Getting Dirty in Your Garden-Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Podcast-Interview of Stefan Bloodworth
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Charles Murphy, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Durham County, interviews Stefan Bloodworth who is curator of the Blomquist Native Plant Garden at Sarah P. Duke Gardens about Piedmont Prairie.
Listen to learn more about Piedmont Prairies.
This is “Getting Dirty in Your Garden”, brought to you by North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener volunteers. I’m your host, Harold Johnson and I’m a Master Gardener in Durham County.
This is Charles Murphy and once again, I’m at Duke Gardens, here in Durham, North Carolina. Well, I was in the Blomquist Garden once fairly recently, and this is where I first came across the Piedmont Prairie and I’m talking this morning with Stefan Bloodworth who is curator of the Blomquist Native Plant Garden here at the gardens and I’m especially interested in asking him about something called Piedmont Prairie. I don’t know how many of our listeners have heard about Piedmont Prairies, so we are going to find out something about them today. What sparked your interest, especially in this prairie ecology?
Very initially, I lived in Africa for a time in the early 90’s and really became enamored of the tall grass savannas in east Africa–the Masai Mara and Serengeti Preserves. I also worked at the UW Arboretum in Madison, Wisconsin as a volunteer and kind of witnessed their own prairie restoration project that they were doing there and it’s an emotionally evocative landscape, these large wide expanses of grasses and wildflowers. There’s not quite anything like it as far as the effect they can have on people. I think initially that was the goal–this emotional response to a beautiful landscape–and then as Annabel [Rewick] and I began to look into the complexities of design, and the propagation, it became a much more of kind of an ecological interpretive project, so it grew in complexity from the initial inspiration of just wanting to build a beautiful space.
And let me just start out by asking you, what is a Piedmont Prairie?
Well, thank you, Charles, that’s a good question. The first thing that I want your listeners to kind of understand is that the term “Piedmont Prairie” is kind of a little bit of a catch-all term for a number of different Piedmont grassland type ecosystems in this part of the country. And when I say “Piedmont” it’s very simple to go on the internet and look for a map of the Southeastern Piedmont and it’s a band of territory that spreads from up into the Washington, D.C. area and all the way down into Mobile, Alabama. It’s just like somebody took a big paintbrush and just kind of painted a couple hundred mile swath all the way down through there where you have very similar topography, rainfall, soils, geology and it really informs kind of the plant collections–the plant communities within the Piedmont. So to talk about Piedmont Prairies, I think it’s important to know that within that term “Piedmont Prairies” there are a number of different, kind of smaller terms or other ways that people can use to describe them, so just in case your listeners hear other terms, they’ll know that that’s kind of all within that same collection that could be lumped into the idea of a Piedmont Prairie. These would be things like Piedmont savannas, barrens. Piedmont Prairie just seems to be the term that the public has kind of latched onto and it seems to be the most accessible and it’s the one that we chose to use for talking about the Piedmont Prairie interpretive space that we built in the Blomquist Garden. But essentially what Piedmont Prairies are, they are landscapes, natural landscapes that are plant communities that are dictated by soils and geology and often times these are very poor soils or they are soils where other plants can’t grow, or historically, typically, they are places where it was difficult for agriculture to succeed because of the soils. So the ground wasn’t plowed, it wasn’t disked; it wasn’t disturbed. So that is why in these places where we have these particular types of soils throughout the southeastern Piedmont, we tend to find what we would call remnant prairies that are kind of hints or clues to what at one time was probably a much larger extent of this particular type of ecosystem.
So, this would have been, say at the time that the North American continent was first being explored and opened up, this would have been a larger extent…
Oh, large, much larger! And we know this because of anecdotal accounts of plant explorers and just explorers, in general. Probably the most well-known is John Lawson, who made a very famous journey from Charleston, South Carolina up into North Carolina, Charlotte area, over towards Durham, North Carolina and ended up in Bath, and along the way, he made notes. He kept a diary of his journey. This would have been in the early 1700’s. At the time that Central Piedmont of North Carolina, in particular, was still–there were still a large number of Native American populations in the area and his notes from his journey tell us about times when he would travel for a day or two or three, through this part of Central North Carolina and see nothing but this–these large expanses of grasslands that were dotted here and there with trees, widely spaced. What people–the kind of the way that we understand these ecosystems today, is that probably when Native Americans arrived here thousands of years ago in this part of the world, Piedmont Prairie ecosystems, Piedmont grasslands, savannas, barrens, whatever you want to call them, did exist and they were maintained by periodic fires, lightening-induced fires, the time before the Native Americans settled here, and this would have controlled woody vegetation from slowly creeping in and out-competing the forbs and grasses. All of the species that we have in there, we are approaching it–we are getting ready to do our third phase of planting, a slight expansions of the existing prairies. You know we are approaching 100 species in total. And all of those were collected, I mean Annabel went around, and we did just like a 20 mile radius around Duke Gardens and Annabelle went and collected from these sites that I was aware of in different spots on roadsides. I’ve lived in Durham all my life and you just notice them. You know, if you are interested in plants, you just start noticing where are things that don’t make–that you have never seen before. So these roadside right-of-ways in Durham County and in Orange County, particularly, was where we would harvest the seeds and then Annabelle grew them all on from seed and all of the grasses, we collected seed from these as well, and we wanted to use all local ecotypes, so ecotype is just a term used to describe plants that are of a particular species but they are also adapted to a very particular ecoregion. So, for instance, you can find a plant like Echinacea purpurea–purple coneflower–growing in native wildscapes all over North America. But it is those local ecotypes of any given species that are going to have local genetic adaptations to local soils and climate. So this idea of local ecotypes is very important to us and you know, we were able to, within that radius, get everything we needed just off of the roadside.
Well, I’m always thoughtful when I see something like that. What would John Lawson have seen when he came through here? How would he have experienced this because this was not something–he was from England?
This was not something that he would have seen at home. I would think that the wonder of the entire continent before it was really thoroughly explored and settled and so forth, must have been an amazing thing.
I am sure it was quite an amazing adventure.
Stefan, thank you very much! I appreciate your time. This is Charles Murphy, again, at Duke Gardens. And let me remind you listeners, that Duke Gardens is, indeed, the jewel of the Piedmont. Come out and look at the entire thing and make sure that you get to the Blomquist Garden so that you can see the Piedmont Prairie.
You’ve been listening to “Getting Dirty in Your Garden” brought to you by North Carolina State Extension Master Gardener℠ volunteers. You may find this and future episodes on our website: gettingdirtyinyourgarden.org. Episodes of “Getting Dirty in Your Garden” are available as a downloadable podcast and thanks to Georgianna Kiggins, an Extension Master Gardener℠ volunteer in Lee County, a transcript of each episode is also available on the website. ’Til next time, why not go out and get dirty in your garden!