Prairie on campus will take time
URBANA — Somewhere out there among the unruly crabgrass grow shooting star flowers, asters, wild quinine and more.
It might be hard to see them through the pokeweed and weedy grasses that student interns have been busy yanking out of the ground in the July heat. But they're there: blazing star, milkweed, black-eyed susans.
"Crabgrass is notorious for doing well in any condition. ... We couldn't have had a worse year to do this," said John Marlin, affiliate with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, of the prairie being established just east of the University of Illinois President's house.
One of the lessons learned so far with the student and volunteer-run prairie is this: A prairie is not built in one year. Or two.
Especially when a drought hits.
For decades the area at the southwest corner of Florida and Orchard Avenues in Urbana has been bluegrass lawn followed by a short stint as a no-mow zone, one of the designated areas on campus where, to save resources, the grass is left to grow for much of the year.
With funding from the UI students' sustainability fee, the prairie project was launched a few years ago; one of the first steps was to treat it with herbicide to kill the grasses.
The project is not a restoration, but a reconstruction, said Steve Buck, who manages the natural areas on campus. He does not oversee the project, but helps out as a volunteer.
"A prairie is a community and it takes a long time even for a grassland type of community to sort it out," Buck said.
"The challenge there is immense," said Marlin, who is the project's coordinator and has worked on other projects on campus involving native plantings.
First, it's a big area — almost three acres that had been grass for a long, long time, said Jamie Ellis, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and volunteer with Grand Prairie Friends, a local conservation group.
A few years ago Ellis helped establish a prairie on the campus of the College of Veterinary Medicine off South Lincoln Avenue, but that was 10,000 square feet — not quite a quarter-acre.
Building a prairie "really hasn't been done at this size anywhere else on campus," said Sarah Menning, a recent UI graduate who is working as an intern with Grand Prairie Friends this summer.
She's been one of several volunteering to keep the site going while most student volunteers are away from campus. The challenges have been formidable.
"There's just so many weeds," she said.
Although the area was sprayed with herbicide to kill the grasses, the seeds remained. And the weeds rapidly grew this year as the young prairie plants were just becoming established. Earlier this spring, student volunteers with Red Bison and Students for Environmental Concerns and community volunteers helped plant yellow cone flowers and many other native prairie plants in the ground.
They're focusing first on a section facing Florida Avenue where people driving and walking by will be able to see many of the flowering plants. But it will take some time for those plants to establish, Ellis said.
"Prairie plants are slow growing and slow to germinate," he said.
Ecological restoration and the replanting of a prairie is not an exact science, he said. The approach "is evolving and emerging" as they continue to face challenges.
The native species they planted are drought-resistant, but first they must become established at the site, Menning said.
She and other volunteers also have been watering weekly the plants they put in earlier this spring. She's hoping students continue to work on the site this fall.
"The bottom line is a natural prairie takes hundreds of years to form. You can't expect a newly-established prairie by humans to be spectacular in a couple years," Marlin said.
But things are coming along, albeit slowly, and eventually the day will come when those prairie plants will overcome the weedy plants, Ellis and Marlin said.