STAR PRAIRIE, Wis. -- Round-headed bush clover, golden Alexander, New England aster, purple prairie clover, stiff goldenrod. You might think those sound like the latest wave of craft cocktails, or maybe the latest group of indie artists, but you would be mistaken.
Those were just a few of the plants harvested by hand during the annual Conservation Day on the WPA, Saturday, Oct. 12, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seed farm in Star Prairie.
Sideways snow and a chilly wind out of the northwest were no match for the 50-some volunteers who hand-picked and separated seed from chaff. The event was facilitated by USFWS St. Croix Wetlands Management District staff with help from Friends of the St. Croix Wetlands Management District and student volunteers from the University of Wisconsin's River Falls and Stevens Point campuses. The day serves as a service project for Scouts, their families and friends from the Eagle River District.
All together, volunteers collected about 300 pounds of raw plant material which will turn into about 50 pounds of sorted seed. According to USFWS project leader Bridget Olson, all of that seed is destined to be planted this winter on a newly acquired 164 acre tract at Bass Lake WPA.
Native prairie plants grow best from seeds harvested locally. That lesson led to the start of the seed farm in Star Prairie 20 year ago.
”To restore a native prairie is really expensive. It can cost $500 to $1,000 per acre to purchase the seed to plant back out on the site. We’re actually growing it here, hand harvesting it with your help and then we’re putting it back out on your prairies,” explained Chris Trosen, USFWS Management District biologist.
Value of a prairie
“Habitat is a perfect description of the entire reason why I work on prairies,” said seed farm manager Alex Bouthilet.
The prairie food web starts with grasses and wildflowers. Grasses shed seeds which become food for mice, voles, gophers and ground squirrels. The rodents in turn attract predators including badgers and red-tailed hawks. Wildflowers attract bees, which pollinate food crops, and other pollinators including butterflies. Prairie plants attract more than just pollinators. They attract all kinds of other insects, which become prey for predators.
Trosen explained that seeding a prairie is like preparing a recipe. To guard against over or under seeding, it is important to know how many seeds are in each ounce for each species of plant because that can vary dramatically. For example, an ounce of cardinal flower seed contains about 800,000 seeds while an ounce of wild lupine contains about 1,600 seeds.
Bouthilet explained that the really important part of a prairie and maybe the most impressive, you never see, the root system.
“Some root systems can grow up to more than 15 feet beneath the soil. In a prairie, they estimate 60 to 80% of the actual biomass is under the ground in root systems. The biggest advantage to those root systems for us is water. A study out of the University of Northern Iowa shows that one acre of established good prairie, like one of the plots you were working this morning, can absorb 9 inches of rainfall every hour over and over and over before anything runs off. That makes a huge difference for putting water back into our water tables instead of letting it run off carrying pesticides and pollutants into our rivers and oceans,” Bouthilet said.
In thanking all the Scouts and their families and friends for braving the weather and putting in the hard work, Bouthilet let every volunteer know important that work was.
“This type of volunteering benefits everyone, every human being that’s alive, that’s going to be alive, every living thing on the planet in our area benefits from harvesting these seeds and planting more plants. It has a far reaching benefit beyond just us."