Monarchs flitted between vivid purple blazing stars and goldenrod within arm’s reach of late-summer seed collectors who studiously wandered the prairie Aug. 18 at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve near Hanover, Minn. They came armed with bug spray and bags, hats for a scant bit of shade and a mission to find seeds from white and purple prairie clovers, hyssop, golden Alexander, lead plant and thimbleweed, which were ready for harvest.
“I’ve collected seed from 34 different species,” said Kevin McKinney, of Rogers, Minn., on his volunteerism the past four years. He sometimes helps newer volunteers, too, who are looking for a way to get outdoors and give Mother Nature a boost.
Regional parks, along with county and state parks, welcome hands-on help with their long-term efforts to replenish some of the prairie landscapes that once covered 18 million acres of Minnesota. The 2017 Minnesota Biological Survey estimated only 250,000 acres of native prairie remained — or a little more than 1 percent.
Those untouched areas might have 50 species of grasses and 200 kinds of wildflowers. With volunteers to help and long-term restorations, it’s considered successful to get 50 species of wildflowers and dozens of grasses to take root, said Michael Dunker, naturalist at Wild River State Park near Center City. Those plants also have to match the right type of prairie — wet, dry or sandy — to grow well.
Restoring the prairie biome to land that has been tilled for corn, soybeans and potatoes, used for pastures or overgrazed by wildlife can take many hands and close to seven years or more to transform, he said. It involves removing invasive species, having controlled burns, seeding and reseeding. Grasses, with the taller species swaying more than 6 feet, can edge out nonnative weeds once established.
At Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids, staffers have spent 25 years collecting seeds from its remnant prairies and expanding that habitat. The prairie flows across the park’s hilly terrain and blooms in waves of colors such as light lavender large-flowered penstemon, white spiky Culver’s root, magenta iron weed, fiery orange prairie lilies, and more, all drawing an influx of tiny, winged admirers.
“It’s just abuzz with bees, dragonflies and butterflies,” said Chris Weir-Koetter, who has helped with many of the restorations as strategic natural resources manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ parks and trails division.
Anchoring the biome
Planting native seeds can be the building block for a diverse and thriving prairie biome. Wild lupine may draw federally endangered Karner blue butterflies. Monarchs come for blazing star and purple prairie clover — not just milkweed. Echinacea supports Dakota skipper butterflies, a threatened species that the Minnesota Zoo is helping to reintroduce at Glacial Lakes State Park near Starbuck.
Restored prairie land at Glendalough State Park has brought back populations of American badgers, sandhill cranes, sharptailed grouse and smaller birds such as bobolinks and Henslow’s sparrows that make their home among the grasses.
“It’s really amazing right now,” Weir-Koetter said of Glendalough’s prairie.
About 70 miles northwest of Glendalough, Buffalo River State Park had a remnant of native tallgrass prairie where they could collect seeds and expand that prairie, she said. With additional prairie lands at the adjacent Moorhead State University Regional Science Center and Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, the prairie now covers more than 7,000 acres with more than 250 species of wildflowers and grasses that ripple in the breezes about 15 minutes from the Fargo-Moorhead area.
“It’s the biggest piece of prairie in the state,” Weir-Koetter said.
At Wild River State Park along 18 miles of the St. Croix River, volunteers have been helping park staff with prairie restoration since 1993. Each fall, area school groups pitch in to the labor-intensive task of collecting seeds while getting science and botany lessons in return.
While most park visitors focus on wildflowers that are blooming, seed collectors get to learn about what’s past blooming and how each species develops unique seeds. Dunker gets to point out the fascinating details as he prepares volunteers and school kids for annual collections.
“Thimbleweed [seed] is really fluffy. It’s like teddy bear stuffing or cotton,” he said. That makes it easier for the wind to carry it to new locations. Porcupine grass seed forms a tiny spear-like point that helps it dig itself into the ground.
“The adaptation of all these seeds is remarkable,” he said.
In addition to varied seed textures, sizes and shapes, some seeds leave a lingering souvenir fragrance with their gatherers: fresh mountain mint, licorice-like hyssop or sweet bergamot.
Some seed volunteers focus on a particular species, such as golden and silky asters, golden Alexander, towering Maximilian sunflowers or coneflowers. Most show up to scheduled harvest sessions and gather what the park staff has planned for that day.
Angela Grill, a wildlife biologist in Three Rivers Parks District, estimated at least 500 people — a mix of school kids, groups and individual volunteers — help each fall at their metropolitan area locations.
“It is a huge team effort to cover 1,600 acres of restored prairie and a large spectrum of species,” she said.
McKinney is among a select group of volunteers skilled enough to collect on their own. He starts collecting seed from the early species in late spring, such as pasque flower, red columbine, alum root, spiderwort, red and white baneberry, cohosh, Canada anemone, prairie smoke and larkspur. They need to be harvested before seed pods explode open or seeds are scattered to the wind. Most prairie-flower seeds aren’t ready until late August, ripening in waves throughout the fall.
McKinney recommended long sleeves and pants to protect against bugs and thorns, plenty of water, sturdy shoes for exploring uneven terrain and the awareness there may be surprises, such as the occasional bull or garter snake slithering through the grass.
“[Seed collecting] gives you an opportunity to get out onto the prairie,” he said. “And you really get to know the plants.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick (@lisamcclintick) is a St. Cloud-based freelance travel writer. She is the author of the books “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”