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Maturing Plot Opens a Window on Campus to a Prairie State of Mind

restoration technicians celebrate the removal of an invasive plantA rainy 2014 and dedicated husbandry are at last allowing discerning visitors to Florida Avenue and Orchard Street to enter a Prairie State...prairie.

On this high-profile real estate a tipping point was reached in the fall at the two-plus acre site where the Prairie Research Institute and community experts and volunteers have worked for five years to establish a ‘reconstructed’ prairie in Urbana, said John Marlin, research affiliate at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and manager of the project for the past few years.

The vision of a large-scale recreation of the diverse flora that once blanketed most of Illinois is now about 75 percent fulfilled, Marlin estimated. The native plantings have been funded by the university’s Student Sustainability Committee since 2009 in a former no-mow zone. The project threatened to come to ruin by drought and a lack of maintenance that irritated area homeowners, he explained.

It can take more than a decade for a restoration project to naturally win the competition against non-native, invasive species now so common in the state, Marlin said. He hired student ‘restoration technicians’ and organized volunteers to accelerate the process with the judicious use of herbicides, merciless weeding and transplantation of original prairie species.

Now the site is a lush environment of some 40 native species transected by two east-west and one north-south pedestrian paths. One can start to see appealing hints of Illinois ancestral landscapes, tall cascades of green, yellow, pink and blue, plants now sporting plastic name tags identifying the different species.

“This is closer to gardening,” insisted Marlin. It is a reconstruction of a diverse menagerie of flowering prairie plants that are being nurtured. Once the leafy flowering varieties are fully established, prairie grasses will be added to complete the new habitat. His voice takes a strident tone as he spits out the names of his nemeses: clover, violets, goats beard, prickly lettuce, and plantains.

These are rapidly growing invaders with few predators and copious seed production that smother prairie species with extensive root systems, sun shading leaves or other competitive advantages. 

The campaign against invaders peaked last summer when more than 50 overflowing pickup truck loads of weeds were removed and composted. This summer the site, nicknamed Florida-Orchard, is at last developing a true sense of place.

john marlin inspects delicate plantings at the siteLindsay Donovan, who is working her second year at Florida-Orchard, finds satisfaction in the sweaty, buggy job.  "My first day was April 13 last year and from day one it was a field of dandelions. You couldn't imagine it could ever be attractive. But come this spring it looked completely different as things started to grow."

"I think it's relevant to my studies as a student in Natural Resources and Environmental Science,” Donovan added. “Our (student) jobs are usually at a desk, or doing retail, but this has a tangible connection to my studies."

Not surprisingly, ISTC's parent organization, the Prairie Research Insitute, has had a long interest in nurturing prairie enclaves on campus. Gary Miller, associate executive director of the institute applied for and received funding from the Student Sustainability Committee to expand natural landscaping around campus. One of the first places addressed was around the Natural Resources Building. Woodland type plants were placed on the north side of the building to fill in bare spots under existing trees. On the south side a planting was made in a grassy area that is similar to prairie conditions.

Marlin and Miller, along with Jamie Ellis, a botanist at the Illinois Natural History Survey have since attracted other scientists, and numerous volunteers among the public, retirees, faculty, staff and students.

A volunteer at the field has been Chris Berti, professor of art at Parkland Community College. “As an artist, I can naturally appreciate it on an aesthetic level, but as an amateur naturalist I'm constantly learning from it,” he said. “I can honestly say that every time I go out there – either to weed, plant, water, or simply walk through – it is a different experience.”

Between Berti, his son Gabriel, 15, and daughter Leah, 18, they have contributed almost 100 hours on the prairie. After a few hours of weeding he said he still sees prickly lettuce and thistle when he shuts his eyes.

Marlin, an entomologist by training, has seen an explosion of native insect species at Florida-Orchard. Insects that evolved with native plants are often unable to use plants from other continents as food for themselves or their young. Native plants are being displaced in many urban and rural settings by invasive weedy species and ornamentals disrupting long standing ecological relationships. As invasive plant species take over a habitat, native insects evolved to feed on native plants also suffer, he explained.

Restored or reconstructed prairie plots offer critical oases for Monarch butterflies and a host of other declining indigenous insects and their predators, Marlin said.

See also: Daily Illini "Prairie hits 'big turning point' as volunteers establish native plants"

See also: News Gazette "ABUZZ WITH LIFE"

See also: News Gazette "Our pollinators need more love"

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