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Seed collectors stomp for biodiversity
Monday, December 01, 2008 Chi-Town Daily News by Jennifer Slosar
Pete Leki rubs the papery yellow
and green leaves of prairie gentian across a sieve, releasing a spray of tiny
golden seeds into a big metal bowl.
Leki and his son, Jamal, begin to sing, and two women join them in a Japanese
hymn to Mother Nature.
“In the bosom of our mother/We children of earth find our joy.”
The impromptu performance added to the bustling scene inside a garage at the EmilyOaksNatureCenter in Skokie. As
they’ve done for over 30 years on the weekend before Thanksgiving, volunteers
from the North Branch Restoration Project have gathered to process seeds that
they’ll return to the soil.
Most of the roughly 50 participants work over tubs, separating seeds from
chaff. Three kids in trash cans stomp the spiky, seed-bearing heads of
rattlesnake master, a denizen of wet prairies.
In all, the project will supply 100 gallons of seed to volunteer stewards who
tend lands along the Chicago River’s north branch. They’ll plant
natives like wild quinine, bluejoint switch grass and cress on land that’s been
cleared or burned.
Seed distribution is an important part of preserving biodiversity, the rich
variety of biological life that promotes healthy ecosystems, says Jane Balaban,
a master steward with the CookCounty forest preserves.
“Insects love the little clumps of flowers on rattlesnake master,” says
Balaban. “And of course, the insects pollinate other plant species. It’s part
of that network, that web of biodiversity.”
Some of the best remnants of native prairie and woodland in the state are found
in the Chicago area. Since the late 1970’s, a growing
army of volunteer stewards have been working to restore these ecosystems in the
Forest Preserves of Cook County and other public lands.
That's why you’ll find many of these seed-processors in area preserves on
weekends. They clear brush and cut invasive species like buckthorn and garlic
mustard, which crowd out native plants.
John Balaban, Jane’s husband, sits on a folding chair, like a director.
He oversees the division of seeds into 12 garbage cans, each holding a
different seed mix that’s been precisely blended to thrive on varying amounts
of sunlight and moisture.
“You can see the range of ecosystems,” says Balaban as he points to the cans.
“From high quality prairie to mesic open savannah, wet mesic open savannah,
open woodland, woodland, all the way to pond.”
Stewards are very careful about where they gather their seed, says Jane
Balaban. Nothing is planted that wasn’t here before European settlers disrupted
the native ecosystems.
And they strive to preserve the integrity and specificity of the local habitat.
“We want to keep the local genotype, so we have a limit of maybe 15 miles for
where we collect prairie species, 25 miles for woodland or savannah species,”
Susan Checchia, who monitors butterflies at two prairies in Morton
Grove, is seed-processing for the first time.
Earlier, she says, she was separating seed from the ironweed plant—“kind of a
shrub with real pretty little delicate purple flowers.”
“I noticed in early to mid-summer, the skippers, a type of tiny
butterfly, flock to this plant and decorate it like a Christmas tree,” says
Julie Peterson, who volunteers in the Sauganash Woods, strikes a match and
burns off the milky fluff inside the pod of a butterflyweed, exposing the brown
Peterson says that the work doesn’t carry the same cache as trying to save the
peregrine falcon or the spotted owl.
“Still, some of these seeds are so rare, and they’re incredibly precious,” says
Peterson. “Even a really small grass seed can be endangered or threatened and
it can be just as critical to the ecosystem.”
Jennifer Slosar is a
Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the