- Associated Press - Monday, September 22, 2014

ZIMMERMAN, Minn. (AP) - Spikes of purple lupines supply the wildflower wow factor at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, a 30,700-acre expanse of wetlands, upland prairie and oak savanna.

Those showy members of the pea family can transform a field into a glowing fairyland. But the unexpected burst of color that nearly sent Robin DeLong into the ditch sprang from an experiment: The chaff from seed-cleaning had been spread on a field.

“We didn’t know what would happen with the garbage. We assumed because we were dealing with people who had never really done this before, that we would miss seed,” said DeLong, 60, of Princeton. A retired air traffic controller, she’s one of about 50 volunteer seed collectors at the NWR.

“Now we know we don’t throw the garbage in the garbage,” DeLong said. “We found lupine, prairie smoke, prairie larkspur, the prairie clovers - both white and purple prairie clover. We found our tall prairie cinquefoil. We found hyssop. Bergamot. Butterfly weed.”

All in a spot previously devoid of blooms.

Aesthetics are a side effect of habitat restoration at the NWR, where returning 13,000 acres of oak savanna to its pre-settlement state is the 100-year goal, the St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1qTO7sB ) reported.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refers to a 1985 study that estimated the globally imperiled oak savanna covered 0.02 percent of its historic range in the Midwest.

The refuge now contains about 3,900 acres of oak savanna, according to refuge wildlife biologist Tony Hewitt. Part of his job is to help decide which spots to seed with what.

Controlled burns and grazing are among the refuge’s other restoration tools. Some of the land was farmed or grazed before it became a refuge in 1965.

“Most of this refuge had been disturbed by agriculture at one time. A lot of the wetlands have been cattail-choked. I’m trying to restore the habitat to how it’s supposed to be,” said Steve Karel, refuge manager.

Reintroducing native forbs - the broad-leafed herbaceous plants - will increase diversity, and not just among plants.

“We’re going to have more pollinators, more birds. Everything is a chain reaction,” Karel said.

But wildflower seed is expensive. Collection is time-consuming. Some of the seeds, such as slender penstemon, are the size of a pinprick. A slight breeze can whisk them away.

Volunteers collected slightly more than 143 pounds of seed in 2013. Estimated retail value: $38,030.

Refuge staff can leverage the value of seed collected when they apply for grants.

Last year was the most productive year. From 2009 to 2013, volunteers collected just more than 312 pounds of seed valued at $71,836. Since the first collection in 1993, they’ve collected 60-plus species, mostly forbs and a few native grasses.

This year, DeLong and other volunteers are working on a collection list of 41 species.

Wild onion is the most elusive.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-August, Therese and Bill Folsom joined DeLong in search of white prairie clover and purple prairie clover.

With doors open and windows down, the Dodge Caravan circled the 7-mile Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive. It stopped for distant sandhill cranes, a juvenile eagle perched on a giant nest, cormorants silhouetted atop stumps in Nelson Pool. Northern harrier hawks. Trumpeter swans. At a patch of yellow Jerusalem artichokes, a well-disguised patch of bottle gentian pressed against the cattails. Beside a stand of big bluestem that swept over the roof.

Behind the wheel, DeLong scanned the dry grasses and forbs for wildflower seeds ready to harvest.

“We generally don’t have very impatient seed collectors,” DeLong said.

Throughout the morning, the Folsoms picked up plant ID tips that will come in handy as they continue to restore a 2-acre prairie on their Princeton property. He’s retired from Minneapolis’ public works department; she’s retired from Target.

After 16 years as a volunteer seed collector, DeLong knows her plants. When she started, DeLong said she could ID little beyond black-eyed Susans, the ubiquitous, yellow-petaled plants of gardens and prairie restorations.

“What’s surprised me is how much fun it is, learning about nature and how diverse it is,” Bill Folsom said.

DeLong pulled over for a patch of white prairie clover. The three fanned out, waded in a short distance from the road.

Run the seeds between palm and thumb, DeLong instructed. If they easily part from the stem, they’re ready to harvest. Start at the bottom and work up. Avoid bug-bitten specimens. Steer clear of green seeds.

This year, volunteers are collecting 41 types of seeds. They work under a special-use permit.

Cracking the large-flowered penstemon requires pliers. Cleaning the bergamot and black-eyed Susan seeds takes a food processor and sieve.

The process is pretty low-key.

The caravan was equipped with a stack of wildflower field guides, a water cooler, brown paper collection bags and a glove compartment full of plastic-handled scissors.

The effort generally starts in May with prairie smoke, Solomon’s seal and pasque flowers. Early on, volunteers flag plants so they’ll know where to return for seeds. The busiest month is June, when the white, pea-sized lupine seeds start to pop out of their pods. Asters typically end the season in October.

The work culminates with a few November seed-cleaning sessions at the refuge.

DeLong goes out one or two days a week during the collection season.

“I get a lot of peace of mind,” DeLong said. “It reminds you that you are a very little, tiny part of something that is very big and you have very little control over.”

___

Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com


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