Need for seed drives fall harvest of native grasses
DOERUN, Ga. — Alan Isler is wheeling a Kubota tractor through longleaf pines at Doerun Pitcherplant Bog Natural Area, an occasional loud clang marking his passing. Trees and stumps are obvious hazards. But Isler’s focus is more on the thigh-high grass that glints golden in patches of November sun. The wiregrass is ready to harvest.
“We’ve got about 250 acres on River CreekWMAwhere the seed will be going,” said Isler, a wildlife resource manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. “To plant, we need about 600 pounds of seed.”
Most of the seed sown at River Creek, the Rolf and Alexandra Kauka WMA, near Thomasville, will come from the Doerun site. Isler harvested the wiregrass-rich, 650-acre natural area in Colquitt County for the first time last month. He used a Flail-Vac, a street sweeper-like machine mounted on the front of the tractor and designed to brush and suck grass seeds into a hopper. Later, staffer Danny Smith piled the coarse, hair-like wads of seeds and stems into cardboard boxes and picked out the pine straw.
Smith slid a wiregrass stem through closed fingers. “When it starts sticking in your hand, you know you’ve got a good seed,” he said, referring to the threadlight, half-inch-long seeds left in his palm. These, he and Isler agreed, were good seeds.
Wiregrass is part of the longleaf pine ecosystem that once covered millions of acres in the Southeast yet now rates as one of the nation’s most endangered habitats and a high priority in Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan. The perennial bunch grass (Aristida beyrichiana) is indicative of a biologically diverse ground cover and essential to the fires needed to maintain that diversity. Quick to grow after a fire, wiregrass not only burns easily, its stems catch and suspend fallen pine needles above the forest floor, offering them as more fuel for the flames.
Lose the wiregrass and you lose much of the ability to man- age with prescribed fire, said Mike Harris, chief of Wildlife Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section.
Planting wiregrass is one facet in a growing effort to restore native grasses in Georgia and other states. The Wildlife Resources Division’s fledgling program is beginning to hit its stride, gradually transitioning from harvesting seed on private lands to banking on state-owned properties like Doerun. A next step is to explore propagating seed, Isler said.
Others are involved. At Seminole State Park near Donalsonville, The Nature Conservancy teams with park personnel to conduct prescribed burns. Without fire— particularly thewarmor growing-season burns once sparked by lightning and set by American Indians — wiregrass doesn’t flower or seed and the hardwoods and woody brush kept at bay by flames shade it out.
And without The Nature Conservancy’s help, park manager Bryan Gray said he couldn’t do the burns needed. The lack of fire would undermine Seminole’s lauded longleaf pine landscape and indicator species such as gopher tortoises, which eat wiregrass.
The return for The Nature Conservancy is the chance to harvest wiregrass seed at Seminole. Erick Brown of the Conservancy said the park is the local seed source for wiregrass restoration at the group’s Williams Bluff Preserve, 30 miles away near Blakely. After about two years of work there, “We’re hoping to start seeing some results this spring,” Brown said.
Sometimes the seed harvest is by man, not machine. In early November, volunteers led by Wildlife Resources Division senior biologist Nathan Klaus hand-stripped seeds from native grasses and sedges such as Indian grass and little bluestem at Sprewell Bluff State Park in Upson County and Panola Mountain State Park in Henry County. The seeds will be sown in part to benefit grasslands birds such as eastern meadowlarks that suffer from shrinking habitats. Some will restore habitats at Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site in Cartersville.
Klaus said the little bluestem harvest was a record this year, nearly 50 pounds.
Grassroots interest and stronger federal emphasis on habitat restoration using native grasses are expected to raise demand for such seed and foster the private sector’s ability to meet the need.
For Smith, the value is best seen in a stand of young slash and longleaf pines on Doerun Natural Area. He points out where sowing and plugging has produced miniature clumps of wiregrass. Some of the plants produced by seed sown as long as five years ago are no more than a sprig. But even slow growth signals the promise of what once was.
“This stuff just doesn’t happen overnight,” Smith said.
Isler returns from Doerun’s longleaf and wiregrass forests, the Flail-Vac full again. The seed in the hopper is a mix of wiregrass and other native plants. It will be cleaned and stored for planting in February and March.
Then comes patience, and another aspect of nature.
“You get these seed in the ground, then … hope and pray for rain,” Isler said.