Midwest 7

BY MARTY ROSS / Kansas City, Missouri, USDA Zone 5

RECOMMENDED READING

The Genus Paeonia (Timber Press, 2003; $34.95), published with the support of the Heartland Peony Society, of Kansas City, unveils the beauty and the botany of 25 species and 40 subspecies and varieties of peonies. Jim Waddick, founder of the Heartland Peony Society, is co-author, with Joseph Halda, of this stunning book. If you like the book, you’ll love the T-shirt, available for $20 from HPS (www.peonies.org).

Banking on the Future

Any gardener who has ever snapped a ripe cone off a coneflower stem and carried the prickly package around in her pocket knows that saving seeds is a valuable act. A pocketful of seeds is powerful insurance in an uncertain world; it preserves the past and is our link to the future. On a grand scale, seed-saving is even more meaningful, for the delicate and endlessly complex balance of nature is magically locked up in seeds. By saving seeds, botanists hope to preserve the diversity of the planet.

Scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are collaborating to preserve the floral heritage of the great American tall-grass prairies, which once stretched across the vast terrain of the central and upper Midwest. Now, less than one-tenth of one percent of the prairie remains. To capture its essence, the seeds of 1,500 species of plants will be identified, collected, cleaned, packaged, shipped to England, and stored in freezing-cold underground vaults at the Millennium Seed Bank, just in case we should ever need them.

Identifying areas in which prairie plants occur naturally and are uncontaminated by secondary hybridization has been a challenge, says Pati Vitt, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Seeds from restored prairies won’t do; they must come from areas in which the plants are widely endemic and the provenance of the present stand can be clearly established. Then, permission to gather the seeds must be obtained from private owners, parks departments, or the administrators of land preserves.

In the first year of this five-year project, the seeds of 24 species were collected. This year, another 250 species will be added, and the pace is then expected to pick up considerably. The project is directed by plant conservation scientists at the Chicago Botanic Garden (www.chicagobotanic.org/research/conservation), but its heart is in the field, where the low-tech work of collecting the seeds is done, often by volunteers. “The power of this program, and the only way it’s going to work, is to involve local stewards and local volunteers,” Vitt says.

So far, most of the seeds collected are of common species such as coneflowers (Echinacea pallida and E. angustifolia) and big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), which Vitt calls a keystone species. “Keystone plants are species that are so important that without them the ecosystem wouldn’t function,” she says. “Big bluestem is a huge one. It is the backbone of the entire prairie ecosystem.”

The Millennium Seed Bank Project (www.kew.org/msbp) has already collected the seeds of the whole flora of the United Kingdom, and intends to gather seed from 10 percent of the seed-bearing plants around the world by 2010. In the United States, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas, and the Bureau of Land Management in Washington, D.C., are all partners in the MSBP.

Visiting the seed bank in England is a bittersweet experience, Vitt says. “All these people all over the world are joined with us to save our floral heritage—and then there’s this sorrow when you realize why,” she says. The project is also a measure of the astonishing and continuing impact of humans and invasive species. “In 20 years, it might be too late,” Vitt says. “This is the ark.” H

WORTH GROWING

Paeonia tenuifolia

Fall is the season to plant bare-root peony divisions. I am enchanted by the fragile petals and shimmering stamens of single and semidouble cultivars, such as the dashing red-flowered fernleaf peonies ‘Smouthii‘ (pictured) and ‘Early Scout’: the fragrant white ‘Walter Marx‘: and ‘Honor’, a vigorous deep pink. They’re all early-blooming varieties. Plant them in well-dug soil enriched with compost, with the crowns no more than two inches deep. Sources, page 77.

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