Nature’s natural nitrate filters

The sun sets over the Spring Run Wetland. (Photo by Daniel Ruf)

The sun sets over the icy Spring Run Wetland Complex in Dickinson County, just off East Okoboji Lake. (Photo by Daniel Ruf)

Wetlands can be beautiful, like in the photo above, if you catch them at the right time. They can also be a buggy swamp in the middle of a hot summer day. But beyond their aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof), wetlands serve an important purpose. Not only do they play host to various plant and wildlife species, these natural sponges remove nitrates from our water, contributing to Iowa’s environmental and economic vitality.

Wetlands provide habitat for various wildlife, such as this redwing blackbird, seen here at the DeCook Wetlands.

Wetlands provide habitat for various wildlife, such as this red-winged blackbird, seen here at the DeCook Wetlands.

Funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would provide money to voluntary programs that help construct and restore natural wetlands, such as the Conservation Reserve and Enhancement Program (CREP).

A partnership between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the USDA Farm Service Agency, CREP installs wetlands in strategic locations within the Des Moines Lobe area. These wetlands were once plentiful in Iowa before fields were tiled and drained for agriculture. CREP just restores them and makes them economically advantageous.

Factoring in construction and maintenance, IDALS estimates that every pound of nitrates removed from the water in CREP wetlands costs about 26 cents. In comparison, every pound of nitrates removed by the Des Moines Water Works’ facility from 2013-2014 cost about $17.75.

Many plant species thrive in wetland areas, such as the Blue Flag Iris.

Many plant species thrive in wetland areas, like the Blue Flag Iris.

Wetlands remove 40 percent to 90 percent of the nitrates from water that flows through them, according to IDALS. The wetland’s vegetation uses the nitrogen, converts it into gas and then releases it back into the air. Using the 96 wetlands restored and under development in the Des Moines Lobe, IDALS is estimating that this process will remove over 1.3 million pounds of nitrates annually from our water.

Yet, landowners wanting to enroll in the program have to wait an average of seven years for their land to be evaluated. Funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would provide more money for landowners that want to enroll in CREP and similar conservation programs, shortening the waiting list.

“They’re shovel-ready projects,” said Patrick Snell, INHF Mark C. Ackelson Fellow. “These programs just need the funding.”

So what can Iowans do to Fund the Trust?

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What’s in Bloom: Early Spring

This is our first installment of “What’s in Bloom.” From time to time, INHF volunteer Catherine Wilson will let you know about native plants that are in bloom around Iowa.

As incredible as 60-degree weather feels in early March, think about the opportunity this warmth provides tender prairie flower seedlings. Despite the recent cold snap, there are still plants that can be found blooming around Iowa.

Pasque flowers are noted for their purple, blue or white sepals that appear to be pedals. Photo credit: Gary Tonhouse.

Pasque flowers (Anemone patens) bloom in March and April and grow 2 to 16 inches tall. The hairy, gray-green stems grow nearly erect from a thick, horizontal rootstock and a single, large flower emerges from the tip of a long flowerstalk. Though the flowers do not have true petals, they produce five to seven blue, purple or white sepals that form a flower about one-inch across and up to 1-1/2 inches long. Pasque flowers are broadcast by wind energy. American Indians used crushed leaves of Pasque flowers for the treatment of rheumatism, boils, burns and sore eyes. Other common names were April fool, prairie smoke, hartshorn, wild crocus and wind flower.1

Prairie Smoke - Old Man Whiskers

Prairie smoke is in the rose family and is abundant on upland prairie sites. Photo credit: Gary Tonhouse.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum)  bears its pink blossoms in early spring and grows equally well in sandy, loamy and clay soils though it prefers a well-drained site and full sun according to information posted on the Wisconsin Master Gardener site. This woodland flower is in the rose family and is abundant on upland prairie sites. The flowers can have as many a nine clusters of nodding reddish-pink, maroon or purple flowers on 12-18 inch stems. The plant forms a 6-10 inch cluster of foliage produced by 9-19 narrow, ferny leafs. The leaves turn red, purple and orange in late fall. Though the leaves wilt in full, hot sun, they emerge into a deep gray-green color in the cooler fall air. American Indians used an infusion of roots and crushed seed pods or pulverized roots as an eye wash, sore throat gargle, and as a tonic for menstrual cramps. Other common names are Old Man’s Whiskers, Purple Avens and Three-Flowered Avens.

