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Racing for the future: The fight to preserve the native plants of Chicago

by Neel Tandan and Ajai Sreevatsan
March 14, 2013


Friends of the Chicago River/Flickr

The Riverbank Neighbors Trail in Wrigleyville is one of the many community gardens focussing on native plant species.




The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.

Botanist Gerould Wilhelm calls the disappearance of native plants in the Midwest “urgent.”

“We have about 1,800 native plants, of which probably less than 18 are known by [the public],” Wilhelm said. “Almost all of these plants have delicate and intricate habitat requirements and very little is being done to protect them.”

Wilhelm, who is research director of the Conservation Research Institute in Wisconsin, has been studying plants his entire life and is one of the most educated voices on flora in North America. He is also described as one of the foremost botanists of the Chicago region and co-authored the most comprehensive book on plant life in the area, “Plants of the Chicago Region.”

Wilhelm said we are breaking “natural laws” by allowing these plants and their systems to die, and there will be “a cascade of consequences.” Birds and insects are reliant on these plants, including birds of the rainforest who come here to feed and breed, he said.

“When we rub out a natural area, it’s over,” he said. “They don’t grow back.”

View Chicago's Community Gardens and Openspaces in a larger map

Saving the plants

One effort to preserve these species is the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank at the Chicago Botanic Garden in suburban Glencoe. David Sollenberger who runs the bank has collected the seeds of 1,000 tallgrass plant species and stored them away in -20 C freezer, where they will remain viable for up to 200 years.

“[The tallgrass prairie] is one of the world’s most threatened habitats,” Sollenberger said, , “and climate change may further endanger these plants.”

The tallgrass prairie now inhabits only .01 percent of its original land and is still shrinking due to urbanization, pollution, invasive species and overharvest. With climate change, Sollenberger said, seed banks are becoming more relevant, and are integral to safeguarding native plant species from habitat destruction.

Jim Steffen a colleague of Sollenberger’s and a specialist in restoring the flora and fauna of oak woodlands, said less genetic diversity hurts plants long term.

“When these patches of native plants get fragmented,” Steffen said, “the ability for them to maintain their genetic diversity goes down. They can’t cross-pollinate…and they become more susceptible to climate change and other changes.”

The native plants in the oak woodlands have developed over a long period of time and are well suited for their environment, Steffen said. If the environment changes it affects the plant species and the entire mini-ecosystem that has developed around it.

“[The plants] have developed relationships to other biological systems,” Steffen said, “and insects and birds rely on these plants. You get a sort of chain reaction when one plant species disappears.”

Susanne Masi, a research botanist at the Botanic Garden, said these plants fall off people’s radar screens.

“That’s true for most of the rare plants,” Masi said. “Everybody knows about the goldenrod and the sunflower and the rudbeckia… but there are so many native plants that are inconspicuous that most people don’t pay attention to.”

Masi is the co-founder and coordinator of Plants of Concern, a rare plant-monitoring program that trains citizen scientists to collect information to be given to landowners. The organization has more than 600 volunteers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin and is monitoring more than 230 species.

“The program is key in terms of getting information on these plants and providing information to the right people,” Masi said, “who can then take action if there is a problem.”

Masi said it is up to the landowners to act on these reports and that can be one of the biggest obstacles.

This year, the Dixon seed bank has a list of 544 species to collect from the prairie, Sollenberger said. Volunteers will use this list to identify and collect seeds, and then send them to the seed bank. The identity of the species is then confirmed before the seeds are separated from the rest of the plant matter, cleaned, weighed, counted, photographed and x-rayed, to ensure the endosperm is still intact. Then they are vacuum sealed and placed in cold storage.

The Dixon seed bank has collected 1,208 out of 3,000 native vascular plant species in the tallgrass prairie region. The stored seeds could be crucial for restoration and preservation work in the future.

Assisted migration

Another use for the seeds, Sollenberger said, is more controversial. It is called “assisted migration” and involves moving a specific plant species outside of its range to a better-suited area. Because the climate is changing quickly, seeds can’t travel fast enough to reach a more ideal location.

Jeremy Fant, a geneticist and conservation scientist at the Botanic Garden, disagrees with assisted migration.

“It’s an unnatural thing to do,” Fant said. “Extinction is a natural process, and too much meddling in the natural process to maintain a status quo is kind of artificial. Things might go out, but new things may come in.”

Instead, he said maintaining genetic diversity in the populations gives plants the best opportunity to adapt to the changing climate. 

“If you ensure that your population has as much diversity as possible,” he said, “you can ensure that you will have an individual that will have the traits to survive. The potential to adapt is greater than trying to guess where the plant should be.”

Wilhelm said getting more people to realize the benefits of these native species is integral to their survival.  

“There’s no sex and violence that you get in a TV show that you’re going to get with these plants,” Wilhelm said. “Everything in nature, mostly, is not going to slap you in the face.

“So few of the people know about these plants, you can’t eat them or grow them, so what are they any good for? Why would you want to save a bunch of weeds? It’s hard to get the educational system even interested in it. People are interested in that which is made by people.”

If these plants aren’t cared for they will lose their ability to renew, regenerate and produce new life, he said. Getting children exposed to the outdoors and teaching them the importance of caring for these plants is critical.

“Our space shuttles are very interesting,” Wilhem said. “[So are] technology and cell phones and Kindles and iPads. But a Kindle cannot mate with another Kindle and have the capacity to make new life. Things that we make can’t make new things. They just rust and crumble.” 

Native plants in city neighborhoods

Ben Helphand is the executive director of Neighbor Space in Chicago, a nonprofit urban land trust that advocates the use native plants to preserve community-managed open spaces in Chicago. Helphand said the City is also taking a stance on native plants.

"I think that a lot of the new streetscapes in Chicago have embraced native planting,” Helphand said. “Cermak Road has a dramatic new streetscape and a lot of that includes bioswales and native planting. So, it is very much a part of what the City is doing.”

Helphand said he expects the transformation to continue, albeit quite slowly.

“Like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it takes a long time for everything the city for the better. Until it's just the way it’s done."to be retrofitted,” Helphand said. “Slowly but surely, it changes the face of the city city for the better. Until it's just the way it's done."