Seed collecting projects nourish rare plant restorations

Ray Mueller
Stephen Packard of Illinois, supports culture of conservation through seed collecting efforts.

OSHKOSH – When Stephen Packard goes to the backyard at his home in Northbrook, IL., he's not going to tend the grill, relax on the patio, or cut the grass.

Instead, Packard collects seeds in his backyard from the rare plant species that once thrived on the native prairies and savanna woodlands in northern Illinois, much of southern Wisconsin, and parts of other states. Those seeds are then shared and spread in planned projects to restore those species in the forest preserves and at other sites in Cook County.

Packard describes his working with dozens of other volunteers on those projects as a way, “at long last, of having the human community join the community of nature.” Since 1977, starting with his involvement in Cook County's North Branch Prairie Project, Packard has been a leader in multiple restoration projects with other volunteers of all ages, including a number of children.

A Culture of Conservation

In the keynote presentation for the 24th annual “Toward Harmony With Nature” conference sponsored by the Fox Valley chapter of the Wild Ones, Packard described this “culture of conservation” as a way to observe and enjoy “the magic and fun” that is rooted in nature. He has been affiliated with the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and Northwestern University.

Despite his more than 40 years of involvement, Packard believes “we're only in the early stages of restoring the health of the planetary ecosystem.” He views his fellow volunteers as “a participating democracy” in the private efforts that have been earning support from government agencies.

During some years, Packard and the volunteer groups have collected seeds from as many as 200 plant species that are native to the geographical area but whose survival has been endangered. In some cases, plants or seeds were saved as a bulldozer approached, he pointed out.

Once a handful of seeds has been procured, they have been shared with the Chicago Botanical Garden and other volunteers who will grow them in containers in order to boost the supply, Packard said. With greater volumes, the volunteers combine a social event with the spreading of the seeds in selected areas of the forest preserves and other sites, he stated.

Saving of Specific Species

Patches of only six feet in “our little yard” have been starting point for protecting and restoring many of the endangered species, Packard indicated. A restoration project begun on two acres in the late 1970s has now expanded to 100 acres of native plants, he reported.

One successful venture has been with orchids (prairie lady slipper and prairie white fringed), which need up to 10 years from when they are sown as a seed until they will bloom and produce new seed, Packard explained. The rare prairie white fringed orchid must be hand pollinated to reproduce if the plant density is small, he added.

Another discovery by the volunteer groups is the the Brickell geranium will germinate only at a site where there had been a brush fire, Packard observed. He also noted that ants spread the tiny seeds of plants such as wood violets and bloodroots.

Success Stories

Other plants which have secured new habitat at carefully chosen sites included bearded wheatgrass, savanna blazing star, cream gentian, New Jersey tea, purple prairie clover (100,000 plants started by the volunteers), yellow star grass, prairie violet, and American plum, Packard said.

Packard also persuaded a neighbor to establish milkweed in the backyard. It didn't take long for that backyard to become a magnet for Monarch butterflies, he stated. Such efforts also prompted “the real estate mind” to describe such properties as “special,” he chuckled.

Stephen Packard has spent many years leading volunteers in using garden-grown and wild-collected seeds to restore high-quality prairies, savannas, woodlands and wetlands.

In a woodland, restoration of the native oak species resulted in a tripling of the number of bird species and a six-fold increase in the number of birds over a 15-year period, Packard reported. Among the birds which thrived are the indigo bunting, bluebird, scarlet tanager, woodcock, and humming bird while coyotes which arrived took out some of the bird predators, he noted.

The Deer Challenge

With the orchids, one problem is that deer love munching on them, Packard observed. For that reason, restoring them also requires having cages around them in order to obtain more seeds, he noted.

Oak tree seedlings must also be caged because the deer chew on them for a source of protein, Packard continued. The prairie gentian plant is also a favorite of deer while the caterpillars of the sawfly like to eat the gentian's seeds, he added.

On the plus side, ants protect the caterpillars of the rare silvery blue butterfly which feed on the prairie gentian, Packard indicated. “It takes a network of minds” such as those of the volunteers to identify such interactions in nature, he said.

Invasive Species Threats

In addition to the overpopulation of deer, other major threats to the remaining native populations of many of the prairie species are the invasive non-native species and the lack of controlled burns that are very beneficial for the prairie species, Packard explained.

Buckthorn, purple loosestrife, and Reed canarygrass (to be controlled with a herbicide such as Poast) are the major invasive species needing attention, Packard stressed. In some cases, brush needs to be removed so the native plants will have a good habitat.

Packard encourages persons interested in protecting or restoring the native ecology of their locality to volunteer for projects and to reach youngsters by hosting school tours and having them take part as a family activity, which even includes a winter solstice bonfire by those he is affiliated with.