I am Sibylla Brown. I was born in Germany in 1940. In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950. I married my husband, Bill in 1962. Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa. Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land. But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands. We began timber stand improvement in 1993. When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire. These posts share how we found the land and how we made the transition from city-dwellers to country folk.
(Bill and I are often asked how we came to savanna restoration in Decatur County. With this blog I’ll begin telling our story and carry the story into future entries.)
April 25,1985 was the first time my husband Bill and I saw Timberhill. We were squeezed into the front seat of Mike Whitfield’s pickup truck with Pauline Warren, a realtor we had hired to help us purchase land in Decatur County. Mike was driving us north on a trail that ran uphill through oak and hickory timber in section five of Woodland Township, Decatur County, Iowa. At the top of the hill we reached a gate. Here the trail opened into a ridge top meadow. Branches of oak trees surrounding the meadow grazed to tops of grasses and wildflowers as they reached out into the prairie opening. Sheltering and private, this was completely unexpected.
“So how come you’re selling, Mike?” Bill asked him.
“The interest rates on my mortgage are killing me. You know how bankers are, you ask for $100,000 and the banker says, ‘Why not $200,000?’ Next thing you know you’re carrying too much debt.”
Mike’s land was heavily mortgaged. Interest rates had climbed steeply since he bought the property and he could no longer keep up with the payments. He was anxious to find a buyer for his farm. The land was in two tracts: one hundred sixty acres of cropland and upland woods that lay along the Weldon River and 100 acres along Brush Creek to the north.
Mike had just shown us his fields along the Weldon River. Flat and fertile they produced bumper crops of corn each year. But Bill and I weren’t looking for land to farm.
As Mike drove through the meadow I nudged Bill, his smile indicating like mind and casually asked Mike, “Who owns this land?” This was exactly the kind of land we had been looking for.
“Oh, this is Doyle’s,” he said. “He lives in that white house across the road. He doesn’t mind if I cut through here to get from my south farm to the Brush Creek fields.
Mike continued driving along the trail. It followed the highest point of the ridge. Sloping gradually away from both sides of the trail the hill top meadow melded into the surrounding oak woodland. Bright sunlight highlighted the wildflowers and grasses and reflected off the surface of a small pond dug into the hillside below the trail. As we drove by red-winged blackbirds nesting in cattails at the water’s edge scolded us for intruding into their territory.
At the north end of the meadow we entered woodland again. The dense tree canopy blocked out the sunlight as we left Doyle’s property and descended a steep hill to Mike’s north field.
“I took 1200 bushels of corn off that field last year,” Mike declared, pointing to the flat, fertile land that lay on the Brush Creek bottom. But Bill and I were no longer interested in anything that Mike had to show us. After more than a year of searching we knew that the ridge top meadow sheltered by broad-crowned oak trees was the kind of land we’d been seeking.
I developed a taste for wild mushrooms in 1945 post war Germany when I used to accompany my mother on her treks into the alpine foothills to gather mushrooms, greens, and fruit for the table. We had fled west ahead of the invading Russian army to land occupied by American troops. We found refuge in the stable of an estate in northwest Austria. Food was scarce and Mother often supplemented our meager rations with wild edibles. When we could find them Pfifferling, as she called the golden chanterelle mushrooms, and Steinpilz (king boletes) were a special treat.
Those treks became a distant memory after my family moved to the U.S. in May, 1947. It was all too easy to forget nights spent in the bomb shelter, the sound of bombs exploding in the city and being cold and hungry. I learned English at vacation bible school at the Presbyterian church two blocks from our house. By the time I entered school in the fall Germany was a distant memory. After school one day my sister told Mother she needed extra money for school the next day. When Mother asked her what for she replied, “For the poor, starving German children.” She, too, had forgotten our recent past.
It was Bill’s and my move to Decatur County that revived my taste for wild mushrooms. One of the first species I collected at Timberhill was a chanterelle. After we began restoration they increased in abundance each year. Now they fruit throughout the white oak woodlands east of the house and in the West 40 white and bur oak savanna.
It has been my experience that golden chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius, usually fruit during the early summer mushroom season that begins in June. As long as there is adequate precipitation they will continue to fruit into July. This year we began harvesting them on June 18. The season lasted until the middle of July when the summer dry spell began. When I took Dr. Tiffany’s field mycology course at Lakeside Lab she told me that chanterelles have a season similar to morel mushrooms, that is, that the seasons ends after four weeks.
But this year is different. Our mid-summer dry spell was broken by over two inches of rain that fell on August 6 and 7. To my surprise we began seeing chanterelles again on August 22. And we are still finding fresh specimens.
The king boletes usually fruit at the same time. Whereas I usually find chanterelles clustered in groups of five or more specimens the boletes are scattered singly throughout the same woodlands. They are easily distinguished from the other brown capped boletes by the chewed-up cap. Not only are they tasty to humans, but also to slugs that begin chomping in them as soon as they emerge.
Bill and I have taken full advantage of this bounty. Once or twice a week breakfast consists of chanterelle frittata made with locally produced eggs, homegrown garlic, chanterelles, fresh chives, and a handful of grated, cooked new potato topped with parmesan cheese. For a delectable entrée we combine chanterelles, king boletes, and hedgehog mushrooms (also plentiful this month) for a sauté of chicken with wine, fresh herbs and mushrooms. When I want to keep it simple I combine the mushrooms into a sauté with garlic and butter served with crusty homemade bread.
