Friday, August 22, 2014

An Eastern Prairie Meadow Returns!

The Longwood Gardens meadow restoration project has finally opened to the public! I was privileged to join fellow horticulture and agriculture educators on a tour of the 88 acre Eastern shortgrass prairie and meadow site on Thursday in Pennsylvania to discuss K-12 curriculum and undergrad research ideas and, most importantly,  how to transfer this as a long-term project model to school campuses. I don't think we got through the agenda because the Wow Factor was just too Wow! I walked through this incredible ecological restoration and couldn't think of anything to say. None of us could. There were no words!

Joe Pye was over our heads!

The eastern meadow habitat type is an endangered community in the Mid-Atlantic. Viewed as waste places and quick to be developed, the eastern prairie meadow has all but disappeared from our semi-wild agro-ecological landscapes. Hundreds of years ago Native Americans managed meadows with regular burning of forested glades and grasslands. These human-managed landscapes provided grazing habitat for elk, eastern wood bison, and white tailed deer, animals important to Susquehannock and Lenni Lenape people. Plants from the meadows provided an abundance of berries, tubers, buds, herbs, and flowers for food and medicinal purposes. In terms of Native American pharmacology, eastern meadow / short grass prairies served as the medicine chest of native people for thousands of years.
Landscape paintings everywhere I turned! Wyeth is close...

Ecological restoration involves a team of biologists and landscape engineers, and Longwood spared no expense in re-creating what would have been a lush and welcomed sight to early settlers and native people long on the land. But what we see today did not undergo a 'natural' process at all!  The severe erosion from the past was addressed with landscape engineering. Propagation of common as well as rare meadow plants and grasses was undertaken by students, horticulturalists, and plant biologists in dedicated greenhouse space - some species taking years of careful management.

Bryan and Tony discuss student research project sites for undergrads at UDel.

Soils, damaged and weakened by centuries of moldboard plowing and erosion, were restored at the surface and sub-surface creating an unseen tapestry of interrelated bio-geo-chemical functions. Agronomists and landscape architects worked together to restore the integrity this prairie meadow's foundation. After hearing about all the STEM folks who worked together to make this long-term restoration happen, a group member pulled this from his pocket and read it aloud as we stood at the peak of a hill looking down through the breeze-swept valley:

I leave the formal garden of schedules
where hours hedge me, clip the errant sprigs
of thought, and day after day, a boxwood
topiary hunt chases a green fox
never caught. No voice calls me to order
as I enter a dream of meadow, kneel
to earth and, moving east to west, second
the motion only of the sun. I plant
frail seedlings in the unplowed field, trusting
the wildness hidden in their hearts. Spring light
sprawls across false indigo and hyssop,
daisies, flax. Clouds form, dissolve, withhold
or promise rain. In time, outside of time,
the unkempt afternoons fill up with flowers.
- Mary Makofske

Wolf tree is evidence of this place having been meadow in the past.

After the poem, we stood for some time under the shade of an old oak. Known as 'wolf trees', tree elders are protected in this project. These are trees that grew open to the sun without competition from other trees or shrubs at a time when cattle grazed and sheep roamed the valley. Farmers left certain trees to grow for they provided shade for animals as well as protection from wind and rain. Their limbs reach out and up as if embracing the whole valley. There are several wolf trees to visit, some with benches or low limbs to sit upon. 

A warm and cool season grass mix carpets the meadow.

We learned about the unique mix of Mid-Atlantic warm and cool season grasses that combine their growing seasons to make the meadow a growing year-round habitat for birds, rodents, insects, and grazing animals. Cool names like Canada bluejoint, redtop, crinkled hairgrass, purpletop, gamagrass, sideoat, deer tongue, and bluestem made a poem all their own as a botanist read off the species found here. I can't wait to come back to sketch and photograph the architecture of native grasses in winter. 

Green heron scratches an itch!

The important thing to remember about a prairie meadow is that it must be maintained with fire. Fire-adapted species abound in our eastern woodlands and glades, but we've been so long suppressing fire and thinking of it as 'bad' for the environment, we've lost sight of the fact that many grassland species have evolved with cyclical burning either from human-managed burns of hundreds and thousands of years, or lightening-caused blazes over millions of years. Ecological preservationists have come a long way in changing the public mind about the use of fire as a management tool and it will be interesting to see how this translates to large scale burns in this area. I thought too about how maintenance burns could be used on small scale projects and what kind of professional education would be needed to enlighten campus maintenance and landscape managers.   

Grass-leaved goldenrod

And then the goldenrod. Oh the goldenrods! Where do I start? Such a tangled web they weave. Even the native plant expert had to check her key and books several times. Add to that, she said, they love to hybridize. I was thinking what a great taxonomy activity this would make for students of all ages! And it seemed every species had its own spider, which to me made it more fun. Again, I need to come back and just look for goldenrod spiders. Some snaps that I took while walking with the group:

Evening Primrose

Cardinal Flower

Black-eyed Susan

Assassin Bug.

Bryan assured us there were over fifteen species of native warm season grasses in this view.

It's now mid-August and the meadow and woods are starting to yellow.

The paths through the meadow connect with spurs that lead to listening areas where the full experience of a living prairie can be heard. Sitting on a bench with the woods or a single tree to your back funnels sound and even, I thought, amplifies it. Eighty-eight acres of singing, rasping, chirping, buzzing tapestry brings to the fore the fact that these are not waste places in the least: meadows are entirely alive as one organism, a living landscape that uses sound and color to communicate "We're All In This Together!"


The Meadow Garden is now open to the public at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA:

Specifically on an agroecological approach to restored landscapes:

Eastern shortgrass prairie and prairie meadows are not recognized in this book, favoring instead the much larger landscape scale prairies of the Northern Plains, Mid-West, and Southern Plains, but as a Peterson Guide this gives you an idea of the diversity of life found in open land:

Stephen Jones and Ruth Carol Cushman (2004) Peterson Field Guide to The North American Prairie.
Houghton Mifflin Co

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