Plant Hunters of the Konza Prairie

Network News Fall 2013, Vol. 26 No. 4
Top Stories

The tallgrass prairie once filled the center of the United States from Texas to Minnesota.  With its thick, gently-rolling soil the prairie was soon disciplined by homesteaders into neat rows of corn and soybeans and the 9 ft. tall grasses became a thing of the past.  Small pockets of native tallgrass prairie can still be found scattered throughout the central United States, but some of the largest intact parcels occur in the Flint Hills of Kansas, including the 8,616-acre Konza Prairie Biological Station. Here is where the Konza Prairie (KNZ) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program has its home and where research focuses on the effects of climate, grazing and fire on the prairie.  Here also, is where a group of volunteers meet every Saturday morning to go hunting. They aren’t hunting any of the sites’ abundant White-tailed Deer or Wild Turkey; rather, they are hunting plants. Konza Prairie is home to over 580 species of vascular plants, many of which are difficult to find elsewhere.  This group of tireless volunteers made it their mission to find and recognize all 580 plants and to even add to the list.  The leader of this group is Earl Allen, a long-time volunteer (or “Docent”) of the Konza Environmental Education Program.  

Allen’s background is in business rather than science but he is self-educated in the identification and taxonomy of regional plants, and his skill in finding and identifying rare plants has made him a contemporary of the sites’ other botanists. One of the newest members of the group, Gary Breckon, is a retired botanist from the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez.  He is a frequent participant in the Saturday morning hikes and a perfect foil for Allen.  Nothing is assumed and all plant identifications are up for discussion.

The persistence of the Saturday-morning plant hunters paid off this summer when Allen found and identified a species new to Konza Prairie and to the state of Kansas – the Southern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris).   This plant had been documented in neighboring states but had not previously been recorded in Kansas.  The discovery of the new species added fuel to the fire – the group is more motivated than ever to completely survey the Konza Prairie and discover any additional secrets hiding in the tall grasses.

New members are welcomed into the Saturday morning plant hunters.  Plant identification skills are not required, but a good sense of humor and a healthy dose of patience are a must.  The running joke is, according to Ken Stafford, fellow Konza docent and Saturday morning regular, “we’ve been here for 4 hours and have gone 100 yards.”