The joys of ecological restoration

Indian paintbrush and lousewort now dominate patches of SNR

I moved to Missouri in the summer of 1988, having experienced 8 years of generous support of my family’s livelihood by my research on the infamous imported fire ants of the US Southeast, and their relatives in South America. When I arrived in the Midwest, I  hoped to land a job as an insect taxonomist in a university or museum, a goal of mine since before entering college. But this dream was one that even before moving to Missouri was dimming, and then receded ever further from the realm of possibility for me (and for traditionally trained taxonomists, generally), once here. So, I began to re-think what I might do with my work life. It would be something, I hoped, that would make some use of all the course work (mostly in entomology and botany) and research (on ant systematics) I had done during my 24 years (!) of getting educated and four additional years as a post-doc. As or more important, whatever job I ended up in would somehow have to allow me to share my life-long love of nature with others.

A museum drawer of ant specimens mounted for taxonomic study, the ants no doubt frustrated by the years of inattention they have received as I have tended to the duties of my day job.

Early in my residence in eastern Missouri, I made the acquaintance of the naturalist at a 2500-acre (1000-hectare) nature reserve outside of St. Louis. Shaw Arboretum, as it was then known, is country cousin to the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, and is named after the Garden’s founder Henry Shaw. Long story short, in the summer of 1990 the naturalist mentioned to me that he would soon retire, the position would become available, and that I ought to apply. So I applied, and was hired as the arboretum’s naturalist in January 1991.

A dolomite glade plant endemic to a few counties in eastern Missouri, this leatherflower was established at SNR in the 1930s, but expanded exponentially after prescribed fire was introduced in the 1990s. Here, an ant characteristic of glades and dry prairies forages on the flower.

When I came on board, the “Arboretum” had mostly ceased to be an arboretum (a formal collection of trees for display, breeding and research), and most folks seemed unable to either pronounce or define the word. Indeed we learned, through a public survey, that the strange name and the stone wall in the front actually dissuaded people unfamiliar with it from entering! Yes, there were a few patches of exotic trees scattered around the property, especially in the conifer collection near the front entrance know as the “Pinetum”, but ever since the Garden had decided around 1930 that it would not, afterall move all of its horticultural operations to this then very rural site (the original intent of its purchase), formal arboretum and botanical garden type activities had been few and far between, and the site began gradually reverting from abandoned farmland to a wilder sort of place, as well as a haven for native biota. Thus, on its 75th anniversary in the year 2000, Shaw Arboretum was renamed Shaw Nature Reserve.

Colony-founding queen bumblebees are the primary actors in loosening pollen with ultrasound from shootingstar anthers, and distributing it about the plant population.

Around that time, my title changed too, to “Restoration Biologist”. The job is multifaceted; presenting public programs and classes on various aspects of the site’s natural history, writing and reviewing articles, acting as liaison to the vigorous regional group of academic ecologists who use the site for research and teaching, a very intermittent personal research program on ants resulting in sporadic publications, and last but certainly not least, ecological restoration.

Ecological restoration, in the broad sense, consists of  two primary practices:

  • Restoration of a natural community to structure and species composition presumed characteristic of an  ;;earlier condition (however arbitrary or ill-defined).
  • Reconstruction of regional, native-like habitats, de novo, using locally acquired native plant propagules in the appropriate settings of soil, hydrology,  slope aspect and climate.

Both  require essentially perpetual, follow-up maintenance, including invasive species control, mowing, haying, grazing, selective timber removal, species richness enhancements, and prescribed burning. All of these have many variations and nuances in application, and there can be impassioned arguments about their implementation in the literature, at conferences, and in forums and blogs on ecological restoration, native plants, butterflies, beetles, etc..

An ecologically conservative lily ally of undisturbed moist soil habitats now thrives in prairie plantings at the Reserve.

Attitudes about ecological restoration vary, among practitioners, among sociologists and philosophers, and in the general public. One broad attitudinal schism lies along the lines of  whether ecological restoration activities are some sort of primitivist, grand-scale gardening, or do they represent ecologically valid landscape conservation? Another question some pose is to what extent we should interfere with “natural successsion”? Be this as it may be, most people with functioning sensory perception agree the results can be very beautiful. The loveliness of the mosaic of colors in the herb layer of a spring woodland is inarguable, especially so after it has had its woody stem density reduced, and had the leaf litter burned off, to allow more light, rain and seeds to the soil surface — even where there is genuine concern about damage to invertebrate assemblages residing in forest duff. A waving meadow of grasses and flowers in a tallgrass prairie planting, intended to replace just a few of the tens of millions of acres of this ecosystem that have succumbed to the plow, has its own grand beauty, though its per-square-meter species density of plant species remains less than half that of a native prairie remnant and it is dominated mainly by habitat-generalist insect species rather than prairie specialists, even after 30 or more years.

