Wildflowers on remnant prairie behind Prairie Park Nature Center to die from herbicide spray

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Post updated at 5:06 p.m. Monday, May 1:

Millions of irreplaceable wildflowers that have grown for thousands of years in the remnant prairie behind Prairie Park Nature Center will be dead within days. 

Ken Lassman, who creates the Kaw Valley Almanac that we republish each week, was devastated Sunday afternoon when he visited the prairie to take photos of the wildflowers and found them “curling up.” He said he could tell from his experience that the prairie had been sprayed. 

He called Courtney Masterson, ecologist and executive director of Native Lands Restoration Collaborative. She said she walked around the prairie for about an hour Sunday evening. 

The remnant prairie space has never been tilled — it has existed for thousands of years. The wildflowers were wilted Sunday evening; in the coming days, they will be dead, Masterson said. The loss will be more noticeable, and people are going to be very upset.

“This is only going to get harder,” she said.

Masterson said it looked as though the prairie had been sprayed with a broadleaf herbicide. She said Lawrence Parks and Recreation staff members had told her early last week that they planned to spray soon to combat an invasive species, Chinese bushclover. But it’s a summer plant, and walking around the area Sunday, she saw that it had not yet emerged. 

In a news release Monday, and in response to follow-up questions we sent, Lawrence Parks and Recreation staff said the spray, completed Thurday, was intentional. 

Derek Rogers, director of LPRD, said staff used PastureGard, which is an herbicide marketed for hayfields. The spray was “part of the parks’ ongoing management plan to control noxious and other undesirable broadleaf weeds and woody plants,” he said. “This herbicide only works on existing foliage and does not provide soil residual control of weeds or brush emerging after application.”

These wildflowers are not replaceable, Masterson said, and the destruction cannot be undone. They’re incredibly rare and sensitive spring ephemeral wildflowers. Best case scenario, she said, the prairie is set back about 100 years; worst case scenario, it may never recover.

The city’s news release stated that “Parks and Recreation will work with local suppliers of native plant seeds to reestablish and replenish the prairie plant species that may have been impacted by this early spring spray.” 

But Masterson on Sunday said the plants are not the kind you can go out and buy because they are so rare, and even if you can find the seeds, it’s a mystery how to germinate them. 

Asked about that statement, Rogers said, “We have conducted burns and other herbicide applications on noxious weeds in the past. We do respect everyone’s opinions.”

The wildflowers have strange and “magical” relationships with wildlife, Masterson said. Ants carry around some seeds and germinate them; others have special relationships with certain funguses; some germinate by exposure to fire. 

“You can’t just gather the seeds and throw them in a greenhouse; it’s impossible. We haven’t cracked the code,” she said. 

Native Lands worked with the city to conduct a controlled burn of the prairie in the winter.

“When you burn during the dormant season, you’re encouraging the wildflowers to come,” Masterson said. “… I don’t know if I’ve been in a prairie that’s that diverse, so it’s pretty devastating.”

Masterson said the herbicide will kill plants that have aboveground growth — those that came into direct contact with the spray. The city’s news release concurred.

“Most of the broadleaf species have aboveground growth now but not all,” Masterson said. “A small subset of prairie plants will not have emerged, or will have just started to poke up above the soil an inch or two. Those species will represent our later summer and fall blooming species, for the most part. I hope those species will persist on site, providing resources for wildlife later in the year.”

She said the grasses are fine, “which is positive in one way.” But the grasses are also a lot easier to replace, as opposed to the 50-some wildflower species the spray wiped out, she said.

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Masterson also worked on a project funded by a grant last year from the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council to restore the prairie at nearby Prairie Park, south of the elementary school.

She provided this map to show the locations of the remnant prairie and the restoration site:

Map-Prairie-Park-grasslands

The grant was awarded to restore the native landscape to that space. She said that area does not appear to have been sprayed, but it hasn’t been a prairie for a long time and it does not have the rich diversity of species that the nearby remnant prairie does. 

“One of the great losses of this is that the remnant prairie right there on site that was not our restoration site is a seed source for restoration projects like ours, and helping us reintroduce really rare species to landscapes where it’s been lost,” she said. “That is one of the many great losses of it being sprayed is that we no longer have those mother plants, those seeds sources, to create more prairie right there.”

Earlier Sunday, her group had worked on some native gardens and helped clear invasive species out of Lawrence Nature Park, ending the afternoon feeling like they had made a difference. She said she was still in shock Sunday night. 

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Masterson said she didn’t think this spray was malicious — just someone who didn’t know better, and didn’t know the ecological and cultural value of the space. But it can’t be reversed, and it’s going to have a cascading effect on all the wildlife, plants, fungi and animals that live in the area. 

“They undid thousands of years of prairie, with a tractor and a boom sprayer,” she said. “It’s happening all over the state, all over the prairie range, all the time. And we work every day to try to show people what we’re losing.” 

Going forward, “We’re here to try to — it’s not fixable, but we’re here to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Masterson said. 

Please send us your photos

We want to create a collection of photos of this remnant prairie’s spring wildflowers for the community to remember. If you have taken photos that we may publish, please email them to hello (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. 

Courtney Masterson/Contributed
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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