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Prairie planting project to provide outdoor laboratory

Illinois Natural History Survey botanist Jamie Ellis, left, and Anton Endress, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences, are leaders of a prairie planting project at the corner of Florida Avenue and Orchard Street in Urbana.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Living history
Illinois Natural History Survey botanist Jamie Ellis, left, and Anton Endress, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences, are leaders of a prairie planting project at the corner of Florida Avenue and Orchard Street in Urbana. They hope the project will establish carbon neutrality in the atmosphere while educating the public and the campus about Illinois natural history.

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INSIDE ILLINOIS, Aug. 5, 2010  | Anna K. Herkamp, Assistant Editor | 217-333-5491

More than 2 acres in Urbana will soon provide nature lovers a walk through the natural history of Illinois.

Black-eyed susans are some of the early perrenials blooming in the prairie planting project at the corner of Florida Avenue and Orchard Street in Urbana. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Early color Black-eyed susans are some of the early perrenials blooming in the prairie planting project at the corner of Florida Avenue and Orchard Street in Urbana. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The UI-designated no-mow zone at the southwest corner of Orchard Street and Florida Avenue is growing into a conservation space consistent with prairie flora that was abundant in the area more than a century ago.

The prairie planting project began in early May when seeds from plants native to tallgrass prairie were planted. A similar project was planted last year in a no-mow zone near the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Prairie is our ecological heritage,” said Jamie Ellis, a botanist in the Illinois Natural History Survey and one of the project’s leaders. “We say we’re in the ‘Prairie State,’ but the prairie is hard to find here in Champaign County.”

The space, which will be available to the public, also will be an outdoor lab for students in various academic disciplines.

“If we can recreate a small piece of (the prairie), it’s a resource for biology students who are learning about plants and insects, for natural resources students … and for landscape architecture students who may want to incorporate (prairie plants) into projects in the future,” Ellis said.

“It’s an opportunity for students to do something tangible that results from the ideas they’ve gotten in the classroom,” said Anton Endress, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences and co-leader of the project.

The current environment can’t allow newly planted prairie to look exactly as it did more than a century ago, Endress pointed out. Factors such as the absence of bison and an increase in carbon dioxide levels will make for a different mix of plant and animal species in the year 2010, he said.

Traditional restoration efforts have relied on the notes of researchers from a century or more ago, historic photographs and even pioneer diaries that listed plant and animal life in the area. Using information about plants that experts know were abundant, restoration efforts could result in similar mixes of plant and animal life.

“You get some sort of sense of what they say was common and what was rare, and you hope you could get that sort of mix of organisms,” Endress said.

“What we’re able to achieve today is not likely to be what it once was. If you’ve got most of the same species and let them interact, then what comes, comes.”

In addition to the educational and aesthetic benefits of the space, the area also will help reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by allowing plants to retain the CO2 in their tissues, Ellis said.

To that end, the project is a part of the UI’s dedication to the Climate Action Plan, signed by the member presidents of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The UI’s commitment to the plan is reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The work of readying the site and planting the prairie seeds was a group effort. Jack Pizzo, of Pizzo Ecological Restoration, donated his expertise, materials and time to the project. The Student Sustainability Committee provided $40,000 in funding along with a private donation of $10,000 from professor emeritus Jack Paxton. Students in the Red Bison ecological restoration group affiliated with the University YMCA will maintain the site. Staff members and equipment from Facilities and Services were vital in site preparation.

“Right now, it’s a waiting game,” Ellis said. “If you go by there now, it’s just lawn weeds that are dominating the site. There are some prairie plants (starting to show),” he said.

“It’s very important to have some patience,” he said “We took our time with the site preparation. Planting a prairie is not instant. The seeds we put in are … deep-rooted perennials,” he said adding that unwanted plants could be treated mechanically or chemically. Prescribed fire will be part of the long-term management. The area was mowed once to trim some of the weeds.

Eventually, the site will be a blooming mixture of brightly colored prairie wildflowers ideal for insects and bees. It could take five years before the prairie plants are in full bloom.

“If we provide some little patches of bio-diverse habitat, those pollinators will thrive,” Ellis said.

The next aspect of the project will involve getting student and faculty input to create an interpretive garden, or an area that has a visitors’ pathway and labeled plant specimens.

Ellis said he’s eager for people to see and experience the space for themselves.

“(It’s) not just the campus community, but folks in Urbana and neighbors on Florida Avenue who are very interested and want to see this project successful. In a few years, they can look out their front windows and see the spot awash with prairie wildflowers.”

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