males make a bowing display to females and then begin to build their shared nest.

Cooper's Hawk by Ken Weik

Identification of a Cooper’s Hawk can sometimes be tricky because they resemble the Sharp-shinned Hawk in both size and color. The best way to distinguish the difference between the two hawks is to look at their field marks. The key field marks for identification of the Cooper’s Hawk are as follows:

  • plumage-the hawk’s silhouette is barrel shaped, with the chest and hips being of similar size;
  • chest location-The largest portion of the bird’s chest occurs 1/2 way down its body;
  • head and neck size- large and tall, respectively;
  • juvenile marking-thin streaks of color on breast which taper out at the lower belly;
  • leg size-short, thick legs;
  • adult neck- pale nape with a dark cap; and
  • tail shape-square.

This hardy hawk has survived the ravages of DDT use and gone on to flourish in great numbers despite the added loss of their woodland habitat to logging. As I have come to learn, the Cooper’s Hawk is one of the bird world’s most skillful fliers, with the ability to pursue other birds, their prey of choice, racing through cluttered tree canopies at high-speed. When not in pursuit of their prey, they wait patiently near bird feeders for an easy meal. Knowing more about this hawk, makes me think twice about feeding the songbirds with feeders!


“Cooper’s Hawk.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds, n.d. Web 8 Jan. 2012.

“Distribution of Cooper’s Hawk.” the number one internet birding site, n.d. Web 8 Jan. 2012.

Related articles

Uncovering the Stranglehold in Winter

Oriental Bittersweet Vine

Winter’s grey reveals many of nature’s hidden invaders not easily seen during the heightened lush of spring and summer. While quite amazing in appearance, this twisted, woody structure is an invasive, deciduous vine called Oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus.

The Oriental bittersweet vine can grow to diameter of 6 inches and 66 feet in length. The alternate leaves are round to oval in shape with margins that possess rounded teeth. In the spring, flowers consist of five sepals and petals that are arranged in clusters of 2-7 at the leaf axils. The flowers give rise to fruit which changes from green to red orange with a yellow capsule upon maturity.

Asian bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) fruit

Image by AussieBotanist via Flickr

Oriental bittersweet or Asian bittersweet is found in forested areas, field and forest margins, meadows, riparian areas and in residential landscapes throughout the temperate eastern US and Canada. More exact statewide and county specific Oriental bittersweet distribution can be found on the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service Page. In addition to its geographic distribution, the vine thrives in full sun to shade and in a wide range of soil types making it a particularly hardy invasive plant.

These vigorously growing vines climb trees, shrubs, or other support structures by winding around them, and in the process, girdle and smother them. Oriental Bittersweet produces dense shade that has a tendency to overwhelm and displace other native plant communities in an ecosystem. In the winter, another negative impact of this extremely invasive plant occurs when the added weight of the snow and ice covered vines breaks and damages trees as well as shrubs.

To eliminate infestations, prolific reproduction via seed and rhizome production must be stopped. Birds and mammals consume the fruits. These ingested seeds germinate at a higher rate than seeds that fall directly on the ground. One way to circumvent the Oriental bittersweet’s reproductive cycle is to prevent seed formation. Infestation of the Oriental bittersweet may be controlled by

  • hand pulling seedlings;
  • cut foliar or stump herbicide applications using Round Up or
  • weekly mowing.

Whatever method one chooses to manage this ecological threat, it is clear that this sinister invasive must be stopped before it crushes the life out the flora around it! So take the time to stroll through your garden this winter to see what invasives the shades of grey reveal.

Winter Habitats

Goldfinch Photo by Doug Greenberg on Flickr

We’ve had our first snow here in Northern Illinois. While many people love cold weather other dread it, nevertheless, we all us seek refuge from it in the warmth of our homes. Fauna are also forced to find places in their habitat to keep them protected from the weather. Prairie landscapes provide not only shelter but also food  and nesting sources for the winter creatures.

Once the feeders are empty, birds forage on their own to find food in their habitats. There are many native trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs that provide nourishment for the birds with their fruits, berries, or seeds in the fall and winter months. Below is a brief list of some native flora and the food source the provide as well as the fauna that they feed.

 Common Plant Name

Food source

Nesting (N) or Shelter source (S) or (GS)

Attracted Fauna

Black-eyed Susan


American Goldfinches, chickadees, nut hatches, sparrows, towhees
Blazing star


Finches and sparrows
Prairie coreopsis




Plant= insect (S)

finches, pine siskins, yellow-rumped warblers, indigo buntings
Joe-pye weed


Fluff=bird (N)

chickadees, wrens, titmice and juncos
New England Aster


Leaves= bird (N)
Purple cone flowers


American Goldfinches, pine siskin
Wild columbine


Wild Geranium


Mourning dove and bobwhites
Big blue stem



Plant=birds & waterfowl (S) Insects (S)

Plant = deer forage


Plant=Deer and small mammal

Little blue stem


Plant= birds (GS)

Songbirds, upland game birds, small mammals
Side oats grama



Plant=bird (S)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals




Plant = bird & small mammal (GS N)

Seed=Songbirds and small mammals



Plant=Bird (N) Fruit=WaterfowlSeed=Insects, beaver, muskrat


Plant=Bird (N) Gray catbird, common flicker, American Robin, eastern bluebird, cedar waxwing
For humans, prairie plantings add visual interest to the winter landscape. Even the smallest prairie gardens can make a difference in whether small creatures survive winter, whereas larger restorations support the wintering of a greater number of fauna. These plants and animals and chose this habitat as their home and we should try to save or restore it. As a bonus for our efforts, we get to enjoy their company, along with the diverse landscape in which they inhabit. So this spring, as you are planning your garden, plant with a purpose!

Lady Aster

New England Aster in Bloom

Most of my seed collection is complete for the season. The New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae, a tall, vibrant purple, late blooming forb has provided it’s nectar as sustenance for the bees and migrating, monarch butterflies. Now in early November, the regal beauty is providing me with a bounty of seeds for harvesting. Usually, after collecting the seeds, I will set them aside to thoroughly dry before bagging them for storage until spring planting.

Spent New England Aster Achenes

Dried New England Achene Head

I plan to plant my homegrown New England Aster plugs in waves on the upper shoreline of Bull Creek. They will help to act as a buffer in our ongoing creek restoration project. This should be an optimum location for them to grow, given that they thrive in habitats that have full to part sun and wet to mesic soil conditions. The New England Aster is amenable to natural stratification, but given the fact that I plan to install them on an erosion prone slope, successful germination would be unlikely. Plugs are definitely the way to go in this situation. In very early spring, after subjecting the seeds to a moist stratification process, I will plant these easy to grow seeds in flats and install them in their intended location when they possess three or more leaves. More information regarding native New England Aster growing conditions as well as  statewide and county specific distribution can be found on the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service web page.  A table listing the stratification methods of choice for many plants native to Illinois can be found on the The Center for Biodiversity’s webpage.

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