Healthy Prairies

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Have you ever seen a Minnesota prairie? If you have, you’re lucky! It is such a unique and fascinating ecosystem, but is disappearing at an alarming rate. Minnesota had over 18 million acres of prairie in the late 1800’s, and now only 1% of that remains.

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A few scenes from a Minnesota prairie

The Healthy Prairies Project is a UMN research initiative funded by MN LCCMR to help conserve and restore our native prairies.  On Saturday, visitors at the Midtown Farmers Market got to meet the Healthy Prairies team and learn about this precious MN ecosystem! They even got to make their own “seed balls” filled with native perennial grass seeds, which they can take home to grow their own prairie plants.

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Making seed balls filled with native MN perennial grass seeds

Perennial prairie grasses like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) have very deep roots that help reduce soil erosion, filter water, and store lots of carbon. Plus, they’re extremely drought tolerant!

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You can compare the roots of regular turfgrass (far left) and native plants to see that natives have a lot more going on underground!

There are also a whole host of prairie wildflowers that serve as important food sources for lots of pollinators like bees and moths. You can learn more about planting a prairie garden here.

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A small bumblebee seeking out nectar and pollen from Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), a MN native wildflower

But did you know there’s even cool stuff going on inside the leaves of these plants? Every leaf of every plant you see has fungi and bacteria living inside; we call these microbial dwellers leaf endophytes. At the Healthy Prairies Market Science session visitors got to see the huge diversity of fungi that live inside the leaves of some prairie plants.

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These Petri dishes are growing fungi collected from leaves of Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)

As UMN graduate student Mara DeMers explains,

If plants are filled with fungi and bacteria, just what are those microorganisms doing in there? In fact, different endophytes do different things, and there are MANY different fungi and bacteria that live as endophytes. So the short answer is: Lots of things!

What’s the long answer? Some endophytes can protect their plant hosts from being eaten, or help them survive in hot or dry places. Others might actually be pathogens, but are living as endophytes because some condition isn’t right for them to cause disease. For many endophytes, we still don’t have an answer. Maybe they help the plant, or maybe they hurt the plant, or maybe they don’t affect the plant at all. We don’t know yet!

Plant endophytes are a rapidly developing field in biology, and the Healthy Prairies team is on the forefront of research investigating the roles these microbes play in the prairie.

We hope you enjoyed visiting the Healthy Prairies team at Midtown, and that you’ve thrown your seed balls far and wide! There are lots of prairies you can visit across the state; here are a few to get you started.

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