Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Midwest Ecology Learnin'

I am taking a summer ecology class at the beautiful and treasured Morton Arboretum. Every Tuesday for four weeks we meet and learn about tallgrass prairies, plant and animal communities, and the wily and wicked-tricky nature of plant identification. Here's what I've learned so far:

  • The roots of lawn grass go down like 4 inches at most. The roots of prairie grass goes down...guess. They go down five to ten FEET. That way, they reach water from below the ground--they do not rely on rain water to stay alive. They also help prevent erosion. Compare this with lawn grass, which requires regular watering and does little to anchor the soil.
  • It's a challenge even for veteran ecologists to identify a plant using a field guide. In a true prairie, with the natural diversity of grasses, sedges, and forbs*, there are a great many options for what any given plant might be, and young plants looks different from older ones, plants in bloom look different from those who have gone to seed, etc. 
  • It's even harder to identify plants when things are not in bloom. 
  • *A "forb" is a flowering plant.
  • There are other great words like "sessile" and "peduncle" and "rhizomous."
  • Some field guides are categorized alphabetically, which isn't helpful at all for identification, really; but then again, what IS a good way to organize a large inventory of plants? The most user-friendly guides are categorized by color of bloom--but if the plant isn't in bloom, that doesn't help you much. The most thorough ones guide you through a sort of choose-your-own adventure branching scheme: How many petals? Do the flowers form a clump or are they individual? What shape are the leaves (there are all sorts of fun words describing leaf shape)? How do they branch? And so on. From there, you are sent to the appropriate section in the book. But it seems to not work at least as much as it works, and if the plant isn't in bloom the steps sort of break down.
  • There are more different shapes and qualities of leaves than you ever imagined.
  • My conclusion is, sort of like with people, you just have to get to know the plants, and then you recognize them intuitively and more or less instantaneously in all their different forms. If you try to recognize them by-the-book, you are as likely to be wrong, and not even close, as right.
  • Just when you think you've got something straight, you learn that they have changed the latin name of the plant (for example if botanists have reassigned the genus).
  • Healthy prairies are incredibly diverse--their appearance is hugely different from the mobs of weeds and  invasive plants mobbing empty lots, alley cracks, and even most of the tended park areas in Chicago.
  • They are also buggy.
  • Unintended consequence: all I see now walking through Chicago green spaces is garlic mustard and bishopsweed ruining everything.
Prairie Dock
Purple clover
Wild indigo

The fall ecology class focuses on trees. I am really excited about this! I hope it works schedule-wise.

Morton Arboretum has year-round educational programming for kids--and for teachers, from half-day workshops to participation in masters degree programs. 

Note--their lauded and unique certification programs (not just for teachers--available to anyone) are being phased out next year. Let's hope the classes remain, even if the certifications don't--but it's still quite a loss. 

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