Prairie premiere

Restored prairie at Wright State serves as wildlife magnet, research lab and scenic wonder

It may be the most beautiful spot on the Wright State University campus, but few people even know it’s there. It reveals itself only to those who wander down a shy, tree-lined gravel drive that seemingly goes nowhere.

But it goes everywhere.

It leads to nearly two acres of restored prairie — a kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers and dancing butterflies. A chorus of birds and insects. A dazzling display of nature.

Three years in the making, the Wright State prairie is the work of the Department of Biological Sciences. Students and faculty members hand-tossed a strategic mix of seeds designed to create a palette of plants that would blossom at different times throughout the season as well as attract and nourish birds and insects. The prairie has become a colorful carpet underneath a line of power transmission towers that straddles the campus.

The rectangular prairie runs northwest from the Wright State Nutter Center parking lots to University Drive next to the Mini University childcare center.

The site, which was cleared of trees as part of the transmission line right-of-way, was originally planted with grass and mowed by grounds crews as necessary.

“It didn’t provide the kind of ecosystem services that might have been reflected in this area in the past,” said Don Cipollini, who spearheaded the restoration.

Students and faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences turned land off University Drive between the Nutter Center parking and Mini University into a prairie. (Video by Kris Sproles)

So three years ago, faculty and students in the department began restoring what might have been there a few hundred years ago, trying to bring back the habitat and ecosystem support for insects, birds and other pollinators that assist plants in their reproduction.

Prairie restoration has become fairly popular because of increasing concern about the loss of native habitats and declines in pollinators – birds and insects that assist plants in their reproduction.

“We haven’t had this kind of habitat on campus,” said Cipollini, professor of biological sciences and director of environmental sciences. “It provides a new resource for teaching and research and simply adds a new flavor to the natural areas on our campus.”

It’s easy to lose yourself in nature at the prairie.

A sea of yellow and purple undulates in the breeze. Butterflies flutter and float over the flowers. Hummingbirds and dragonflies hover. Goldfinches arrow through the air, riding the currents. Bumblebees collect nectar. Caterpillars munch on leaves. There are grasshoppers and iridescent, green-shelled leaf beetles. Birds, crickets and katydids strike up a symphony.

“We’re going to follow the prairie through time to see how it develops, how it changes, what it attracts,” said Cipollini. “This provides a new area attracting new insects that we really didn’t have much of in the past.”

The first step in restoring the prairie was to kill the lawn grass with herbicide.

“Lawn grass is the enemy of prairie restoration,” Cipollini said. “You just have to be willing to give up this mown-grass carpet that we all like to look at in our backyard and convert to something of much more ecological value.”

After the grass was killed, Drew Sheaffer, who graduated with his master’s degree in 2016, helped acquire seed and prepare it for planting. Then John Stireman, professor of biological sciences, Cipollini and several students spread the seed by hand.

The prairie has three different seed mixes. The pollinator mix produces a diverse array of flowers that bloom continuously throughout the year and are sources of nectar and of food for larvae. A second mix was spread in areas of rocky and drier soils, and a third mix was used in swale areas that are wetter. The idea was to have a variety of mixes that enhance the value of the entire prairie.

“There are literally hundreds of species in these plots,” said Cipollini.“ These are all native species — species that would have been native here that have largely been depleted through converting prairie into farmland. So what we’re doing is reintroducing some of the kinds of plants that would have been growing here naturally.”

Currently blooming are yellow prairie coneflowers and purple bergamos of the mint family, which perfume the air. Purple coneflowers, prairie grasses and prairie thistles will become more prominent as the season progresses.

“The plants help concentrate insects, butterflies, birds, who visit this site very heavily. Every plant that feeds a caterpillar also feeds a bird,” said Cipollini. “And this cascades upward and downward to feed soil microorganisms as well as birds and bats at night. We have an endangered bat species that visits our campus. The insects help feed that endangered bat.”

The prairie evolves, with species coming and going in their dominance. In two years, the prairie grasses — such as big bluestem grass, Indian grass and witch grass — will likely be more dominant.

“Large prairie grasses are beautiful,” said Cipollini. “They can be eight feet tall. They flower. They provide resources for pollinators. They are a desirable part of a prairie restoration.”

Plot map for the prairie.

The prairie also attracts monarch butterflies. Thomas Rooney, professor of biological sciences, partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a program to help restore the population of the monarch, a butterfly with distinctive orange and black markings that is drawn to milkweed.

Milkweed seeds provided by the agency were germinated in Wright State’s greenhouse and produced nearly 5,000 seedlings. Most of the seedlings were given to homeowners around the state to restore the monarch habitat on their properties, but 300 of the seedlings were planted in the prairie.

“Anywhere you put a patch of milkweeds, a monarch will find it,” said Cipollini.

The prairie requires no fertilizer or weeding. The grounds crew mows down the prairie in early spring, before plants really start to grow.

“If you didn’t do some type of management, you would have woody plants showing up — shrubs, honeysuckle,” said Cipollini.

The prairie has become a wonderland for young children from nearby Mini University, who are shepherded through on walks and tours. Cipollini encourages the campus community and the public to come out and enjoy the prairie. Strips of mown grass strips make it easy to navigate.

“It brings me a lot of pride to see this,” he said.

Jeffrey Brown, who is pursuing his master’s degree in biology and is interested in beetles and flies, likes to spend time at the prairie.

“On my way in or on my way home, I’ll stop at the prairie to see if I find any new insects that I haven’t seen out here before. There are a lot of insects here,” he said. “It is interesting to document when I find a species I haven’t seen here before.”

Brown, whose career goal is to work for a park service or forest services, suggests that visitors to the prairie spend enough time there to take it all in.

“If you just walk by and do a cursory glance, you’re not going to get much out of it,” he said. “But even if you just stand still in one spot and observe the same active little flowers for a few minutes, you’ll see many things coming and going. You may see interactions of insects or birds.”

Cipollini would like to convert other areas of campus to prairie habitats.

“This is just a start,” he said. “It’s almost like a demonstration.”

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