The Restoration Research Trail is currently closed for maintenance, but Michelle Bertelsen, a land steward for the Ecosystem Design Group at the Wildflower Center, guides readers on a virtual hike! Read on to follow her trail — and learn about land management in the process.
Welcome to the Research Trail. Here we’re looking at how prescribed fire and prescribed mowing affect the landscape — that’s how the trail got its name!
The fun thing about walking this trail is trying to spot the patterns, large and small. Why are things growing where they are? To see patterns, you need to know the components.
Meet one of them, purple three-awn.
Purple three-awn is a colonizer, it is one of the first on the scene after a disturbance. See the light colored stripe below? That’s purple three-awn colonizing a decommissioned trial. Now, to really test your observational skills, can you see the difference in texture to the right and left of the purple three-awn line? The left side is a mowed in the fall every few years and the right has been burned one time in the summer. On the left we have more Indian blanket and purple three-awn. On the right we have more wintergrass and black-eyed Susan.
Moving on, we come to plot that is mowed three times a year, every year, which has kept it open and has favored shorter species, like antelope horns milkweed.
To appreciate our plots, you have get down close. Look at how many species there are in just this small spot. We’ve got short grasses like curly mesquite, Texas grama and rosette grass.
Moving along…we find silver bluestem. It’s another colonizer, but taller than purple three awn — we must be moving into a different treatment.
Here we come to a plot that is burned in the summer every 3-5 years, which clearly favors black eyed Susan.
Again, let’s get close. Burning clears the ground of thatch, which lets seeds germinate, so over time we end up with more species in areas we burn than in areas we mow or leave alone.
Here we have Drummond’s skullcap, wintergrass, guara, least daisy and plantain.
Burning periodically also limbs-up trees like this cedar elm on a summer burn plot.
Contrast it with the cedar elm below, just across the trail in an area that is not burned. Can you see its trunk?
Also note how much more Indian blanket there is the unburned area above. Indian blanket tends to be a dominant flower in all areas except those treated by summer burns. Looking at the plot below, you can tell that it is a burn plot because the trees are limbed-up and the plot is more open. You can tell it is a summer burn plot because the dominant flower is black-eyed Susan, rather than Indian blanket.
Meet little bluestem, one of the “grandfathers of the prairie.” Our native bunchgrasses are slowly returning after a winter burn.
See the sign off to the right of the trail? Let’s duck in to see one of our sink holes. If you hold your hand over the opening, you can feel it “breathe” as cool air emerges from underground.
Last stop. To the left of the trail is a control plot. We don’t do anything to it. Over time, without land management, the open prairie and wildflower area slowly disappear and woody species take over. We’d like to see a mix of healthy wooded and open areas, and good land management can get us there.
All photos by Michelle Bertelsen.