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The Return of Wild Pansies at Polk City Cemetery

By Sarah Nizzi on 4 August 2021
Sarah Nizzi

Hunched over against the late-day chill, I walked back and forth closely examining the hillside looking for any evidence of purple bloom. It was early April and I was back at Polk City Cemetery in Polk City, Iowa, on the hunt for the wild pansy (Viola bicolor). The cloud cover was full and I hoped I could give myself a morale boost on what was otherwise a gloomy spring day. Last spring, myself and one of my many mentors unexpectedly stumbled upon the tiny flower. The discovery occurred after significant brush removal had taken place in fall 2019 (check out a previous blog, Discovery of a Rare Plant Through Remnant Prairie Restoration, for background on the wild pansy and Polk City Cemetery). Would the wild pansy be present this year? We didn’t know, but hoped so.

The vegetation was very short in this area because we had mowed down the vegetation, again, last summer. Equipped with brush cutters and the appropriate personal protective equipment, we had removed black raspberries, smooth sumac, and other weedy plants, while avoiding desirable native grasses, sedges, and forbs where they appeared to be holding their own in areas of the remnant prairie. The work was grueling and hot. We were not using herbicide, so it was critical to cut the vegetation as low to the ground as possible and as many times as possible. Targeted applications of herbicide can be helpful for some land management tasks, but at this site we chose to not use herbicide to avoid harming any critical native species present. This task was done twice in the summer of 2020.

 

A sloping area of ground on which bushes have been cut down. The cut stems lie scattered across the ground, their fading leaves pale against the freshly growing grass.
Unwanted woody and weedy species were removed using brush cutters in July and August of 2020. Mechanical management took place again this summer. (Photo: Sarah Nizzi.)

 

Amongst the decaying debris of unwanted woody species, a light purple bloom finally caught my eye. Sure enough, the wild pansy had returned! Similar to the year before, once my eyes adjusted to seeing the plant, I soon noticed it was visible in multiple locations on the hillside. The leftover leafy material from the brush clearing had mostly decomposed over the fall and winter. The only evidence left behind was cut stumps and thick stems scattered across the ground. For the second consecutive year we were assured our restoration efforts were successful. We can now infer this particular species benefits from disturbance and flourishes in conditions in which it has little to no competition for light. As time goes on it will be interesting to monitor this species’ response to continued management and periods of no management.

 

In the middle of the photo is the purple flower of a tiny wild pansy. The pansy is growing the decaying stems of bushes that were cut down.
Wild pansies (Viola bicolor) were first discovered growing in the restored area of Polk City Cemetery in April of 2020. They bloomed again in April of 2021, pushing up through the decaying debris of the previous summer’s brush clearance. (Photo: Sarah Nizzi.)

 

There is a long to-do list of restoration activities for Polk City Cemetery. I returned to the cemetery in mid-April to help conduct a prescribed fire on a parcel at the southeast end of the cemetery. We are very motivated to continue our volunteer efforts to save these remnant prairie parcels. We witness time and time again ecological hints that fuel our ambition. In the same area as the wild pansy, prairie larkspur (Delphinium virescens), a high-value native forb species closely associated with undisturbed or old prairie, emerged this June and is now recolonizing spaces once dominated by exotic species. Two other native species, pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and western evening primrose (Calyophus serrulatus), also bloomed this June in the recently burned area, all signs of recovery from the remnant prairie community. I feel a great sense of pride and purpose in giving back to this historical site and the wildlife it supports.

 

A composite inage made from two photos. The left hand photo shows a recently burned area of grassland that was set on fire to control weeds. Tiny plumes of gray smoke rise from the blackened ashes. The right hand photo shows the same area of grassland several months later. The grass has regrown and wildflowers are in bloom. The most abundant flowers have long stems, with narrow pink petals drooping down from a purple flower head.
On April 15, 2021, a prescribed fire took place within the southeast parcel of Polk City Cemetery. The goal of the prescribed fire was to control unwanted species and promote recovery of native prairie plants. In June, pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) dominated the north end of the parcel. (Photo: Sarah Nizzi.)

 

I will close out this piece with a thought that I shared in the previous blog: Land management is an ongoing process. In order to maintain the diversity of our native ecosystems, we must manage them. We have already so disrupted our environment that if left untouched, invasive, and undesirable species will continue to fight for dominance of our landscape—and they will win. We must do our part to ensure natural lands remain wild and biodiversity thrives. Brush cutters and fire might seem damaging, but they are effective tools for protecting ecosystems, bringing short-term disturbance for long-term gain. No matter how big or small the site is, every cubic yard from the soil below our feet to the sky above our heads matters.

 

Further Reading

Read the first part of this story: Discovery of a Rare Plant Through Remnant Prairie Restoration

Read more about Managing Natural Lands for Pollinators

Find plant lists, habitat management guidance, and much more in the Pollinator Conservation Resource Center

Sign the Pollinator Protection Pledge

 

Authors

Sarah Nizzi is originally from central Iowa and is a graduate from Drake University with a bachelor's of science in environmental science. Her experience includes natural resource management in the private and public sector, native seed propagation, and private land management throughout the state of Iowa.

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