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June 2010: Seeds of Wild Lettuce Plant, Nebraska

From the Photographer

Chris Helzer 

Wild lettuce is one of many prairie plant species that relies on wind to disperse their seeds. These fluffy dandelion-like seeds can be blown for miles by the constant winds that sweep across open grasslands.

While wind-blown seeds can help plants move long distances, there is only a small chance of seeds landing where they can grow successfully. This means that the vast majority of seeds are essentially "wasted."

Because seed production can be inefficient, many long-lived prairie plants also reproduce underground through the production of rhizomes (underground stems) from which new plants can grow. The rhizomes act as an umbilical cord for the new plants, allowing them to receive nutrients from the original plant while they compete for space in the tight prairie sod.

Nature Conservancy staff across the tallgrass prairie region of North America harvest seeds from as many prairie species as they can each year and plant them on old crop fields. This process helps to build large blocks of grassland in places where prairies are typically small and isolated.

Adding these restored prairies to fragmented landscapes helps both plant and animal species move across that landscape more effectively. It also increases the numbers and size of plant and animal populations, making them better able to withstand droughts, diseases and other threats.

The Nature Conservancy is a recognized leader in the field of prairie restoration, and helps guide both the practice and science of this critical strategy across the central United States in places like Nebraska and Oklahoma. If nothing else, our prairie seed harvest efforts ensure that every year there are at least some seeds that aren’t wasted!

To show what wind-dispersed seeds look like, I took this photo in a small studio built from a cardboard box and translucent white paper. The box is open on one side but the top and three other sides are removed and replaced with the translucent paper to allow light to enter and bounce around the box, eliminating most shadows and ensuring even lighting on the subject. For this photo, a small desk lamp was set up above the box to add additional light.

Chris Helzer is program director for the Conservancy's Eastern Nebraska Project Office and the author of the new book The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States. His images of Nebraska prairies and their wildlife are among the most spectacular in the Conservancy's archives.

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