I started my placement three months ago, but this will be my first blog post. I am living and working at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve (SNR), located 30 miles west of St. Louis. It encompasses 2,400 acres of prairies, woodlands, glades, and other lower Midwest ecosystems. The mission of SNR is to increase environmental stewardship through education, restoration of habitats, and public enjoyment of nature.
I work primarily with Mike Saxton, the Ecological Restoration Specialist here. My challenge focuses on restoration of a 60-acre woodland at SNR and interpreting this large-scale restoration to the public. We call it the IMLS Woods because Shaw received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for this restoration. This project will serve as a demonstration area that will build capacity for regional restoration efforts. Sometimes I work in the prairie, glade, and wetland units as well. Most of my day-to-day responsibilities include a combination of invasive species control and seed collection. I am also building a restoration and stewardship website for SNR to inform the public on restoration projects and their progress as well as opportunities to get involved. In addition, I have been helping to prepare and lead Saturday volunteer workdays that are open to the public.
My long-term professional goal is to work in natural areas restoration and management as well as environmental outreach. During my time at Shaw so far, I have been working towards the specific goals for my placement, which are gaining plant identification skills, knowledge of different ecosystems, hands-on restoration experience, and understanding of public gardens. I have also had the chance to meet conservation researchers and professionals to learn about their projects and talk about new ideas in restoration.
Invasive species control has been a large focus since I began in February. Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii) and privet (Ligustrum obtusifolium) are two that are very widespread throughout the reserve. We cut and treat large shrubs with herbicide to ensure that they don’t re-sprout. Some areas, such as the IMLS Woods, were mowed in the winter, and much of the invasive brush was cut to the ground. When they re-sprouted to a few inches tall, we walked through areas using backpacks with herbicide mixed in oil (instead of water) to spray them. The oil part is important because it allows the herbicide to penetrate through all living tissues, including leaves and woody stems. If mixed in water, the herbicide will only be absorbed through the leaves, and these resprouts do not have enough leaves to transfer enough herbicide throughout the plant. Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is another invasive plant we have been treating. This is a woody vine that crawls along the forest floor and only flowers and fruits after it finds a tree to climb. Therefore, we focus our limited time on vines already wrapped around trees. Euonymus stays green all winter, so we can wait until the fall to spray the mats of it on the ground, when most native plants have senesced.
One recurring theme I’ve encountered during my placement so far is that restoration is largely about understanding the characteristics and phenology of native and invasive plants and noticing opportunities to control the undesired species. For example, many invasive species, such as the ones above, leaf out earlier and stay green later in the season than native plants. At first, this is a frustrating realization because a longer growing season is how invasive plants get ahead of native ones, but on second thought, it also presents an opportunity. We can hit these invasives hard in the early spring and late fall, when there will be little collateral damage. On the other hand, there are invasives such as sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) and sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata) that have seeds viable up to 30 years, which means there may be no visible reduction in large patches for many years. It’s easy to become discouraged when we work every day for weeks on controlling the same plant and it seems like we’ve barely made a dent, but I try to remain hopeful, realizing that it is still possible to make progress and that large changes take time and patience.
Removing invasive brush was something I was accustomed to because of my past volunteer experiences, but ticks and chiggers were new to me. If you’re unfamiliar with them, ticks are small arachnids that feed on the blood of other animals and can transmit diseases. Chiggers are a type of mite that feed on animal hosts. When they fall off, a bump forms on your skin and is intensely itchy. Ever since it warmed up, I have been checking myself for ticks throughout the day as well as before I enter my apartment, before I shower, and before I go to bed. I sleep with my anti-itch cream next to me to relieve my scratched-up legs at night. Over the past few weeks, I’ve become skilled at dealing with ticks and chiggers, and they are no longer the scary things I once thought they were.
I’ve been asking myself a lot if this is all worth it—the risk of tick-borne illnesses and chigger bites, sunburns, splinters, sore shoulders, herbicide exposure, repetitive tasks— if I really want to work in a field where progress sometimes takes decades to see. I think my answer is still yes for now because I enjoy going to work every day and I get to spend most of my day in beautiful natural areas, learning fascinating new things about the amazing plants and animals that live there. It is meaningful to me that my work is helping to conserve ecosystems, no matter how insignificant it seems at the moment.
Thanks for reading. Check back for more photos and another post soon!