Plant diversity, soil carbon, and ecological restoration in Virginia grasslands

Kathlynn Lewis is an undergraduate researcher in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. She is studying soil carbon storage as part of a larger project on grassland floristics, conservation, and restoration in northern Virginia. Keep up with her research on Twitter by following @KathlynnLewis.

How many rare or “cool” plants do you drive by every day without noticing? Do you brake for Buchnera americana? Do you pull over for Pycnanthemum torreyi? This is something not a lot of people think about, and I didn’t think about either until very recently. The answer is that there are more cool plants along roadsides than you would think. Some of the rarest grassland plants in Virginia have found a home in roadside clearings and powerline cuts where regular removal of trees has created an opening for them to grow and sometimes thrive.

This summer the Virginia Tech Restoration Ecology Lab team has been hard at work doing plant and soil surveys in several counties of northern Virginia. We are partnering with the Clifton Institute and Virginia Working Landscapes to find out where these rare grassland plants can be found and what are the greatest threats these populations face.

American bluehearts (Buchnera americana) – a charismatic hemiparasite and rare denizen of high-quality Virginia grasslands. Photo by JL Reid.

Many of the native vegetation surveys have taken us to the locations people might expect to find high-quality grassland plants, such as parts of Manassas Battlefield National Park where the soil and ecosystem have remained relatively undisturbed for almost 80 years. Other areas are much less expected. Rare plants also show up in power line right of ways and strips of roadside with tire tracks crisscrossing them in every direction and markers stuck in the ground indicating the soil was completely displaced to bury utility lines.

A flourishing native grassland at Manassas National Battlefield Park. In July, it was bedazzled with the hot pink inflorescences of scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). Photo by JL Reid.
A hidden gem – high diversity native grassland along a back road in Culpeper County. The two lines show our 50 × 2 m sampling transect. Photo by JL Reid.

During June, we collected samples from 29 sites to compare plant species diversity with the amount of carbon stored in the soil. We also sampled soils from grassland restoration plantings and pastures “improved” with tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus) to compare the effect of different management practices and ecological restoration on soil carbon sequestration. The soil work is my part of the project. My prediction is that soil carbon storage will be greatest in diverse, native grasslands and lowest in degraded fescue fields. I expect that restored grasslands will be intermediate.

A “blackjack” soil sample from a power line right of way in Culpeper County. This soil had so much clay you could pull it out of the probe and tie it in an overhand knot. Photo by JL Reid.

Power line right of ways are an interesting focus of this study because they present both opportunities and challenges for plant conservation. Power companies keep these areas open by cutting out trees and spraying young sprouts with herbicide. This management is the only reason that grasslands exist in these places today, but the rare plants that live there are at constant risk of collateral damage. At least two of the areas that we sampled in June were sprayed in July, harming populations of rare plants like Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi) and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Rose-pink (Sabatia angularis) next to a power line right of way in Prince William County. This plant can give away a good grassland even at 60 miles per hour. Photo by JL Reid.

The vegetation surveying team has already observed over 450 species across the 29 sites sampled. Not all of these species are a welcome presence though. Invasive species appear to pose one of the largest threats to Virginia grassland ecosystems we have observed in the field. A newly emerging and particularly aggressive invader is joint-head grass (Arthraxon hispidis) which we have found in many of the sites we are sampling. This annual grass is similar to Japenese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) but there is very little information about its effects on grassland ecosystems or methods for controlling it.

Joint-head grass (tan-colored thatch) smothering one of the most diverse grasslands in northern Virginia. Photo by JL Reid.

The plant survey team is now doing a second round of sampling to identify later-blooming species, and they are collating information about the land use history at each of our study sites. The soil samples we collected are currently being analyzed (by me) in a lab at Virginia Tech. We will start analyzing data in the fall and hope this summer’s fieldwork will help inform future research projects and the conversation around land management in Virginia grasslands.

The author collects a panic grass (Dichanthelium sp.) for further observation. Photo by JL Reid.

To find out how ecological restoration affects grassland soil carbon storage in northern Virginia, follow the author on Twitter @KathlynnLewis.

Microstegium population distribution (and control) along Brush Creek

Restoration specialist, Mike Saxton, describes his observations on the distribution of invasive Japanese stiltgrass along a creek running through Shaw Nature Reserve.

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Brush Creek (blue) runs eastward through Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri. Gray Summit Road is in the upper right.

July 28, 2017

Yesterday, Adam and I put in to Brush Creek at the Old Gray Summit Rd. bridge and headed upstream spraying Microstegium vimenium (Japanese stiltgrass). This was the second time through this area this year and I made this sweep solo 3 times last season. My first outing last season, I used 3 gallons of herbicide before I finished the first wetland cell…this year it’s been much, much lighter. Last year, with only 1 person spraying, I was hard pressed to leave the creek bed because there was so much to spray directly along the accessible banks. And in our first outing this season, Catherine and I stayed completely within in the creek, rarely going up on the banks.

However, yesterday Adam and I abandoned the creek bed and went crashing through the brushy banks, finding more Microstegium than I had anticipated. What was interesting was that pockets of stiltgrass followed a predictable pattern of distribution. In many areas, one creek bank will be severely down cut, perhaps 15 ft sheer banks, while the opposite bank is tapered with a more gradual slope. This is where you find the Microstegium. I posit that floodwaters do not over-top the high bank but rush over the lower bank depositing sediment and seed. Almost without fail, the lower bank, if totally brushy, would have scatted Microstegium. However, if the lower bank was open or had open pockets of sunlight, those pockets would be dense thickets of stiltgrass. We observed a nearly 1-to-1 correlation between bank height and stiltgrass presence/absence and open sunlit patches having dense patches of stiltgrass on the lower banks.

I was covering a roughly 20 ft swath out from the bank edge before it dropped into the creek bed.  I did go further from the creek a number of times but wasn’t finding much (if any) the further I got from the creek.

Management considerations

Based on these observations, I believe that our current strategy of managing downstream from the “head waters” is prudent. Based on the diminished population this year and because the species has a 5-year seed viability, we should continue to see diminishing populations if we continue to be methodical and thorough with our management.

We repeatedly found dense patches of Microstegium in high light availability openings/tree fall gaps. This suggests to me that if we open up the brush creek corridor with forestry mowing/brush cutting, the increased light levels and soil disturbance might cause a spike in Microstegium populations.  While the brush creek corridor isn’t priority #1, I know we’ll get there some day. Before we aggressively start clearing brush in this area, I’d like to have 3-5 years of aggressive Microstegium management under our belts. We have observed diminished populations in the wildflower garden, along Paw Paw Creek, and along Brush creek with just one year of management. Coupled this with a short seed viability…and we might have a winning strategy.

 

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Large patch of Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimenium) along Brush Creek at Shaw Nature Reserve.