ITG Master Naturalists Meadowbrook

Urbana Park District Natural Areas Coordinator Matt Balk shows Master Naturalists Kathy Wicks, Michael Krassa, Paul Domagala, Jacquelyn Brewer and Raymond Norton a handful of seeds he collected from native prairie plants at Meadowbrook Park. The seeds will later be redistributed to other areas in the prairie at the park.

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On a beautiful fall-like morning last week, a group of East Central Illinois Master Naturalists met around the tailgate of a truck at Meadowbrook Park in Urbana. Everyone was handed a pair of hand pruners and a few paper bags before heading into the Meadowbrook prairies. Urbana Park District Natural Areas Coordinator Matt Balk began the day with a description of the objectives he hoped to accomplish and then led the group off toward the first area of prairie.

“Today we are going to start with some work close to the sidewalk, and once the dew dries a bit, we’ll work on some seed collection throughout the prairie,” instructed Balk.

The group walked out into the morning dew that was still lingering on tower stems of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), which was the target of their initial efforts for the day. Balk identified the plant and demonstrated how to clip off the nearly blooming flowerhead, as well as a good portion of the stem, at a convenient height.

“By clipping goldenrod now, we can avoid additional seed production by removing the flowers,” Balk explained. “If you take a portion of the stem as well, it will open up light to plants below and help them along the rest of the growing season.”

Wielding hand pruners, the Master Naturalists began the process of carefully clipping the goldenrod stems along with Balk. Looking around, it was easy to see the stems of goldenrod concentrated along the sidewalk. They certainly dominated the space. This is a problem that natural-areas managers around the state deal with regularly. Although Canada goldenrod is native, it is problematic in reconstructed prairies because it tends to really take over.

If left unchecked, goldenrod will likely dominate this area, forming a dense colony, shading out other native plants. It is not only a prolific seed producer and tough competitor, but there is some evidence that this plant limits competitors by exuding growth, inhibiting chemicals through its roots.

Balk’s plan to hand clip these plants is carefully timed to coincide with flower development and prevent seed production by removing flowerheads before seeds can form. With fewer seeds produced, there is less chance for goldenrod to spread on to new areas, but there are other more immediate benefits to this practice well.

Flower production is an energy-intensive process for plants. By clipping off the developing flowerheads, along with much of the upper stem, the goldenrod plants lose a considerable amount of energy. Since a significant quantity of their leaf mass was removed also, they are unable to gain back lost energy (through photosynthesis) before the growing season ends, weakening the plant.

Other, more sensitive prairie plants are then able to fill in the space, using the newly available sunlight to hopefully gain an edge over the goldenrod before next year. Repeated applications of this practice favor greater plant diversity in Meadowbrook prairies, which is part of the bigger picture that Balk is focused on each year.

The second half of the morning’s work was also focused on increasing plant diversity, but this time through seed collection and later redistribution into areas that need more native plants. As the dew dries, Balk heads in among the prairie plants to explain seed-collection procedures.

“Collect all the seed from one plant and skip the next one, or just collect seed from half the flowerheads on each,” explained Balk as he grabbed a seedhead and gently rubbed the seeds off into a paper bag.

The goal is to take half the seeds for later distribution in other areas and leave the other half for wildlife. For today, the Master Naturalists are focused on collecting seeds from prairie sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), which is one of our many native sunflowers. The large nutritious seeds have been shown to support up to two dozen species of native birds. So Balk is careful not to short our fine feathered friends.

By morning’s end, the Master Naturalists had produced a huge pile of goldenrod stems and many bags of seeds. Balk and his staff will later spread the seeds into areas where invasive species have been removed. They have experienced great success establishing prairie sunflower from seed in areas where invading, nonnative bush honeysuckle was removed from savannah-type prairies at Meadowbrook. All in all, it was a great morning of cooler weather, sunshine and time spent in nature improving native plant diversity.

The Urbana Park District is a sponsoring partner of the East Central Illinois Master Naturalists. They graciously provide monetary support, meeting space, training from their expert staff and other services on an annual basis to support the work of our Master Naturalists. In return, our volunteers participate in various stewardship activities to support and promote the proliferation of native plant species in Urbana parks and across central Illinois.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.