Thursday, May 5, 2011

Purple Coneflower Management

Ecosystem management is a challenge, but I also consider it a fascinating and enjoyable endeavor. The basic idea is to take something that is moving and make it go in the direction of your choosing. The movement takes place through time and we perceive that movement as changes in the composition and balance of plants and animals in a particular area. Management begins with a vision of what we think the landscape should be. Next we evaluate the components to determine the existing direction of change. Finally, we do something to redirect that change.

Ecological change is a powerful force. I like to think of it as a massive boulder rolling wildly down a mountain slope. It’s too strong and variable for us to deal with directly, but we can put obstacles in its path that deflect it enough to change the course of its journey. It’s sometimes hard to sense this incredible force, because we are taught to view nature as being calm, peaceful and serene. This may describe how we feel when we’re out enjoying a natural setting, but every living thing we view is there because it was able to triumph over its competitors and it’s all at risk of being replaced with something else in the continuing course of change.

So, in my management efforts, I try to make little directional changes that will create my desired ecosystems. I target rare species and try to create conditions in which those species will thrive. The rarities are sometimes slow to respond or absent in certain locations, so I use more common species to evaluate the effectiveness of my efforts. An example is the Purple Coneflower, now showing itself as a cluster of basal leaves. Purple Coneflower is a plant that is commonly associated with prairie areas and does well in conditions that are also associated with a broad range of prairie forbs. If the coneflower prospers, so should many other of my priority species.

Although Purple Coneflower is a common plant across its range, it was very rare at Blue Jay Barrens when I first began my management efforts. I found a few flowering specimens around and then I found a group of non-flowering plants growing in a cedar thicket. It seemed logical that the plants would grow better if they were given more sunlight. I removed a couple of cedar trees and was gifted with a cluster of flowering coneflowers. Seed was once again being produced on this site. In addition, other stunted coneflowers began to exhibit more vigorous clusters of basal leaves. Over a period of years, I removed several cedars and the Purple Coneflower population continued to expand.

The Purple Coneflowers are now becoming quite widespread on this site. I’m sure they would respond favorably to the removal of a few more trees, but I’ll continue to proceed cautiously in making changes. One of my concerns is the fact that neighboring areas that have nearly full sunlight contain no Purple Coneflower. Some of those areas are identical to this with only one difference, the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The other areas may become too hot and dry for the coneflowers to survive. In any case, the coneflowers seem to benefit by having some shade and I would hate to do too much clearing and have their numbers begin to decline. It’s easy to cut a tree down, but it’s hard to put it back up. As long as things are going in the right direction, I’m content to proceed at a slow pace.


  1. Steve, again, an awesome post. Your approach to your habitats needs and or limitations and your explanations of your plans and their execution is ,in addition to the photos of flora and fauna and those narratives,of such value I cannot express it enough. And I plan to follow them albeit with some modifications due to (A)some things being beyond my control and (B) my having 1/1000th of your knowledge on a good day,on a project I think I will be handling.I have been "verbally" appointed to "resurrect" a large area of a local parks native plant species habitat and am taking notes from your blogs. Its all volunteer work and I hope you won't mind my questions from time to time.And any reading materials you could recommend would be great.If you don't mind I'd like to ask this, as it is of primary concern and my initial plan. A mile or so of walking trail only,has been cleared.The habitat I speak of offers a wide variety of terrain,however as most areas near me,invasive honeysuckle has become the dominant understory. They are wanting a diversified group of species emulating whats been lost here, but not with your precision of purity of genes etc.As far as creating a simulated "forest" type environment in some areas,since total removal would not work as the old growth trees are too few, I had thought that I would "trim" the honeysuckles initially to provide a gapped canopy while buying time for some planted trees to grow and then remove them.What do you think?Thanks

  2. Sounds like an interesting project, Michael. Trimming tends to invigorate bush honeysuckles and leads to increased sprouts and branching. I would worry that this could increase the density of the honeysuckle canopy and leave you with even more work later on. I would favor complete removal in blocks or strips. This would give you areas in which to introduce native trees and understory shrubs. As your plantings grow and provide shade, you can move on to open additional blocks. Blocks don’t have to be large. A few hundred square feet would give you a nice opening in which your plantings could grow without competition from the honeysuckle. Opening blocks mimics the creation of openings in the woods that occur when a tree is lost. I’m sure you’ve seen how quickly woody vegetation grows to fill those holes.

    I’ll give some thought to what I would recommend as far a reading material. I’ve not found a lot that gives practical advice on what techniques are going to produce specific results. A lot of what I’ve seen talks about the philosophy of restoration, or describes how different ecosystems function, but is lacking information on how to transition from one condition to another.

  3. I can't thank you enough. Being in the woods every day gives me a great sense of where different species prefer to reside. And interestingly enough, even in this orphaned, urban area, there are quite a few natives remaining. They tend to do odd things like creep all scraggly along the ground in search of light, but some are still there!