Among nature's truths is that the tiniest of things can have a significant role.
The dynamic plays out in the connectedness of Minnesota's prairie habitat, so reliant on a web of wildflowers, grasses and wildlife to thrive — and continue. Less than 2% of the state's native prairie remains.
Specialists at Three Rivers Park District, as stewards of the prairie, are sweating some of those little things.
The prairie violet — and gathering up its bitty seed this time of year — is one of them. Hard to collect (it's sesame seed-sized) and hard to get (it's expensive), it is one of 15 species that the district propagates itself each year in plantings at its nursery near the Crow River at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve in Hanover.
The district works about 19 rows of plants, ones it needs to specialize in because they are so hard to come by in the field. The nursery is where wildlife biologist Angela Grill and her colleagues, in the name of prairie restoration, grind this time of year. Prairie violets, for example, have seed pods that mature at different times. When they split open, Grill and others need to be prepared to collect the contents.
But the work is just beginning. The violet's pods are spread on sheets to dry and need covering, too, because the tiny seeds explode from their housing. That collection still needs "weeding," said Grill, involving delicate hand work involving mesh screened tools much like a baker would use.
"[Cleaning] is very specific to each species," she said, standing inside a temperature-controlled greenhouse filled with trays and sheets of forbs. Some, like wild bergamot and hyssop, took considerable space, but would take equal work to reduce them and cull the seeds. Others, like prairie violet and swamp milkweed, might ultimately produce a cup or so of seed — total. And still more, like the abundant leadplant collected by the public, filled several paper grocery bags.
The mantra might be "no seed left behind" because, again, the smallest details are relevant when it comes to sustaining habitat. Prairie violet seed gathered thus far filled about half of a large baby food jar. That's it. Yet the prairie violet has been key to the district's efforts to reintroduce the regal fritillary butterfly, whose caterpillar only eats prairie violet leaves.
Like those leadplant seeds, volunteers have been abundant this year, Grill said.
Overall, the district will collect more than 200 pounds of seed total from 50 species, and the public's help is instrumental each year. Collection begins in mid-August, with the last district program in mid-October, allowing time for final collecting and cleaning by independent volunteers and staff members like Grill. Volunteer seed-collectors account for at least 1,200 hours of work during the season, across multiple Three Rivers parks, from Crow-Hassan and Elm Creek in the north metro to Hyland Lake and Murphy-Hanrehan parks reserves in the south, and others.
Even a pandemic year didn't slow the operation, Grill said. Collections, held twice a week, still could accommodate their limit of 25 people in 2020 because of the nature of the work. This year, the turnout has doubled at times. Grill has directed groups of 50, and the programs have been waitlisted.
Grill said seed-collectors are a mix of newcomers and returnees, all with an enthusiasm to be out and to be of use. She tells them what to collect, how to identify the plants, and how to harvest. Then, they are off.
"You don't have to be a plant expert, and I think that is what people enjoy." Grill said.
Seed collection began at Three Rivers Park District almost 40 years ago, said Three Rivers senior wildlife manager John Moriarty. At the time, mainly grass seed was collected. The work grew, and so did the district's focus on prairie restoration as its parkland expanded.
The district went on to buy about 10,000 plants over four years, he said, a plan that continues to bear fruit.
Like prairie violet. What seed is collected will get hand-seeded next spring.
Looking beyond the piles and tables of dried clover and grayhead coneflower or bergamot, of chaff, seed heads and stalks, Grill sees future prairie. And that validates the dusty, tedious work at times for her and Moriarty and their colleagues.
"Once you finally get going and see the end product of what we are going to put onto the prairies and to new prairie, that is a cool moment," Grill said.
Just as she gets to relish the legacy of others' labor in the park district, Grill reminds her volunteers that they, too, will leave behind something tangible to appreciate.
"I'm just the steward right now. … It's the continuum of all these big names and people who love the prairie just as much as I do that laid the groundwork for us to be able to do this and take it to the next level," Grill said. "We're enhancing. We're just continually enhancing."