Local environmentalists seek to restore the Prairie State

Sandra Perry, a master gardener who volunteers at the SIUE Gardens, of Glen Carbon, Illinois, looks for seeds with SIUE Manager of Environmental Health and Safety Henry Holt.

Local experts, farmers and volunteers gathered Saturday morning to collect seeds to restore some of the prairie fields of Illinois’ past and do their part to reduce greenhouse gases. 

SIUE Manager of Environmental Health and Safety Henry Holt held the seed collection at his farm, which contains approximately 38 acres of prairie and is located about 20 minutes from campus. Half of the seeds collected went toward a prairie restoration at the farm, and the other half was donated to SIUE Gardens. 

Holt said one of the biggest reasons he is a proponent of maintaining prairie habitats is because prairie plants store a large amount of carbon, which counterbalances some of the carbon dioxide emissions entering the atmosphere. He also said there is educational value in having prairies at SIUE Gardens.

“I’m interested in habitat management, and having display gardens like what they have at SIUE at the Gardens is an important part of education, as I see it,” Holt said. “There are a lot of people who have grown up, and they don’t know what a prairie looks like or what Illinois used to look like.”

Bill Klunk, a master gardener and master naturalist who volunteers at SIUE Gardens, described how drastically the ecosystem in Illinois has changed within the past 200 years.

“When settlers first started coming to the area, the state was almost 60 percent prairie, and hence it was called a prairie state,” Klunk said. “Right now, we’ve only got about 6,000 acres of native prairie left, which is less than a full percent of natural area left.”

Klunk said the goal of the seed collection was to restore even just a small portion of Illinois’ natural ecosystem.

“What we’re trying to do here today is we’re trying to take these native species, and we’re trying to reintroduce them or spread them and get just a little bit more prairie back in the Prairie State,” Klunk said.

Ben Greenfield, assistant professor of environmental sciences, said managing a prairie restoration requires a lot of work and poses many challenges, but a collection like the one on Saturday goes a long in working toward this goal. 

“It’s been very difficult to maintain natural ecosystem habitats in the Gardens because they require a lot of work,” Greenfield said. “So when you have things like this where you’re getting these kinds of seeds, that’s part of the process of keeping those types of habitats going.”

Greenfield also said he hoped to see more student involvement in similar events in the future.

Also looking toward the future, Holt said he hopes to hold another collection in the summer when all the plants are in bloom.

“What I’d intended to do, and what I might do next year, is invite people out in July when everything is in bloom, covered in butterflies and pollinators,” Holt said. “That’s when you see it in its glory.”

Those interested in volunteering at SIUE Gardens can learn more at www.siue.edu/gardens/support/volunteers.shtml.

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