I have always considered New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, a conservative plant. Its Iowa coefficient of conservatism is 8 which means that one would expect to find it only in high quality remnants. When we purchased Timberhill I found it only in two sites in the East Savanna: on a steep sunny slope above Brush Creek and in the woodland-prairie interface of our highest quality oak opening. (It is more abundant in the prairie remnants in our West Creek and West Forty units.) After we implemented timber stand improvement and prescribed fire I was surprised to find it becoming established under the denser canopy of our east woodland where there is strong root competition for sunlight, water, and nutrients. So how can a plant as conservative as New Jersey tea flourish there?
According to “Native Actinorhizal Plants of Illinois” by Jeffrey O. Dawson & Mark W. Paschke which was published in the June 1994 edition of Erigenia it is New Jersey tea’s ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen that gives it a competitive advantage. This is due to its symbiotic association with Frankia, a genus of actinomycetes that is able to nodulate the roots of plants. (Actinomycetes are anaerobic bacteria that form extensive colonies of fungus-like branched networks of hyphae. Some species play an important role in soil ecology. ) Frankia enables New Jersey to fix atmospheric nitrogen and out-compete plants without this association.
Our annual dormant season prescribed fires give Ceanothus an additional advantage. It’s large taproot which pioneers called “rupture root” because it often stopped the sod busting plow enables New Jersey tea to resprout rapidly after fire.
When Bill and I purchased Timberhill there were three crop fields bordering Brush Creek. Two of the fields lie between Pony Farm Road, our north boundary, and Brush Creek. The other, which we call the south field, is south of Brush Creek on the creek bottom below the East Savanna. On the north it is bordered by riparian woodland along Brush Creek. A dense stand of cotton wood trees stands in the southwest corner. Open oak woodlands surround the rest. Until we purchased the property all of the fields had been extensively farmed.
The first few years after we began managing our land we were too preoccupied with restoring the woodlands to do much other than prescribed burns in the crop fields. 1995 was our first burn in the south field. It was several years before we seeded warm season grasses collected from our remnants. I was curious to see what would come up on its own so we did not seed any wildflowers.
At first common milkweeds, goldenrod, and thistles were the only native forbs on the field. But after Indian grass and sedges became established we noticed a gradual change. Marsh milkweed began blooming in a wet spot near the cottonwoods. A small patch of Culver’s root spread from the woodland border into the field. Eventually large drifts of bergamot, cup plant, and mountain mint replaced the horseweeds. Now, twenty years after our first prescribed burn, I’m seeing more conservative plants including showy goldenrod, bottle gentian, and rough blazing star in the field. It’s become a diverse wildflower meadow and a good place to watch midsummer butterflies.
In one hour on a recent sunny morning I observed five giant swallowtails, four tiger swallowtails (including a dark female), several silver spotted and dun skippers, eastern tailed blues, an orange sulphur and numerous great spangled fritillaries. Most of the specimens were fresh looking and probably from this season’s second brood. All are common breeding residents. There were also five monarchs particularly attracted to the abundant milkweeds. Although I’ve seen the uncommon regal fritillary nectaring on thistle in this meadow, I’ve never seen any of the uncommon skippers such as the Dion or Byssus which are found elsewhere at Timberhill.
Again, I continue to be amazed by nature’s ability to heal itself. How is it that these wildflowers can become established without having been seeded? Are the seeds being carried there from other Timberhill sites or did they survive years of crop farming? One of species becoming abundant in the south field is Physostegia virginians, obedient plant, which I’ve never seen it in any other site on our property. It’s a mystery to me.
Long considered a weed of roadsides, farm fields, and waste areas I’ve never had much respect for Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed. Until last week, that is, when Ray Moranz, a post doctoral researcher who studies the effects of invasive species and prescribed fire on soil invertebrates brought two very special guests to Timberhill: Dr. Ernest Williams and Dr. Lincoln P. Brower. Having studied the eastern North American population for 60 years Dr. Brower is considered to be the world’s leading expert on monarch butterflies. He and Dr. Williams have co-authored several papers about monarch population trends. Last fall Dr. Brower co-authored an article about the decline of Monarchs overwintering in the Oyamel fir forests west of Mexico City published in the New York Times. Threatened by the illegal logging in their winter habitat and loss of milkweed species that monarch larvae require in their breeding habitat I wasn’t aware of how serious the situation had become. In 2013 the number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico had declined by 95%. From 60 million in 2012 to only 3 million in 2013.
In order to gain a deeper knowledge of prairie ecology and its native milkweed flora, Dr. Brower and Dr. Williams spent four days in the Midwest. According to Ray ‘they want to publish something on the plight/future of milkweed flora in the agricultural landscapes of the Midwest.” Research has shown that between 85% and 92% of monarchs that overwinter in Mexico “had fed as larvae on the Common Milkweed.” Before european settlement 29 milkweed species were distributed throughout the prairies and woodlands east of the Rocky Mountains. As the prairies gave way to the plow and the forests were logged off the more conservative milkweed species were replaced by common milkweed. Now it is the primary monarch larval food source. Before the use of genetically modified glyphosate resistant seeds this plant was often found in corn and soybean fields. Since the adoption of GM crops in 1999 common milkweed has been rapidly disappearing from farm fields. Due to mowing, haying, and spraying it is also declining in roadside ditches. Now the distance that a monarch has to travel before finding a milkweed on which to deposit her eggs greatly reduces the species’s fecundity. Although the Timberhill plant list includes 7 milkweed species we have found that it is on common and marsh milkweeds that monarchs prefer to lay their eggs. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to sow seeds of these species in roadsides around Timberhill. I’ll also give seeds to neighbors and urge them sow milkweeds on their properties.