Joining Forces for Native Plants

Forest preserves contain unique habitats such as wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. But these habitats and the native plant species they contain are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of urbanization, climate change, and invasive species. That’s why the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) is working toward expansion and massive restoration of protected lands.

Part of the Next Century Conservation Plan is restoring 30,000 acres into healthy, high-quality habitats. That’s where the Chicago Botanic Garden comes in.

The Garden collects woody and herbaceous plants as part of the work to transform degraded natural areas to thriving hotspots of regional biodiversity. At the same time, the FPCC needs help with seeds that are especially challenging to propagate. Plus, the Garden has expertise in propagating and caring for native plants and their habitats. It’s a win-win for the two organizations to team up.

“We are finding ways where the research and training capacity that we have at the Garden can support the work that the Forest Preserves is doing to meet its restoration goals,” explained Andrea Kramer, Ph.D., director of restoration ecology at the Garden.

At the helm of this collecting project is Phillip Douglas, the Garden’s director of plant collections, and Rebecca Collings, a senior resource ecologist at the FPCC. For the initial collaboration, the Garden expanded its seed collection project to include propagation of specific native plants that the FPCC needs to restore natural areas.

“These were specific populations of some woody plants, trees, and shrubs whose population sizes were diminishing because of habitat loss and pressure from invasive plants,” said Douglas.

After identifying a specific seed target, the nitty gritty work began. It started with checking the plants and finding out whether or not they were producing seed. Douglas and his colleague Jessica Goehler, plant recorder at the Garden, searched the forest preserves to find populations large enough for collection.

Once the plants were found, the team documented their location and checked to see if the plants were flowering and likely to produce seeds or not. They collected the seeds, photographed them, and noted the plant’s population and the ecosystem it occured in. The last step was creating a herbarium voucher, which is a plant record containing a piece of the plant itself.

“A herbarium voucher is dried plant material, so it’s going to be a piece of the plant that will show off morphological characteristics of the plant that will identify it to the species,” said Douglas. “It’s mounted onto a paper and it becomes sort of a dried record of that population of that plant.”

All of the Garden’s herbarium records are stored in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, and virtually available through sciencecollections.org.

Depending on the species, it can take between a few and several years to propagate the seeds and then have them replanted on the Forest Preserves sites, so the collection and propagation project will continue. Timing is important for collecting because these native species could eventually disappear.

So far, this project has yielded seven different species, with the addition of an orchid this year. Others include the multi-stemmed American filbert (Corylus americana) and the American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), known for its cluster of tubular white flowers.

In addition to propagating challenging species with declining populations, the Garden is trialing an approach to connect its research and training capacity to produce seeds of native species for the FPCC’s restoration efforts. To accomplish this, a team from the Negaunee Institute for Plant Conservation Science and Action is collaborating with a team at Windy City Harvest—the Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training program—to collect seeds of important restoration species and grow them in a garden setting.

Kramer believes that collaboration between the Garden’s Negaunee Institute and Windy City Harvest programs can lead to exciting opportunities for new kinds of job training that will help engage more people in conserving and restoring the county’s natural heritage while also producing seeds that will be important for restoration efforts around the county.

“We hope to be able to build a native seed farming program in the next few years, in parallel with the development of a Conservation Corps team here at the Garden, that together will provide specialized training in growing and caring for native plants and the natural areas that call them home. The program would also produce seeds and support the FPCC’s work to achieve the Next Century Conservation Plan,” she said.

The continued collaboration between the Garden and the FPCC will go a long way in protecting and restoring native plants across the county.

“We're very appreciative of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s assistance and interest in helping the Forest Preserves achieve the goals of our Next Century Conservation Plan. So we value that partnership greatly, and we would not be able to accomplish the goals of the plan without them,” said Collings.

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