HOULTON, Wis. — Volunteers from the St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts teamed with officials from the Wisconsin departments of Transportation and Natural Resources on a cool, gray November Saturday morning to carefully pick bright flowers prime for delivery.
But not any flowers. About 30 of the plants known as liatris puncata, or dotted blazing star, on the Wisconsin endangered species list, were found in a ditch alongside Wisconsin Highway 35, salvaged and recently delivered to local elementary students, so they could grow them and see how western Wisconsin fields used to look.
Where they were in Houlton put them in the path of the newly approved St. Croix River Crossing bridge project. The plants were found during an inventory done on foot late last summer by Minnesota and Wisconsin botanists, led by WisDOT Environmental Engineer Troy Stapelmann. The group of more than a dozen people started on the river shore and walked the entire Wisconsin bridge alignment to find the plants, which they knew were in this area, as well as other endangered species.
Evanne Hunt, chairperson of the local Prairie Enthusiasts chapter, got a call from Gary Birch of Wisconsin DOT in Madison to say they had discovered the blazing star and other rare plants and wanted to move them so they could be preserved. Could the Prairie Enthusiasts help, he asked?
Hunt sent an e-mail to various volunteers, who said they’d never done this before, but were excited by the possibility of the experience.
The next question: Transplant now, or wait until spring?
“We were on the fence,” Stapelmann said.
That debate ended when it was learned from a test dig that the plants came up easily in rain-softened soil — in particular the sandy soil found up and down the river from Houlton to North Hudson.
Before the first snowfall was determined to be the best time because the plants had already gone to seed and had gone dormant for the winter, he said.
So volunteers grabbed shovels, trowels and three-pronged hand cultivators, got a brief orientation from Stapelmann and Dan Salas of Cardno JFNew, on how to identify the plants and gently uproot them using the cultivators. During the survey, the locations of all the plants were recorded on a GPS.
Ecology students and volunteers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire coordinated the science part of the rescue effort. They inventoried individual plants including photographing them, washing root bundles, counting stalks, and spraying the roots with an anti-fungal chemical before wrapping them in plastic.
The group was divided into teams for the tedious task, which was effected by the late season. The flowers had dried and blended with the surrounding grasses. Salas at times held the plants chest high to show volunteers how to work the roots.
Hunt said she was heartened by the fact that state government officials took the lead for the project and called her, rather than having her group have to beat the bushes among politicians to get things going.
The majority of the plants were to be delivered to a Wisconsin DNR nursery in Hayward to over-winter and for research. Other plants were given to New Richmond High School for study by biology students, and to Houlton Elementary School students for their prairie project, according to Harvey Halvorsen, the wildlife biologist in the Wisconsin DNR’s Baldwin office.
The plants and their seeds will help the biodiversity in the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area, which is located in St. Croix County and the immediate vicinity, officials said.
The plants had been identified by pink DOT flags, not unlike those seen in other roadside projects, to mark them in the fields — and help diggers avoid poison ivy. They started by carving a wide circle around the stems and removing soil from the root system, which varied from plant to plant and could extend between six inches and three feet into the ground. This helps the plants, which are already endangered, survive droughts.
The plant is quite recognizable. Its strongly vertical flower stalks feature a series of one-inch sprigs that are pointed upward — and look like those on the spruce branches that not long ago were on many people’s Christmas trees.
Earlier, the volunteers IDed all the plants last year, and certainly would consider another gathering day. But that’s unlikely because of the recent demolition of homes on the site, Hunt said.
“It is the state’s responsibility to move or mitigate the plants on site, and we are confident that they have,” she said. “It’s important to save their genetic material, even though there are other populations of it in Wisconsin.”
Hunt added that there are only three Wisconsin counties that have such a population of blazing stars, and each are unique. What makes the Houlton plants valuable are the chemicals in the soil, that when taken with nutrients and the amount of rainfall received make a specific genetic footprint.
The tall spires that can reach three feet in height are like fire pokers with flowers on the side, but underside the leaves on local plants are little dots that differentiates them from other blazing star varieties.
“I love blazing stars; they are very pretty,” she said.
Joe Winter is a freelance writer based in western Wisconsin.