A self-introduced grassland ant forages among a thriving, human-introduced population of this wet prairie gentian.

The smaller, daily rewards of restoration, to the practicing ecological restorationist and to those who visit his or her work, are many. Over 20 years, in the opened-up woods, restored glades and prairie and wetland plantings at SNR, I repeatedly have enjoyed the “sudden appearance” and increase in populations of ant species (of course) that I never observed during my early years of working at SNR (then scouring it for purposes of preparing an annotated ant list). The feeling I get upon discovering that a grouping of shooting star, royal catchfly, bunch flower or bottle gentian plants, are in bloom at a site where I spread their seeds five, seven, or even ten years earlier is a bit like that one feels when a child is born. The spontaneous colonization of SNR grassland plantings by prairie ragged orchid never fails to amaze me. Bird, or frog, or katydid and cricket songs in a former crop field or pasture, as the “restored” vegetation fills in and matures, is as pleasing to my ear as it is to my soul.

A few days ago (in early July), the director of the Reserve came to my office asking if I had noticed a purply pink, “possibly orchid” flower growing on a section of a berm (planted with native vegetation) in our 32-acre wetland complex. I had not been in the area recently, but headed right out to see what it was. Joyously, and not a little surprised, I learned that seeds of the purple fringeless orchid, sowed at a location nearby 17 years previously, had washed to this site, taken root, and as terrestrial orchids are wont to do, flowered after so many years!

The black-legged greater meadow katydid thrives in low areas and near bodies of water in SNR

The prairie ragged orchid began to appear in old fields and prairie plantings where prescribed burning occurs at SNR. It has not been seen in fields maintained exclusively by mowing or haying.

The purple fringeless orchid surprised the restorationist and St. Louis area botanists by flowering in the SNR wetland area 17 years after the original sowing.

Copyright © James Trager 2010

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Muir Woods National Monument

This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. – John Muir

Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest type of tree in the world, with maximum recorded heights approaching 380 feet. This majestic conifer grows only along the Pacific Coast in a narrow strip from Monterey to Oregon. Most of the estimated 2 million acres of original redwood forest are now gone — victims of the saw! One of the small groves that managed to escape this fate due to its relative inaccessibility grows along Redwood Creek and adjacent slopes in what is now Muir Woods National Monument. At heights approaching 260 feet, the redwoods growing here are not the tallest to be found; however, their proximity to San Francisco (just 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge) makes them the most heavily viewed examples of this ancient tree. Lynne and I visited Muir Woods a few times in the 90’s after moving to Sacramento — today (3/20) was our first visit since then, and the first ever for Mollie and Madison. In addition to getting to see these marvelous trees once again, we were also treated to a spectacular display of spring wildflowers.

We began our hike on the main paved trail. This is where most visitors confine themselves during a visit to this place, so the picture here documents a rare sight — no people! I apologize for its lack of focus, a consequence of the limitations of my little point-and-shoot camera in the limited amount of light that makes it through these towering trees during late afternoon.

Standing beneath one of these trees and looking up is a lesson in insignificance — the feeling one gets looking straight up the trunk of one of these giants cannot be adequately captured on film (er… microchip).

We quickly tired of the crowds and decided to hike up the Ocean View Trail, which climbs quite steeply up the east side of the valley. This marvelous trail was nearly devoid of people, and we found ourselves winding through thick, dark, cool forest with numerous side ravines. The lower elevations of the trail were dominated by redwood trees and a spectacular array of spring wildflowers. Among the most common was California toothwort (Cardamine  californica [=Dentaria californica]), a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae). I noticed that the leaves at the base of the plant were broad and oval, while those arising from the flower stalk were slender and lanceolate, often divided into 3 leaflets.

Wake robins (genus Trillium), belonging to the lily family (Liliaceae, sometimes separated into the lily-of-the-valley family, Convallariaceae), are among my favorite wildflowers. We soon noticed Western wake robin (Trillium ovatum) growing commonly in shaded areas along the trail. We were also seeing some purple-flowered wake robins — at first I thought they were a different species, but it soon became apparent that these were older Western wake robin flowers, which change color from white to purple as they age.

