The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 16, 2012

New Gustavus prairie has visitors looking into the past

Coneflower Prairie dedicated at Gustavus

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — The Kasota Prairie now has a whopping new cousin.

Thousands of years old and preserved from mining by a group of area environmentalists in the 1980s, the Kasota Prairie is just southeast of Gustavus Adolphus College across the Minnesota River and totals 90 acres.

Now the Coneflower Prairie, planted four years ago and dedicated Saturday, has arrived at nearly the size of its older cousin. At more than 70 acres, the prairie essentially doubles the size of Gustavus Adolphus’ Linnaeus Arboretum.

And like proud parents, a couple of Gustavus officials aren’t hesitant to do a little bragging.

“This is the best looking 4-year-old prairie restoration I’ve seen,” said Scott Moeller, arboretum naturalist. “It’s really looking good.”

The never-plowed Kasota Prairie has something going for it, too. Historical continuity.

“The plants that live on the Kasota Prairie are the ones that have been there for 10,000 years,” Moeller said.

But the Gustavus prairie actually has more native prairie plants than Kasota — at least for now, according to Pamela Kittelson, professor of biology and environmental studies at the college.

“This prairie is currently more diverse than the Kasota Prairie,” Kittelson said. “It is a very high quality prairie in its current state.”

Kittelson is one of the many parents of the prairie — part of the group that suggested restoring the Gustavus-owned soybean field west of the arboretum into the ecosystem that dominated about a third of Minnesota prior to settlement. She credits former arboretum director and biology professor Cindy Johnson as a key figure in the planning and fundraising.

The Carl and Verna Schmidt Foundation offered a challenge grant to encourage donations, and dozens of donors came through. With the money in hand, Feder Prairie Seed Co. of Blue Earth was brought in for the planting.

Feder had their hands full, literally, in planting a prairie of such size. (By comparison, 70 acres is about the size of the entire Benson Park in North Mankato — that city’s largest).

Moeller did the math on just one of the more than 160 plant species sown on the land: he calculated that about 10 million big bluestem grass seeds were planted.

Among the other species of evocatively named prairie plants on the 70 acres are sideoats grama, Indiangrass, golden Alexander, prairie onion, spiderwort, rattlesnake master, blazing stars and silky aster.

There are also the species that Moeller saw from the tractor as be drove by ditches as a kid on a farm north of Fairmont, the ones that first piqued his interest in prairie plants. He noticed as a boy that there were flowers in the ditches that he’d never seen anywhere else — not in lawns, or in fields, or in flower gardens.

“These were the last remaining refugees of plant communities that covered the hillsides,” he said.

Moeller later learned that he was looking at butterfly milkweed, prairie coreopsis and prairie flox, among others. And he was also looking into the past, something the Gustavus prairie will allow visitors to duplicate on a broader scale as they look across the 70 acres.

“You’re really going back in time,” he said. “You’re going back 150 years. You’re seeing the same landscape your great-great-grandparents saw when they first came here.”

The near disappearance of prairie — less than 1 percent remains from what was here when the state was settled — is one of the reasons a relatively large piece of new prairie is worth celebrating, according to Kittelson.

“It’s more endangered than tropical forests,” she said. “People don’t realize that.”

The new kid on campus — ecosystem-wise — is also a great teaching and research opportunity for Gustavus science faculty and students. A couple of students are already doing research projects focused on the percentage of planted species that actually grew and which species are thriving to the extent they their presence is likely to be sustained over time.

Finally, the Coneflower Prairie is a pretty and peaceful place for people to relax, contemplate and refresh, according to Moeller and Kittelson. Like all of the arboretum, it’s open to the public during daylight hours for anyone needing a few moments to stop and smell the spiderwort.

While they might be biased (Moeller is a self-described “prairie nut” and Kittelson said virtually all her research has focused on prairies), they think the Coneflower Prairie is a real looker — even in the midst of a drought.

“I think it’s just lovely,” Kittelson said. “It’s beautiful.”