Maria Duane has a special connection to the prairie, a natural habitat that once covered much of the state, but is now quite rare.
“I grew up out in the prairie area in West Central Minnesota and I’ve always loved open spaces,” she said. “I’m not a woods person, I loved the prairie, so I knew that was an experience I would love to have again.”
Now, she’s helping to restore the prairie in Minnesota. Duane and other volunteers show up each week in August through October to collect wildflower seeds at parks around the metro as part of the Three Rivers Park District’s Prairie Seed Collection program.
Three Rivers oversees more than 27,000 acres of parks around the metro, and has prairie lands at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage. Other Three Rivers parks with prairie land are Highland Park, Crow-Hassan, Elm Creek and Carver park reserves.
“Normally, people have to stay on the trails, but here they get to go out,” said John Moriarty, senior wildlife manager at Three Rivers Park District. “In some areas the grass is as tall as you are, if not taller, so … you really feel like you are on a prairie.”
The seed collection program began 25 years ago in response to dwindling prairie land in Minnesota. At that time, finding companies that sold prairie plant seeds was difficult because the flowers were so rare, Moriarty said.
Three Rivers has secured grants to help plant 500 acres of prairie land at its parks by the end of 2017. Once all 500 acres are planted, the parks will collectively have 2,000 acres of prairie land.
“In Minnesota, if you look at the natural landscape, I don’t think it’s changed a lot,” said Steven Hogg, wildlife specialist and volunteer coordinator for the prairie seed program at Three Rivers. “But specifically within Three Rivers, we’ve really upped the amount of [prairie] acreage.”
Even with grants, Three Rivers needs volunteers to make the program successful, said Moriarty. Volunteers gather 200 to 300 pounds of seeds every year.
Though it is easier to find wildflower seeds today, the cost of purchasing as many seeds as the volunteers collect would be $20,000 to $30,000 annually, Moriarty said. The volunteers collect about 65 species of wildflower seeds.
“It’s hugely beneficial for us,” Hogg said. “We would not have the prairie that we have within the parks district if not for these volunteers.”
Prairie flowers bloom at different times throughout the season, so each week, volunteers ranging in age from 12 to over 70, collect a new set of seeds.
Seeing the new blooms throughout the collecting season is one of Duane’s favorite parts of the experience.
“To see how it changes is quite remarkable from one week to the next,” she said. “You actually see the fall passing.”
Though the seed collection is a major part of making a new prairie, Three Rivers also works throughout the year to keep the prairie healthy and free of invasive species.
Prairie maintenance includes preparing the seed and spreading it at strategic times during the year, annual burns and labor-intensive weeding, Hogg said.
“[The prairie] is very important to me especially just because I know how little actual prairie is left in Minnesota — the rest of it has all been changed or plowed or farmed,” Hogg said. “So you have a lot of species that depend on this open space.”
After years of volunteering to do prairie seed collection, Duane felt so passionately about the benefits of prairie land that she and her husband recently added an acre of prairie on their property.
Seeing wildlife flourish around the prairie keeps Duane coming back to volunteer each year, she said.
“There was such a connection,” she said. “Here I am now observing and counting the birds right next to the prairies that I helped.”
Janice Bitters is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.