The fate and future of prairie restoration at EWU

Sarah Hill, Graduate Student, Department of Biology

“OH NO! WE’VE GOT APHIDS!!!” That was the text I sent to my project partner, Alison
Last Friday. Another surprise bestowed on us by the fates of the greenhouse. For the last few months, Alison and I have been raising plants that will go into the prairie reconstruction project at EWU next fall, and every few days we are greeted with new opportunities and challenges. Some days the fates are kind – these are the days when you find a new species has germinated and is ready for transplant, or when you notice the first few supple cotyledons poking out of the soil. Sometimes the fates surprise you by revealing that the Wooly Sunflower (Eryophyllum lanatum) seeds that you were cold stratifying in the fridge are starting to germinate a month earlier than expected, and they need to be planted ASAP! Other days you have aphids, grow lights that are too low, or venting fans that accidently got turned off, leading to some very hot little seedlings. The ancient Greeks believed that the Fates did not pre-determine the destiny of a person, but rather would intervene at critical points with decisions that would either be helpful or harmful to the person’s future. In a similar way, the greenhouse Fates are not determining the outcomes of our plant propagation – but they sure are providing us with opportunities to make critical decisions that will affect the survival of our seedlings!

The surrounding community is also getting a chance to shape the future of the prairie at
Eastern. The same day that we discovered the aphids, Alison and I had been at Cheney Middle School, starting a germination experiment with the 7th grade science students in Mrs. Hansen’s class. This day built on a session we had with the students in the fall where these students planted In total almost 500 Arrowleaved Balsamroot (Balsamhoriza sagitatta) and Fernleaved lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) plugs for the restoration. Students that day were excited to take part in this historic project; when learning about the significance of EWU’s restoration and one student exclaimed “WAIT! You mean Cheney is special and important?!” When we revisited the students, among grumblings about the classroom smelling like dirt, we overheard students hypothesizing what was happening to the seeds they planted in the fall. Underneath their nonchalant attitudes, they were keenly interested in the fate of their seedlings. Other partnerships with Cheney Parks and Rec, the West Valley School District, Tekoa School district, and the Spokane Salish school are also underway to build community wide prairie appreciation, and to raise plants for the restoration here at Eastern. In the fall community members will be invited to lend a hand in the first round of prairie planting and laying the foundations for the work yet to come. As the plants grow up alongside the community members, they will be able to take future generations out for a stroll among the hills, and recall their roles in building biodiversity in Cheney.

Raising prairie plants is an exercise in patience and humility. Plants do not necessary operate on timescales amenable to contemporary human schedules, and we are still learning the best way to put back the pieces of the prairie in this region. Having a large scale restoration project on campus at Eastern will be a boon to prairie restoration throughout the region. The research possibilities are endless, as is the amount of information this project can contribute to our understanding of prairie ecology and restoration techniques. My time at Eastern will have ended long before much of the restoration project has been completed, but I hold onto the vision of a functional prairie with a diverse array of grasses, wildflowers, and wildlife. Appreciating the slow march into the future makes the first unfurling of a true leaf thrilling, gives me the patience to squish thousands of aphids, and encourages me to embrace all the learning opportunities the fates send my way.

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