Prairie Science Thrives at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Prairie Science Thrives at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL. Photo by Lea Coon.
Prairie Science Thrives at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL. Photo by Lea Coon.

Prairie Science Thrives at the Chicago Botanic Garden

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For thousands of years, the area we now call Illinois was home to some 20 million acres of prairie. Native grasses and wildflowers thrived until the railroads were built and a man named John Deere developed a new kind of plow. Now, just a small fraction of prairie is left in the Prairie State. But the science of conserving the plants native to Illinois and the Midwest got a boost this week: a new research center north of Chicago is using science to save the prairie.

The Dixon Prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden seems to vibrate with trilling insects and blooming native plants.

These days, there’s bright yellow prairie dock, goldenrod, and compass plant. The New England asters are tiny bursts of electric purple.

The plants are all native, so it’s easy to forget that this prairie is hand-made.

HAVENS: The property here was a wetland when the garden was developed about 40 years ago. And that wetland was sculpted.

Kay Havens is director of science and conservation at the garden.

HAVENS: We have recreated natural habitats. And so this prairie represents the six most common types of prairie found in Illinois.

There’s a science to recreating and restoring these landscapes—a lot of it, in fact. Ecologists must know what plants are native to a region, where to find them and how to collect them without hurting the plants that are there. And they need to test if the plants they gather will reproduce and grow in different conditions.

Havens says climate change, invasive species and pollution make plant conservation all the more complicated—and urgent.

HAVENS: In the world today, the impact that humans have had is so severe that you can’t just put a fence around and do nothing anymore.

That’s why at this garden a lot of prairie conservation work goes on in the lab.

ambi: Sound of door opening to a lab

This is the Chicago Botanic Garden’s new Plant Conservation Science Center. It replaces what was a single cramped lab with nine separate ones, each dedicated to an aspect of plant species and population biology across the region.

It also has enough room for Havens and her staff to store the seeds of the entire flora of the Midwest.

HAVENS: We’re focusing on the prairie species because prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

ambi: Sound of the latch opening the seed bank

Inside, the seed bank looks like a large walk-in cooler roughly the size of a modest studio apartment.

HAVENS: As you can see we have a ton of room in here. We have about 10 more times the room we had in the freezers in the old building. And this will hold thousands of species and literally millions and millions of seeds.

Havens says the garden has about 800 different species in its seed collection now. With the bigger seed bank, they’ll increase that number to three or four thousand species. Chilled at around minus 5 degrees, Fahrenheit, the seeds should keep for around 200 years.

But Havens says hording the seeds isn’t the point.

HAVENS: The idea is that this is really a seed bank, not a seed morgue. We don’t want to put things in there to die and never see the light of day.

Just like a bank, researchers not only deposit but withdraw seeds. Havens says about half the seeds are used for prairie restoration, other seeds for research.

These new resources and the science they fuel are changing conservation and land management.

WILKER: As an active manager of a prairie, we rely upon the researchers to provide new ideas, new concepts, new technology to preserve the biodiversity that’s inherent in those sites.

That’s John Wilker. He oversees some of the state’s highest quality remnant prairie for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Land management agencies like the DNR are often struggling to conserve entire communities of remnant prairie and restore disturbed areas. Plant conservation science is a big help, but still only part of the battle.

WILKER: It’s just reality that there never is enough time in the day, never enough money and manpower to effectively manage the sites we have and restore what we feel we need.

And those 20 million acres Illinois once was home to?

Wilker says there are fewer than 1,000 acres of high-quality prairie left in the state. And the budget difficulties facing his agency and others could threaten those acres even more.

It’s another reason scientists like those at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s plant conservation center are hard at work not just in the prairie, but in the lab.