In a matter of hours they would be gone.
To see the blue flowers of the prairie spiderwort in full bloom at Henry Panowitsch’s 10-acre native prairie just north of Good Thunder, you have to get there in the morning before their short life ends in just a day.
“By 2 o’clock they’re kaput, and each day you have a new one open up,” Panowitsch said. “By the end of the summer the whole plant disappears.”
It’s a testament to the finicky and ever-changing dynamics of more than 300 different varieties of prairie flowers native to southern Minnesota, and they all pop up at different times. Many, such as bergamot, St. John’s wort and echinacea, are used as medicine and for food.
While the landscape is covered with these blue flowers in June, by July there will be hundreds of blazing stars, another prairie flower that blooms in dense tufts of purple petals.
Panowitsch compares the prairie plants to a jazz quartet, with each plant getting its chance to thrive at a specific point during the growing season.
“That’s why it’s such a good thing for bees and other animals; there are always new ones coming to,” he said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that roughly 1 percent of native prairie remains in the state, and Panowitsch is determined to change that.
“When I started 10 years ago, my idea was that prairie would become an everyday word,” he said.
As president of the Many Rivers Chapter of the Prairie Enthusiasts, a Wisconsin-based conservation group with the goal of educating about the value of prairie restoration, Panowitsch and fellow chapter members have restored and planted 300 acres of native prairie in south-central Minnesota. The eight-county Many Rivers Chapter works with schools, cities and private landowners interested in prairie restoration and educating the public about the many benefits of this ecosystem.
Along with providing habitat for threatened species such as bees, other native insects and animals, prairies combat erosion and pollution. Prairie plants are mostly perennials that have elaborate root systems twice as deep as the plant above ground. Those roots have the capacity to suck up excess rainwater, preventing flooding.
“In the past it took three days after a big rainstorm for the river to rise. Now it’s a few hours,” Panowitcsh said. “We need more environmental settings where the water stays where it fell in order to avoid polluting the rivers. That’s why prairie is such an incredible ecosystem, because it evolved with the climate.”
Joining Panowitsch on a morning walk through his 10 acres of prairie is Jim Vonderharr. When the regional chapter of the Prairie Enthusiasts was just getting established in fall 2011, they held an informational session at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato to recruit new members. Vonderharr was interested in converting some of his land into native prairie.
Since then, he has established 15 acres of native prairie on his land about four miles north of Mankato. Several of the members have converted farmland to prairie since then, and the nonprofit also has projects in places like Rasmussen Woods and Traverse des Sioux Park in St. Peter.
“We have three goals: help people establish prairies, educate people about prairies, preserve original pieces of prairies and manage them,” Vonderharr said.
But Vonderharr stresses it’s not as simple as just putting down native seeds and walking away. Because invasive plant seeds such as cutgrass, burdock and buckthorn lie in wait and strike when the conditions are right, it can take three to four years for a new prairie to become self-sufficient. While Vonderharr and Panowitsch converted their own prairies from agricultural land, Rasmussen Woods and Traverse des Sioux Park pose unique challenges.
“A lot of times when you want to convert something like that Treaty Site that hasn’t been farmed, all the seeds are still there,” Vonderharr said. “Typically what we like to do then is kill off what’s on top with Roundup and not disturb the soil. When you disturb the soil, you get those seeds activated. If you get a prairie started without disturbing the soil, you’re better off. When the prairie gets established, they crowd out the invasives.”
Vonderharr and Panowitsch say the group’s membership, which hovers around 60, is aging and they are looking for younger people to join. Part of that comes from working with schools such as Mankato East High School and New Ulm’s high school and middle school to recruit a new generation of activists.
“Prairie is so indigenous to this land that we need to keep promoting it, educating people about it. One of the projects we’re working on is with New Ulm Middle School,” Vonderharr said.
The Prairie Enthusiasts converted about two-thirds of a vacant lot owned by New Ulm Public Schools to prairie over the past couple years, and then connected with a teacher to incorporate that prairie into an outdoor classroom.
“We’ve got 48 different prairie plants,” Vonderharr said. “He can use that for teaching identification of prairie plants.”
The group also participates in about a half-dozen prairie burns every year, which helps to remove dead brush as well as invasive plants without the stronger root systems typical of prairie plants. Those burns help the sun reach the soil directly.
“The biggest enemy of prairie habitat is shade,” Panowitsch said.
He said the goal of the Prairie Enthusiasts lies in celebrating the diversity of both plants and animals, recognizing how that diversity is interconnected with human lives, and highlighting how much variety lies even in small section of prairie.
“Unless I walk this prairie at least once a week, I lose my relationship with it,” Panowitsch said. “They’re always full of surprises, and there’s always something happening.”