Seth Mcgee, Lab Manager of the Biocore program, gave a fascinating behind-the-scenes summer look at natural restoration efforts and student related research projects. The UW Biocore Prairie provides a unique and successful natural classroom experience that supports the goals of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Biocore students experience the land ethics concept and carry it into their future professions. They learn effective research methods in this outdoor laboratory by beginning with the question "Why is this this way?" The big steps are to come up with a question, take observations, posit possible answers, and develop testable methods to investigate answers.
Participants tried out some Why questions, beginning with the leaves of Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). "Why is the underside of these leaves so rough?" They feel bumpy. One possible answer is that these bumps increase surface area and thus photosynthesis. The super-sized leaves seem to be like giant solar panels. Looking at the underside with a microscope, we discovered honey-comb like patterns with tiny hairs standing upright, almost like scales. "Why would the leaves have these hairs?" These hairs would help to trap water. "Why do the broad sides of the leaves face the west and east?". This positioning would minimize evaporation from the large leaf surface during the hotter parts of the day. All these answers would need to be tested.
We also had a chance to crush and taste the leaves of various plants. Pairie dock has a rough texture and a "piney" taste. It is related to Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), also of the Silphium family, which has that same piney taste. Seth shared that young boys used to collect the copious resin exuded from injured parts of the plant and chew it like gum. Mountainmint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), with elegant flower sprays atop slender stems and foliage, has leaves that smell and taste distinctly like mint. Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) smells and tastes medicinal. We discussed many other plants, not listed here.
Biocore student Olympia Mathiaparanam, who came along on this walk, is researching germination questions by raising various prairie plants from seeds that do not easily germinate. She has raised a good number of seedlings of a rare Prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya), which is a federally protected rare prairie plant. Other varieties of clover in the Biocore are Slender bush clover (Lespedeza virginica) and the taller Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitate).
At the Biocore shed we also had a chance to view the Biocore Prairie Journal written by the Biocore Interns for many years, the wooden door covered on the inside with the students' signatures, and the most amazing built-to scale model of the Biocore Prairie, which was conceived, produced and is updated by Seth McGee.
The walk concluded with a look at the latest prairie restoration area towards Bills Woods. The restoration is going well, with large clusters of "first arrival" prairie plants, such as Rudbeckia and Monarda, beginning to outpace the weeds. The weather held, with none of the rain and thunder predicted, Thank you, Seth, for an an excellent experience. Report and photos by Gisela Kutzbach, the Friends host.