Nature Notes from Kankakee Sands

Kittentails

Kittentails are just one of the many rare species that are currently being monitored by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern Program. Citizen scientists travel to natural areas when rare plants are in flower to document the status of the plants. What a treat to be able to admire rare plants in the prime of their beauty as well as take scientific data that will be used to protect those very plants. Kankakee Sands will be hosting a Plants of Concern training on March 25 from 9:30 to 3:00 pm, central time. Please join us! Email Rachel Goad, Plants of Concern Coordinator, to sign up for the program, or you can call (847) 835-6927.

This month's Nature Notes was written by Alyssa Nyberg. Alyssa has been managing the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery for the past 15 years.

For years and years and years, my daughter has longed to have a cat. We just received a call from a friend who has a kitten that needs a home. My daughter is over the moon with excitement!

I too am feeling excited this week, not because of the kitten that will soon come to live with us, but rather for kittentails (Besseya bullii), a native and state endangered plant in Indiana. This week I will begin growing the seeds of kittentails in our Kankakee Sands greenhouse as part of an effort to try to reestablish this rare plant in the fens of northeast and northcentral Indiana.

Like kittens, kittentails are small, furry and cute! They have a rosette of three-inch, oval shaped, green, hairy leaves on one-inch hairy stalks that grow at ground level. From the center of these leaves grow one or two fuzzy flowering stalks which grow up to one foot in height. The stalks have small oval leaves that alternative up the stem.  At the top of the stalk sits a dense spike of small four-inch long, cream colored flowers which are visited for their pollen and nectar by a variety of small sweat bees. Beneath each flower is a small, green, leafy bract. The flowers are not very showy, but the brilliant green of the plant coupled with the hairs that glisten in the sunlight, give the plant a very magical, moonlit appearance.

Kittentails prefer dry, acidic sandy soil that receives full sun or even a light amount of shade. It is a species that can easily be crowded out by larger, more aggressive, non-native plants.

Although kittentails can be found throughout the Midwest from Ohio to Minnesota, the populations are usually small and far from one another. Historically, kittentails grew in seven sites across Indiana. Today, only three of those remain.  

One of the sites on which kittentails still grow is The Nature Conservancy’s Fawn River Fen in LaGrange County. In 2013, the Conservancy’s Nathan Herbert documented 130 kittentails on the property. Since 2013, Nathan and his seasonal crews have worked to thin out the number of trees on the property, allowing more light to reach the ground in an effort to replicate the site conditions as they would have been historically. The kittentails have responded positively to this management. Last year, Nathan counted 365 plants at Fawn River Fen! From these plants, Nathan collected seeds. Those are the very seeds that we will grow in our greenhouse.

Rare plants? You might be wondering why we would place an emphasis on rare plants when we have already established 600+ species of native plants on our prairie restoration plantings at Kankakee Sands. With so many plants already here, why would we bother with the one called kittentails? Well, there is strength in diversity. A diversity of plants supports a diversity of insects and animals. This diversity is interwoven in a web of balance for a sustainable and successful ecosystem. Every single native plant is a part of that balance. Strong natural ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, and healthy soil. Our very own life, and those of the generations to follow, is dependent upon clean water, clean air and healthy soil. The more diverse our floral diversity, the stronger and more resilient our world will be.

Historically, kittentails did not grow on our Kankakee Sands soil, so we won’t be planting them here in Newton County. But, we are proud to grow them in our greenhouse to begin the process of establishing them at other sites across Indiana where they once grew. We’re trying to make the world a better, cleaner and more beautiful place. Doesn’t that send you over the moon with excitement?!
 

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