Exotic Beauty

Early in my career, I felt pretty strongly that only native plants should be in the prairies I managed.  Pretty quickly, I realized I didn’t have enough time to eradicate the worst invasive plants from our sites, let alone worry about some of the more innocuous non-native plants.  In fact, I found some of those non-native plants could be pretty valuable (e.g., dandelions and their early season resources for pollinators).

I began to take a much more pragmatic approach to managing plant communities, working to suppress species that tended to form monocultures or become dominant enough to suppress the diversity of plant communities.  Some of those dominant/aggressive species included non-native invasive grasses and woody plants, but also some native species such as big bluestem, eastern redcedar, smooth sumac, and rough-leaved dogwood.  A plant’s status as native or not became less important than how it affected the diversity and function of the plant community it was part of.

A goatsbeard flower opening at sunrise.  Niobrara Valley Preserve.

One non-native plant I’ve always gotten along with pretty well is goatsbeard, aka western salsify (Tragopogon dubius).  Sure, it wasn’t here before European settlement, but it isn’t aggressive and has simply added itself to the plant diversity of many of our prairies.  Also, it’s really pretty (though so are many nasty invasive plants).  Both when it flowers and when it goes to seed, goatsbeard makes an attractive photography subject.

It’s fun to stick a macro lens into a goatsbeard seedhead, which resembles a fist-sized dandelion head, and try to create interesting abstract images.  Goatsbeard seedheads were one of my favorite subjects when I first started playing with close-up photography about 25 years ago, and they still attract me today.  I never get tired of looking at those big fuzzy parachute-style appendages attached to the seeds.

Becoming less of a snob about the native status of plants has made my life a little less stressful.  There are plenty of plant species that require serious attention in order to maintain healthy, diverse, and resilient prairies.  Worrying about whether a plant was here 200 years ago is the least of my worries.  Now when I walk around a grassland, I’m comfortable greeting species like dandelions, goatsbeard, and lamb’s quarters as friends (while still trying to eliminate problematic non-natives such as crown vetch, Siberian elm, and Canada thistle).

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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12 Responses to Exotic Beauty

  1. Jerry Esselman says:

    Thanks Chris!

    Goat’s beard is one of my newly discovered wild plant!
    Love it for your same reasons! I especially enjoy how the plants open & close
    Their blooms. Growing goat’s beard in pots & collecting seeds for a small
    Wildflower garden at this very date. Thanks again for your encouragement!

  2. Theresa Trapp says:

    Chris: thanks for the post re: “non-natives aren’t necessarily bad” …. I live in Essex County NJ, and have restored ~15 acres of warm season grass / upland habitat. We have a significant deer overpopulation, and many of the early-flowering natives are just popcorn & beer nuts as far as Bambi is concerned. I am forced to rely on a number of non-natives for spring pollen and nectar sources, including yellow rocket, shepherd’s purse (+ others in the cress family), dame’s rocket, etc. And I agree; as long as they aren’t allowed to get out of control, they can serve a useful purpose in an upland ecology. TMT

  3. Really appreciate this point of view, based on your deep experience with this conundrum. Interesting parallels of all kinds for our lives in the midst of change . . . you must know the lovely Sara McClure well. Hope to meet you one day. Meredith

  4. Mara says:

    Nice to hear from an actual ecologist that non-natives aren’t all bad. Especially since it’s really not practical to put all the natives and non-natives back where they belong.

  5. Robert Cox says:

    The yellow-petaled goatsbeard is the best picture I’ve ever seen of that kind.

  6. hi Chris, any comments on the mowing of prairies to control invasives during the bird breeding season (now)? There are some areas up here in N IL which are reportedly doing this. I recently read that things like sweet clover, which supposedly is one of, or the reason, they are doing this, are best controlled by having well-established native plants. Do you have any links to research on this by any chance, or can you comment based on your own or others’ experience? Thanks, Suzanne

    • James McGee says:

      I think mowing is the option that is chosen when the infestation location is very dense along with being too large for other control techniques. Usually mowing is prescribed for only a small fraction of a site where the infestation of sweet clover is particularly dense. Hopefully, mowing can be used to stop seed production for long enough that the infestation will be much reduced allowing later more targeted methods to succeed.

      The disadvantage of mowing is it knocks back all plants in an area which gives the biennial sweet clover growing from seed an advantage in subsequent years. If possible, pulling sweet clover up by the root when the soil is wet, sometimes needing the help of a spade, or cutting them off at ground level with pruners, loppers, a bean hook, or scythe is better when plants are widely spaced or infestations are small. A more targeted method keeps all the perennial natives strong reducing the locations where the sweet clover can get a foot hold and develop in subsequent seasons.

      Consideration is given to nesting grassland birds for when mowing can occur and if it can be used in a specific location. This is something those who do the mowing would be better at addressing. I just do the pulling/cutting and watch the results from all that is being done.

    • Hi Suzanne. I’m in central IL and managing our own little plot of 12 acres of restored (formerly cornfield) prairie. Sweet Clover is on my annual list of things to control since it does quite well on my land and will quickly (2-3 years) develop a monoculture stand if allowed to go unchecked. I have resorted to mowing small patches (when it is full flower) where the SC has formed tall, dense bunches, but try to refrain from that as much as possible for all the reasons cited. One method I have found very helpful is to spot-spray with 2-4 D (Crossbow, in my case) in early spring after a burn. The SC greens up faster than most other things here, and I can easily target it while avoiding most everything else. A couple of days of patient walking with a hand-sprayer and I can knock back the patches of it to where hand-cutting stragglers later (when stalks are in full flower) is doable vs. mowing.

  7. Chris Helzer says:

    Hi Suzanne, I hesitate to comment on anything I don’t have local knowledge of. In our area, sweet clover can be abundant and visually dominant at times, but generally isn’t overly competitive and doesn’t decrease plant diversity, so we rarely worry about it. However, many ecologists I respect in states to the east and north of me see it as a threat, so it likely acts differently in those places. Keeping it from going to seed can be an important way to control it, so mowing makes sense from that standpoint. I see it do pretty well in well-established restored prairie, so I don’t think just having a good established community is enough to stop it, but it’s likely an important factor. Anyway, you’d have to talk to the people working on the sweet clover control there and see what the various objectives are they are trying to achieve and try to understand how they’re trying to balance them.

  8. Polish Hare on the Prairie says:

    Superb post! We grapple with the same issues in Minnesota, and there are plenty of purists who have disdain if they see red clover, chicory, or alfalfa in reconstructed or remnant prairies (at one time it was practice to interseed red clover in remnants to “improve forage quality” and the clover persists to this day, although I’ve never seen it in a dominant role) and downgrade the “quality” ranking of a prairie when some of these are found. The new kid on the block here is wild carrot (aka Queen Anne’s Lace). It can become quite abundant in road right of ways, and patches show up in reconstructions. I grew up in Michigan and took it for granted that it was a component of “old field” communities. At present I still make efforts to remove it from our sites (the patches are still small and we can limit its spread or even eradicate it), but as it continues to make inroads on private land I see the day approaching when I will have to evaluate whether it is the best use of our resources to address it or not. Makes life interesting.

  9. Another very helpful post, Chris. Your pragmatic approach helps me keep things in perspective as I wrestle with my own little patch of challenges. So often I find that the perfect can become the enemy of the good. Keep calm and restore on!

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