Prime Prairie Time

Common camas (Camassia quamash) in bloom at Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. Photo credit: Clare McLean

Only 90 minutes south of Seattle is an exquisite but threatened habitat: the South Sound Prairies. 

Prior to the arrival of Euro-American settlers, the Northwest prairie ecosystem west of the Cascades thrived under management by Native Americans, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley north to the San Juan Islands and into southwestern British Columbia. Today, less than 3% of that original habitat survives, and plants dependent on the prairies’ unique soil and topography require vigorous protection.

“They have become one of Washington’s most imperiled ecosystems,” according to Wendy Gibble, UW Botanic Gardens Associate Director and Manager of Conservation and Education, Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation.  “Most of the prairies have been converted to agriculture and more recently to urban and suburban development.” 

Even protected prairie fragments are threatened by shrub and conifer encroachment and invasive species. “Some of the rarest species are in a few protected remnant prairies and on small strips along roads and edges of fields,” she says.

The UW is working to increase the odds of survival through programs like Rare Care, which Gibble manages. It uses a multi-pronged approach to protecting the state’s rare plants: on-site monitoring, research, ex situ conservation, education and outreach to build partnerships with the federal, state and local agencies who manage the lands where the rare plants live. 

Rose checkermallow (Sidalcea virgata), an endangered prairie species in Washington. Photo credit: Rare Care

Ex situ conservation is achieved through seed banking, a cornerstone of the program. Several populations of rare prairie species are stored in the Miller Seed Vault at the Center for Urban Horticulture.  Rose checkermallow (Sidalcea virgata) is one such beneficiary. “There’s only one population in the state,” notes Gibble.  “And we have about 370 seeds from that population stored in the collection.”

Ecologist Jon Bakker, Rachel A. Woods Professor at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, has been conducting prairie restoration research for almost 15 years. “We’ve demonstrated that golden paintbrush, a threatened species, can be incorporated into restoration seed mixes,” he explains. “And it is now being sown in many prairie restorations throughout its historical range.” In keeping with Rare Care’s mission, collections from four populations of golden paintbrush are secured in the Miller Seed Vault.

Golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) at Glacial Heritage Preserve. The slender red stalks are sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), a common non-native species. Photo credit: Clare McLean

Intentional burns were one of the tools Native Americans used to maintain healthy prairie ecosystems. Bakker’s research focuses on how to incorporate this management technique into 21st century practices. “We’re now testing how mowing and prescribed fires at varying intervals affect plant communities,” he explains. These experiments are currently being monitored at Glacial Heritage Preserve in Thurston County and at the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship on Whidbey Island.

May and June are prime prairie-viewing time. Head south to experience the spectacular blooms at Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve and Scatter Creek Wildlife Area.

Or, satisfy your prairie fix without leaving Seattle, and see one of the prairie’s most iconic flowers, camas, at the SER-UW Native Plant Nursery at the Center for Urban Horticulture. Right now, a bed of blue camas next to the hoop house promises to  momentarily transport prairie-lovers who pass by.