We emerged from our vehicles carrying blue plastic pails just as Glen Huseby was driving down his driveway in a hurry to get to his next carpentry project.
He was too excited about the news he held not to stop and relay it to Judy Schulte, who had led us to his rural home site in Redwood County a few miles south of the Minnesota River.
Ever since they cleared and burned invasive cedars from the granite outcrop and native prairie on Huseby’s property, he’s witnessed a show like none he’s ever seen. Lush, green acres have blossomed with all manner and color of flowers, new ones showing up all the time.
He’s counted 150 different, native prairie species since the burn, and he’s only started. Some are endangered and rare to find, and all are eye-catching, even those with funky names like “spiderwort.’’
“I was amazed how beautiful they were,’’ said Huseby of spiderwort before he hopped back into his pickup and headed off to work.
None of this surprised Schulte, a prairie specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom.
She works regularly with landowners who have enrolled lands in the state’s native prairie bank program. A perpetual easement protects the native prairie, while also providing the landowner with the assistance of the DNR to conduct prescribed burns and help manage the prairie. The prescribed burns help remove invasive species like red cedars and buckthorn, allowing the native seed bed to rebound.
“Most landowners are a little hesitant to change the overall look of the property but most of them, like Glen, are pumped when it comes up,’’ said Schulte to the group she led.
The blue pails they carried were all about spreading the beauty of what Huesby was raving.
Schulte led a crew of volunteers and DNR workers who had come to hand harvest native prairie seeds from the site. The seeds will be dispersed on prairie lands that are protected as part of the Blue Devil Valley Scientific and Natural Area along the Minnesota River in Yellow Medicine County. Crews have been removing invasive cedars from the site. It’s been tree-covered and shaded for so long that some of its original, native seedbed may have been lost.
Less than two percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remains. The surviving prairie is isolated, so many small islands on a landscape of crop lands, towns and roadways. The only way to make up for the lack of connectivity is to harvest seeds from native prairie and sow them where needed.
The seeds are intentionally collected from prairie sites as near as possible to their intended destinations, said Schulte. The goal is to maintain the genetics of the native plant population as much as possible.
Native prairie banks like the one on Huseby’s property are where the treasure trove of native seeds and their valuable genetics are to be found.
The harvest season on the prairie is a lengthy affair. Different plants produce seeds on their own timelines, and even then, it can vary greatly by location and soil types.
The DNR and private companies use mechanical equipment to harvest seeds from many prairies, but this system misses the seeds of many plants, especially those which ripen early.
That’s where the crews with the blue pails come to the rescue. Schulte said hand harvesting is the only way to assure that the greatest diversity of seeds can be collected.
Volunteers play a big role in making this harvest possible. No expertise required.
Amelia Schuenemeyer of Fairfax was among the volunteers who toted a blue bucket on Huseby’s property this week. She is a participant in shooting sports offered through her 4-H club. One of the requirements for participation is to perform eight hours of volunteer service related to wildlife, she explained.
She was enjoying the experience. “I don’t go out in the fields a lot. It’s nice to get off the pavement and concrete,’’ she said.
Her mother tagged along, a pail in hand too. An avid gardener, Katie Grams said she was very interested in learning about the diversity of native prairie plants they found.
By day’s end the crew of six had collected seeds from 24 different prairie plants, ranging from Virginia Mountain Mint and Heart-Leaved Alexanders to Wild bergamot, water hemp and dotted blazing star. As tiny as the seeds are, by day’s end the contents of the blue pails added up to 10 pounds.
Amy Linnerooth, a water quality specialist for Nicollet County, had made the trip to volunteer because she’s done this type of work before, and knows just how enjoyable it can be. The opportunity to become immersed in the incredible diversity of a native prairie, under a blue sky and popcorn clouds, is all the reward she asked.
“It’s always fun to see the prairie up close,’’ said Schulte as she led the group into the waist-high grasses and forbs. “It’s so easy to just drive by and think it’s just grass.’’
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources schedules a number of prairie seed collection events such as this one to collect seeds for Scientific and Natural Areas. Check the Minnesota DNR website volunteer opportunities or information on the Scientific and Natural Areas to learn more.