• firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
• the continued or prolonged existence of something
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from French persistance, from the verb persister; influenced in spelling by Latin persistent- ‘continuing steadfastly.’
— New Oxford American Dictionary
We didn’t fully grasp the nature of the path we were about to embark upon when we asked Michael Anderson to burn our prairie remnant and about two acres of surrounding grassland ten years ago. The process appeared simple enough: restore fire to the land so native plants might flourish. I knew very little about native plants and ecology when we started. Actually, I didn’t think much about native plants, especially prairie plants, before Blue Mounds Area Project ecologist Bob Wernerehl told us about the shortgrass prairie remnant growing near our new house. And I certainly didn’t think much about exotic plants and their dreadfully wicked ways. But I was about to learn a lot.
There were the Years of the Thistle, when we invested dozens of hours trying to eradicate solid patches of thistle (Carduus spp. and Cirsium spp.) that firmly stood their ground. We used string trimmers, a lawn mower, a machete, loppers, and, finally, a propane torch to evict them. I seriously wondered whether it was worth the effort. Family and friends had to be called in as reinforcements to work quickly enough to prevent more seed from falling on the ground.
There were the Years of the Sweet Clover, when we invested dozens of hours trying to eradicate solid patches of sweet clover (Melilotus alba) that were advancing toward the relatively pristine prairie remnant forming the core of our project. Year after year, we tried to pull it before it dropped more seed and finally had to ask Errol Jung to mow it down to buy us a little more time. Ideally, a person burns the area two springs in a row to largely eradicate sweet clover, but the weather never cooperated and the bare ground under the thistle and sweet clover interfered with the spread of fire. Again, I wondered whether it was worth the effort.
Then there were the Years of the Wild Parsnip, when we invested dozens of hours pulling and cutting wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), preferably late in the day to protect ourselves from the phototoxic sap. I started by pulling the plants a day or so after it rained—or cutting their roots just below the soil surface—and hauling them to the compost pile to avoid dropping viable seed on the ground, but Merel Black offered some sound advice for accelerating the process: cut or mow the plants just before the seeds harden and leave them lay where they fall … the seed aren’t viable and you’ll see far less wild parsnip next year. It really works!
Then there was the Year of Success. Yes, success! Persistence—“continuing steadfastly”—does yield results …
No thistle, sweet clover, or wild parsnip!
Most gardeners know populations of weeds decline if a person breaks the cycle of seed production by annuals and biennials, but it is more than a bit hard to believe when someone is trying to deplete a seed bank that has accumulated for years and might lie dormant for a decade. And when those owning the land around you don’t appear concerned about aggressive exotic plants, it seems futile.
This year, however, we had to dedicate only a few hours to pulling thistle, pulling sweet clover, and cutting wild parsnip. We dedicated just a few hours to surveying two acres of grassland, scanning for aggressive exotic plants, and swiftly removing them. Sure, there are still weeds, there are still plants that don’t belong there. We haven’t burned the area for several years and woody plants—e.g., honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.) and box elder (Acer negundo)—are moving in. I’ve also noticed a few teasel (Discus fullonum). But this is all manageable and we now have some time for expanding our project.
Of course, there’s more to preserving a prairie remnant than controlling aggressive exotic plants. What about enriching the area? What about biodiversity? Well, that’s the other half of the success story. While we were busy tackling thistle, sweet clover, wild parsnip, honeysuckle, and a few other species, we were also collecting and scattering seeds of native plants. As I walked back and forth on my search and destroy mission over the past few weeks, I saw tiny leadplant (Amorpha canescens) where I didn’t expect them and previously absent Illinois tick-trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) scattered throughout the two acres. There’s purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) blooming everywhere, far beyond the remnant where we first found it. pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) is expanding its range beyond the small corner where we put just a few plants years ago. Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) are reliably sending up flower buds where I previously spent a cool damp November afternoon poking seed into the earth. Butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa) is very scarce, but finally establishing a roothold. And clumps of prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heteropolis), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) are displacing Eurasian grasses.
The continuous steadfast removal of aggressive exotic plants before they produced more seed yielded results. Learning from others and applying their advice yielded results. Regular collection and scattering of seeds of native plants — though one might not notice until several years later—yielded results. I no longer have to wonder whether it is worth the effort.
This is important … persistence and no longer wondering whether we’ll actually accomplish our goal, for there’s another area containing native plants we’d like to liberate. There’s leadplant, thimbleweed (not sure which one), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), various asters, prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), and others. It too covers about two acres. The honeysuckle are running rampant, but we’ve managed to reduce the population of thistle and sweet clover. And the wild parsnip is retreating. Errol Jung mowed the infested area last week, which should substantially reduce seed production. BUT … there’s also crown vetch (Coronilla varia), an extremely aggressive exotic plant, extending its tendrils into every nook and cranny. This is a tricky one, as the most effective herbicide for destroying this perennial happens to kill the native leadplant and members of the aster family. I just have to remind myself: persistence will yield results.
And the ultimate result—through our combined work—is persistence of our natural biodiversity, which makes it more than worth the effort.