A little further up the trail we began encountering small patches of Mountain iris (Iris douglasiana, family Iridaceae). Flower color for this native species ranges from cream-white to lavender, but all of the flowers we saw were of the white variety.

We saw this fat Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum ssp. amplexicaule [=Smilacina racemosa var. amplexicaulis]) growing in one of the cool, moist, side ravines. This is another member of the Liliaceae (sometimes separated into the Convallariaceae). The large, oval leaves clasping around the distinct, unbranched stem were almost as attractive as the flowers, which apparently give rise to bright scarlet berries in the summer.

In the middle elevations the redwood forest transitioned to drier oak woodland containing a mixture of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), and tan oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus). Some of the Douglas-firs were enormous.

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae, sometimes separated into the Orobanchaceae). This plant, with its striking bright red flowers and finely divided, fern-like leaves, is a facultative parasite on the roots of other plants. Apparently, the genus name refers to an old superstition that sheep could become infested with lice if they ate this plant.

The juncture of the Ocean View Trail with the Lost Trail was closed, so we backtracked down the 1+ miles back to the main paved trail. By now it was fairly late in the afternoon, and the crowds had thinned considerably. Having gotten lots of good views of the giant trees, we began turning our attention downwards to the smaller understory flora. Ferns, of course, are a dominant component of this understory, especially along Redwood Creek. This large specimen may represent Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) (family Dryopteridaceae), which can apparently be distinguished by small hilt-like projections from the base of the pinnae (leaflets), but I couldn’t get close enough to see for sure.

Abundant on the ground in the valley was redwood sorrell (Oxalis oregana), a member of the family Oxalidaceae. In places this plant covered the ground in thick carpets.

Among the more interesting plants we saw in the valley was California fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii), yet another member of the Liliaceae or Convallariaceae. I wasn’t sure what this plant was at first, despite its highly distinctive, glossy, mottled foliage. We were too late to see the blooms, which apparently have a fetid odor to attract flies for pollination, but did find the maturing pods on their slender, drooping stems.

Close to the creek’s edge we saw this colony of horsetails (Equisetum sp.), primitive plants in the family Equisetaceae. Members of this group belong to one of the most ancient lineages of vascular plants, dating back to the Devonian period (416-359 million years ago). Their Paleozoic ancestors (Calamitaceae and Archaeocalamitaceae) were giants, reaching heights of 50 ft or more, and were major components of the Carboniferous swamplands. Along with lycopod trees (Lepidodendrales), they were important contributors to coal formation and, like the lycopods, became extinct by the mid-Permian (~270 million years ago). The genus Equisetum represents the only surviving descendants of this lineage. Unlike their extinct progenitors, these small, herbaceous plants rarely exceed 4 ft in height; however, they share many of the same characters such as articulate stems with microphylls arranged in whorls. Recent phylogenetic studies, using both molecular and morphological characters, suggest that horsetails, together with ferns, form a clade representing one of the three major lineages of vascular plants (Pryer et al. 2001).

Nearby we saw a patch of Giant wake robin (Trillium chloropetalum) in flower. These were taller than the California wake robins we saw on the slopes of the Ocean View Trail but similarly characterized by a whorl of 3 leaves and flowers composed of 3 erect petals. Mature flowers darken to a deep red purple, so it seems these plants had just begun flowering. Muir Woods appears to be a good place for observing a diversity of Convallariaceae!

Also along Redwood Creek we found this bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) in full bloom. As its specific epithet suggests, this maple has the largest leaves of any member of the genus — in this example the newly-expanded leaves were distinctly purplish. The picture below shows the greenish-yellow flowers (petals inconspicuous) produced on long, pendulous racemes.

Interpretive signs along the paved main trail pointed out a redwood “family group,” formed by sprouts growing from the base of a larger tree. Eventually, the central “mother” tree died and decayed away, leaving a ring of offspring that mature into an enormous, characteristic circle of trees. This apparently also happens with other types of trees, though on a smaller scale, as demonstrated in this picture of an oak (Quercus sp.) family group.

As the day drew to a close we found ourselves back in the parking lot, where this California icon, a clump of Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), was spreading its wide, majestic crown from multiple, twisted trunks and gnarled branches.

Much too soon, it was time to leave this beautiful valley, but before heading back to Sacramento we stopped to take one last look down towards the valley and out to the Pacific Ocean from the Panoramic Highway.