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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 restored the rare oak savanna on our 200 acres, what is happening in our lives, and what we are thinking.

The New Jersey Tea Advantage

New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus var. pitcher

New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus var. pitcher blooming in the East Savanna woodland

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.

From Cornfield to Wildflower Meadow

South Field

South Field in July, 2014 looking north to Brush Creek and Pony Farm Road

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.

Monarch on late blooming common milkweed

Monarch on late blooming common milkweed July 30, 2014

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.

Distinguished Visitors

Dr. Ernest Williams, Dr. Lincoln Brower and bill Brown admiring a robust marsh milkweed

Dr. Ernest Williams, Dr. Lincoln Brower, and Bill Brown admiring a robust marsh milkweed

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.

Monarch larva feeding on marsh milkweed

Monarch larva feeding on marsh milkweed

Retirement with a Purpose

John Orvis standing in front of a 300 year-old white oak below his house.

John Orvis standing in front of a 300 year-old white oak below his house.

When John and Sharon Orvis retired they didn’t flee to Florida (even though they owned land there) or to a tax haven state in the southwest. They stayed in Iowa and retired to 310 acres of prairie and oak-hickory woodland near Lineville, Iowa on the Missouri-Iowa border. Theirs was not the kind of Iowa farmland most people envision. Instead of acres of flat, productive soil their land consisted of sharply dissected overgrown oak and hickory woodlands and prairie overlooking the Weldon River. Beginning in 1998 they hacked and burned their way through the tangles of honey locust, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle to restore the prairie and oak-hickory woodland ecosystem presumed lost by years of abuse and neglect since European settlement.

Before the plow, thirty million acres of open oak woodlands formed the transition between the eastern deciduous forest and the tallgrass prairie. This landscape of widely spaced oak trees that spread over an understory of wildflowers, sedges, and grasses stretched from Minnesota and Wisconsin south to the Texas Hill country in a shifting mosaic of prairie, wetland, woodland, and savanna. It was a broad transition zone that varied due to the frequency and intensity of fire and drought. After European settlement, what wasn’t converted to farmland became dense forest. It is now considered a globally endangered ecosystem.

Despite a history of heavy grazing followed by years of neglect the Orvis land has responded well beyond what anyone thought possible. When I first visited their site the soil in their woodlands was so tightly packed that I thought the seeds were locked in.  But fire and timber stand improvement were the keys to unlocking the seed bank. The widely crowned oaks now spread their branches freely over a ground layer of grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. But John and Sharon have restored not only the plants. All of the elements that comprised this habitat have been restored. Savanna restoration has created a mosaic of habitats for a heterogeneity of bird species including red-headed and pileated woodpeckers and neo-tropical migrants. Residual conservative plants now thriving include false hellebore, yellow false foxglove, and purple milkweed. Wildflower bloom continues in the woodland understory from early spring until fall frost when the growing season climaxes with elm-leaved goldenrod, woodland sunflower, and blue aster bloom.  During a visit  last week Bill and I  saw coral and Edwards’ hairstreaks, silver spotted and cloudy wing skippers, all habitat sensitive butterflies nectaring on common and butterfly milkweeds. Ectomycorrhizal fungi including species of Amanita, Russula, and golden chanterelles fruiting in the woodland indicate restoration of the hydrology and the underground mycelial network. On our walk through the open woodlands we even flushed a wild turkey incubating nine eggs. The previous week, John told us,  fifteen bobwhite quail chicks had hatched.  Most important fire and timber stand improvement have restored the oak regeneration with young oaks scattered throughout the property.

Coral and banded hairstreaks nectaring on butterfly milkweed

Coral and Edwards’ hairstreaks nectaring on butterfly milkweed

Our visit was on the day before John’s 75th birthday. We asked him what he was going to do to celebrate. “Sit on the porch and listen to the bobolinks” he replied. John knows how to celebrate.

Her Vision Fulfilled

John Murphy explaining  practices used to restore this woodland.

John Murphy explaining practices used to restore this woodland.

It was Amy Robertson of Promise City, Iowa who first recognized the restoration potential of the southern Iowa and northern Missouri counties. She proposed that the southern tier of Iowa and northern Missouri counties be turned into a national park. An entrepreneur, she invested every spare dollar in Wayne and Appanoose County farmland. Besides seven farms in southern Iowa she also purchased land from Texas relatives. Oil found on that land made her a rich woman. After her death in 1992 she left 10 million dollars to Simpson College, her alma mater.

Miss Robertson well knew that the topography and second-rate soil of this region make for poor crop land.   But she also knew that’s what saved remnants of the presettlement habitat from being extirpated.  Although not as a national park her vision is now being fulfilled. Private landowners supported by conservation organizations including US Fish and Wildlife, National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Foundation, Iowa DNR, Missouri Dept. of Conservation, and The Nature Conservancy, are restoring unplowed woodlands throughout the region.

Several of these organizations were represented at a landowners’ workshop Bill and I attended at Turkey Hills Farm (Putnam County, MO) on June 14.  Mark Williams, the landowner, had purchased this 830 acre woodland to be used as a hunting preserve.  However, the abundant population of wild turkey and deer have declined significantly since Williams purchased the property in 1983. So he consulted Missouri private lands biologist John Murphy. Murphy explained that the wild game had declined because the woodland had become severely overstocked and  proposed a management program of timber stand improvement and prescribed burns.

Now, only three years after implementation of this program the results are amazing. Prescribed fire and sunlight penetrating the newly opened oak woodland have stimulated a highly diverse community of conservative plants. Not only did I see large populations of leadplant, wild quinine, blazing star, and violet and slender bush clovers, but there were several four-leaved milkweeds, Asclepias quadrifolia, a plant found only in high quality savanna remnants.

The southern Iowa-northern Missouri restorations now include 2000 acres being restored in northern Missouri, private lands restoration in Davis and Appanoose counties to the north, almost 3000 acres of SIOSA sponsored oak savanna restoration in south central Iowa, the Grand River Grasslands in Ringold County, Iowa, and TNC’s Dunn Ranch in Missouri. Private landowners have also been recruited  surrounding the last two sites.