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Red, White, and Blue…And Sweet Clover

For many of us, this time of year is for family vacations, poolside hangouts, backyard fun, and Fourth of July celebrations. For our Natural Areas Management team and interns, it marks the season for battling one of our area’s toughest invasive species to manage: yellow and white sweet clover.

“When you guys go out and you climb up and down these hills, and you trash your feet, and sweat everything out, and slip and slide, and stumble through the raspberries, you’re saving America. You’re saving some of these bits of true natural systems that are still intact, and that’s why we put forward this kind of effort.” 

— Natural Resource Specialist Chad Graeve, speaking to interns before setting out to cut yellow sweet clover.

Natural Areas Management interns look for yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) while walking through remnant prairie in Honey Creek, IA. From left to right: Grace, Andy, Hannah, Steve, Nicole, and Crew Lead Noah.

To say removing sweet clover requires blood, sweat, and tears might be a little dramatic, but not by much. Each June and July our Natural Areas Management team combs through Pottawattamie Conservation parks, weed whackers in tow, and cut as much yellow and white sweet clover as they can. Some days it’s over 100 degrees, others it’s pouring rain, but the mission remains the same: beat the clover before it seeds.

Why does our team risk sunburn, insect and tick bites, poison ivy, heat exhaustion, wild parsnip, and sore backs, legs, and arms? It’s a race against the clock and for the future because they know that if they miss just one yellow or white sweet clover plant it could drop thousands of seeds that are viable for 30 to 40 years.

Why does that matter? Well, if left to its own devices sweet clover would quickly spread and shade out important native plants, reducing the biodiversity that makes our parks so special. But far beyond creating beautiful vistas and recreational opportunities, this biodiversity is also essential for supporting the pollinators we depend on for one out of every three bites of food, protecting our water sources, and providing habitat for wildlife.

Perhaps most important, removing invaders like sweet clover from remnant prairie found at Hitchcock Nature Center is vital to preserving these special ecosystems that covered 85% of Iowa just 175 years ago. Today? Less than 0.1% (just to reiterate, that’s less than one-tenth of one percent) remains. 

Managers of remnant prairie recognize these are ecosystems that we can never get back, despite our country’s “disposable” mindset where we’re led to believe that one can simply buy a new one. It is impossible to restore a remnant prairie to its former glory, no matter how much money you have, so we must be vigilant to protect the small patches that are left.

The work will never be done, and many park visitors will never realize it even took place. Even though few humans will be grateful for the painstaking and sometimes back-breaking efforts we’ve put into preserving natural areas across Pottawattamie County, we know there are countless mammals, birds, invertebrates, and even bacteria that will be, and that’s what propels us forward each day. Over time, we know more humans will begin to appreciate this work as well.

As biologists like Gerould Wilhelm came to understand, remnant prairie is America. It’s the land we inherited and that can serve us well if we treat it right. 

This land is your land, this land is my land, and this land needs saving from ourselves, for ourselves.

We want to take a moment to share a special thank you with our summer interns who play an integral role in shouldering the load of sweet clover management each year. It’s an experience that’s difficult on their bodies and one they surely won’t forget, and we hope after learning more about the dedication and fortitude it takes to heal our land that you won’t forget their hard work either.

 

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