Holding on and taking root

Union students transplant a very special flower on the Irvine Prairie

Union High School sophomores Reagan Sorensen (left) and Mason Mullen (right) work together to plant plugs of Virginia bunchflower at Irvine Prairie in northwest Benton County on May 26, as part of a field trip with their teacher Craig Hemsath. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

A prairie plant propagation story four painstaking years in the making came full circle on Thursday, May 26, at UNI’s Irvine Prairie in northwest Benton County thanks to the assistance of a pair of Union High School science classes.

The Irvine Prairie – a 77-acre prairie-in-progress managed by UNI’s Tallgrass Prairie Center (TPC) on former farmland of rural Dysart resident Cathy Irvine who gifted the land to the center in memory of her late husband David – hosts several groups of area schoolchildren each growing season for field trips.

On May 26, Union High School science teacher Craig Hemsath brought two separate sophomore classes to the prairie – one in the morning and a second in the afternoon – to assist TPC students and staff including plant materials program manager Laura Walter and program director Laura Jackson with transplanting more than 1,300 prairie plant seedlings including a very special propagation of the rare perennial Virginia bunchflower.

The plugs of bunchflower Hemsath’s students planted were grown from seeds harvested from a plant first spotted by Jackson* in a ditch in 2018 about a quarter-mile west of Irvine’s farm.

Jackson had been driving along 55th Street in rural Dysart when she suddenly noticed the showy white flowering plant growing in a ditch surrounded by acres and acres of corn and bean fields seemingly stretching to the horizon.

Farmer, retired teacher, and conservationist Cathy Irvine (right) and her dog Ducky walk toward a group of Union High School students transplanting seedlings during a field trip to Irvine Prairie on May 26. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Despite being unfamiliar with the plant, Jackson recognized quickly it was not a weed and soon identified it as Virginia bunchflower – a member of the lily family sporting stalks of six-petaled, star-shaped, dainty white flowers. The species is often found in wet prairies and can grow up to five or six feet tall.

At one time common in its range, Virginia bunchflower is now listed as threatened in Illinois and rarely found in Iowa. The species is also mostly absent from the native prairie seed market.

Later in the season in 2018, Irvine herself returned to Jackson’s find and collected seed, kickstarting nearly four years of plant propagation work at TPC – the species is slow to mature – spearheaded by a graduate student who took the prairie-orphaned seeds under his wing as part of a research project.

In 2019, following 45 days of cold-stratification, the seeds were started in plastic tubs with a sedge to provide support for the roots during transplanting.

Three years later, on an overcast Thursday in late May, the prairie remnant made the journey from Cedar Falls back to the Irvine Prairie.

Justin Meissen (right), TPC's restoration and research program manager, works with a Union High School student (left) from science teacher Craig Hemsath's sophomore classes on the morning of May 26 during a field trip to Irvine Prairie. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

As Hemsath’s students set about transplanting a dozen different species of prairie seedlings including Virginia bunchflower on May 26 on the west side of Irvine Prairie in soils that had recently been burned, the legacy of the plugs labeled MELVIR – TPC’s shorthand for the species’ scientific name Melanthium virginicum – was mostly lost on the students.

But the importance of their work was evident across the faces of Irvine, Jackson, and Walter as the small groups of sophomore students dug holes with a dibble or a bulb planter and then tucked up green slips of forgotten prairies into the rich soil.

A native species long displaced but somehow holding out just down the road – silently growing in obscurity for possibly decades – and now taking root in the Irvine Prairie.

The Irvine Prairie is open from sunrise to sunset daily. Visitors are welcome to explore the prairie’s trails but are asked to stay off all adjacent row-cropped agricultural fields. To find Irvine Prairie, navigate to 1173 55th Street, Dysart, Iowa. The driveway north of the prairie is a private drive and visitors are asked not to use it. Park on the south side of the road in the grass, near the stone marker.

*North Tama Telegraph note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the individual, TPC Director Dr. Laura Jackson, who first located Virginia bunchflower in the ditch near Cathy Irvine’s farm. The print version of the article mislabels the individual several times as plant materials manager Laura Walter. The Telegraph woefully regrets the error.

Seedlings await their turn for planting at Irvine Prairie on May 26. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Union High School sophomore Alexa Keegan smiles as she transplants plugs of prairie plants on the Irvine Prairie during a school field trip on May 26. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Union High School sophomore Aidan Johnson (left) holds a tray of seedlings ready for transplanting during a May 26 field trip to the Tallgrass Prairie Center’s Irvine Prairie located in northwest Benton County. Laura Walter, plant materials program manager with the center, stands beside Johnson. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker


Seedlings await their turn for planting at Irvine Prairie on May 26. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker