Prairie seed harvest boosts grassland restoration
EL DORADO SPRINGS, Mo. – A prairie seed harvest that began in spring and continued through summer swelter, sometimes by hand, ended recently on a cold winter day. Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) staff and volunteers mixed and bagged wildflower and grass seed at the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie. The seed was harvested from surviving prairie remnants managed by MDC and will be used to restore natural grassland habitat on public lands.
“I’m here because I want to see the prairie grow,” said Octavio Lorenzo, a volunteer from rural Raymore, Mo., who is a member of the Osage Trails Missouri Master Naturalist Chapter. Lorenzo helped stir the seed mixes and shovel them into bags.
Missouri was once rich with open tallgrass prairies. Also, on vast areas grew a mix of trees, native grasses and wildflowers. Only small remnants remain. Missouri’s greater prairie chickens are now endangered and many grassland birds and insects are in decline. Prairie plants are a base of life for both. Native seed harvest is an economic and ecologically-sound step in broad efforts to help prairie species, said Matt Hill, MDC wildlife biologist. A key partner in the project is The Nature Conservancy of Missouri, which owns a large portion of the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie and provides financial support for seed collection efforts.
Prairie ecosystems are diverse, so a goal is to get seeds from up to 180 plant species in the bagged seed mixes for planting on upland areas. Most of the seed will be planted in converted crop fields or places where trees and brush have been removed. Some current target fields are in the Upper Osage Grasslands. For example, plans call for restoring native plant acreage at the Schell-Osage Conservation Area and the Linscomb Wildlife Area. They are within flying distance for small flocks of Missouri’s remnant prairie chickens at MDC’s Taberville Prairie Conservation Area and the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie.
“All this seed is collected from the Osage Plains ecoregion,” Hill said. “If we had to buy seed, it wouldn’t all have the same local ecotype.”
MDC’s seed collection boosts species diversity in grassland restoration. Some prairie species cannot be purchased from commercial seed dealers, he said. But also, seed for wildflowers, what biologists call forbs, can costs hundreds of dollars per pound. Seed collection reduces restoration expense. The collection effort this year netted about 6,500 pounds of seeds mixed with chaff, which will be used to plant about 300 acres of native wildflowers and grasses.
“We start scouting in April and start collecting seed about the middle of May, starting with plants like Indian paintbrush,” said Rick Swopes, MDC seed collection crew leader. Collection ended in November with seed lingering in patches with flowers such as purple prairie coneflower. “We’ve got seed collected from May through November.”
Sometimes seed is collected with machinery that uses a brush and vacuum to move seed from the plant to a bin. Other seeds from plants such as American blue hearts or prairie rose grow too low for machinery to be effective, so they are collected by hand. The collections occur in patches where seed is mature and abundant. Seed production can vary greatly between species year to year. This was a good growing season for seed from American blue hearts and foxglove beard-tongue, Swopes said.
Seed mixes bagged by MDC crews are heavily weighted toward wildflowers. That gives the forbs a better chance to get established as they compete for sunlight, nutrients and water with the native grasses.
“We concentrate on forbs, but we get a lot of grasses in the mixes, too,” Hill said. Native prairie is a complicated ecosystem with interactions between plants, soil microoganisms, pollinators such as insects, and wildlife. Restoring prairie fragments is a science still under development. But MDC’s seed collection and prairie plantings are a good start and will benefit all grassland birds and insects such as butterflies, Hill said.
If visitors to MDC conservation areas find places with trees removed from fence rows or scrub brush gone, likely prairie plants will be seeded and desirable native shrubs will regrow. A goal is to reopen vistas and support prairie chickens and all native species for people to enjoy in the Upper Osage Grasslands.
“We’re using this seed to restore to the best of our ability what a local prairie would have looked like,” Hill said.
For more information on prairie in Missouri, visit http://www.mdc.mo.gov.