The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

September 16, 2012

New Gustavus prairie has visitors looking into the past

Coneflower Prairie dedicated at Gustavus

(Continued)

ST PETER —

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.

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