Allen Park Prairie Outing – Saturday, August 7, 2016

On one of the many very warm days we had this summer, a group of Saugeen Nature members gathered in the parking lot of the Allen Park Management Unit. Jo-Anne Harbinson of the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority (SVCA) greeted us and handed out folders containing lists of species that had been planted in the prairie as well as some history of the project.

A few years ago, Ontario Hydro decided to triple the lines carrying power from the Bruce, and to do that they needed to cut trees and shrubs along the corridor and further disturb hundreds of acres of natural and farm land. As compensation, they offered money for projects that would restore some natural vegetation to areas not far from the lines. Saugeen Conservation (SVCA) applied for some of the money to plant a prairie in a dry meadow that was located in a natural bowl in Allen Park. In fact, the area is one that is used by local families for tobogganing in the winter time.

The prairie was planted in 2011 by staff from the former Rural Lambton Stewardship Network (RLSN) , a non-profit branch of the MNR set up to work with local farmers and conservation groups on restoration work. (In fact stewardship councils were set up in counties all across southern Ontario, but most of these have since been disbanded.) RLSN specialized in prairie plantings because tallgrass prairie had been a significant component of the natural vegetation in southwestern Ontario.

The planting consisted largely of grasses such as Big and Little Bluestem, Indian Grass and Canada Rye, but there were plenty of forbs (flowering plants) included in the mix. Among these were Butterfly Milkweed, Tall Coreopsis, Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Nodding Wild Onion, Black-eyed Susan, Grey-headed Coneflower, Hairy Beardtongue, Canada Tick Trefoil, Missouri Ironweed and Culver’s Root. In 2015 the prairie plot was burned to knock back woody plants and non-native weeds that can’t withstand fire. We were hoping to see a good showing of the flowering plants and tall seedheads of the grasses in August. In the native Tallgrass Prairie that had been encountered by pioneers to the Midwest including southwestern Ontario, it was said that you could ride your horse across the prairie and vegetation would be waving above your head.

Unfortunately, the dry summer had proved very hard on the prairie plants. Most of them were merely knee-high and it was difficult to identify many of the grass bunches because they had no seed heads. We encountered a few patches of Big Bluestem that reached to our shoulders and bore the tell-tale ‘turkey foot’ seed heads, but none of the other grasses were identifiable. The coneflowers seemed to be the hardiest when it came to bearing flowers, and there were a few other forbs in bloom, but most of the plants were simply struggling to stay alive. Luckily these plants develop very long roots over time, and are adapted to surviving long dry spells, so the Allen Park prairie patch will bloom more profusely next year if the rainfall levels return to normal. If you are in the area next year in July or August, stop by and have a look.

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