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Prairie dandelion, also called goat chicory and false dandelion, blooms in April and May.

Prairie dandelion (Agoseris cuspidata) blooms from April through May in dry prairies and stony hills from Wisconsin to Montana. The perennial taproot produces narrow, grasslike leaves from four to eight inches long, and the yellow dandelion-like flower tops a stout, leafless stalk that may grow to one foot in height. The long, thin pedals radiate from the sepals and form a flower that is one to two inches across and one-inch high. The pedals have a five-toothed, ragged appearance at the tips and are less numerous than a common dandelion. The tender roots of the prairie dandelion were eaten raw by early settlers and the dark, milky juice that flows from a broken stalk – similar to rubber – was chewed by American Indians. Other names were goat chicory and false dandelion.1

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Pusseytoes are also called everlasting and ladies’ tobacco. Meskwaki women used the leaves to make tea to drink following childbirth.

Pusseytoes (Antennaira plantagini-folia) are low-growing perennials often found on rocky edges or dry, disturbed woodland sites and is a valuable soil anchor. Blooms decorate the landscape from late April to June. Several narrow leaves and a tight cluster of grayish flower heads emerge from the center of a base rosette and are covered with silky hairs. The gray appearance of the leaves look similar to a dusty rose and retain their color after being picked. Pusseytoes are unisexual and reproduction occurs by leaf-bearing stolons which allow dense colonies to form. Meskwaki women drank a tea produced from the leaves for two weeks after childbirth to prevent illness. Other common names are everlasting and ladies’ tobacco.1

  1. Runkel, S. (2009). Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie (Second ed., pp. 7-15). Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press.

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Nature Walk: Greenheads

“Mallards are one of the most common and widely recognized waterfowl.  They are in the family called dabblers and feed by dipping their heads underwater. Often called Greenheads by hunters, they may overwinter in northern states providing there is a source of open water. When flushed, their take-off is abrupt as they arise directly up and out of the water.” – Carl Kurtz

“Mallards are one of the most common and widely recognized waterfowl. They are in the family called dabblers and feed by dipping their heads underwater. Often called Greenheads by hunters, they may overwinter in northern states providing there is a source of open water. When flushed, their take-off is abrupt as they arise directly up and out of the water.” – Carl Kurtz

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this photo or requesting information on possible use of any of our “Nature Walk” photographs, please contact Carl Kurtz at cpkurtz@netins.net. View our other Nature Walk posts!

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Where the buffalo roam

Neal Smith NWR was established to re-create 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie (pictured here) and oak savanna. (Photo by Gary Hamer)

Neal Smith NWR was established to re-create 8,600 acres of tallgrass prairie (pictured here) and oak savanna. (Photo by Gary Hamer)

With spring looming, it’s time to start thinking about the go-to destinations for enjoying the beauty of the Iowa outdoors. One of our favorites is just a short drive from Des Moines in Jasper County.

Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge belongs to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Created by Congress in 1990, this 700-acre refuge hosts hundreds of species of birds, plants and animals on its prairie grass. Continue reading

Nature Walk: Spring Courtship

Pheasant Courtship

“Spring courtship displays in the avian family are as many and varied as there are species of birds. Tom turkeys strut, cranes dance and pheasants put on a sidestepping show to display their best colors. Early in the season, hen pheasants often try to ignore the whole business by turning around or looking for food. It is all part of the mating game, and can go on for several weeks. It helps the birds chose the best partner and eventually form a pair bond.” – Carl Kurtz

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this photo or requesting information on possible use of any of our “Nature Walk” photographs, please contact Carl Kurtz at cpkurtz@netins.net. View our other Nature Walk posts!

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Let’s Connect

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Connect the trails that is. The “Let’s Connect” project is working to connect Raccoon River Valley Trail to High Trestle Trail, two outstanding Iowa trails.

This nine-mile “connector” between Perry and Woodward is proposed as an off-road recreational trail, which provides more safety and serves more users. Not only will these nine miles open more trail routes and provide new adventures, they will make central Iowa an even bigger trails destination. Continue reading

Nature Walk: Prairie Grass Clumps

“Layers of heavy wet snow can eventually flatten stands of tall prairie grasses, yet clumps often remain providing access to the surface for small critters.  For deer mice, voles and shrews, it provides an insulation barrier from the cold and protection from predators.” – Carl Kurtz

“Layers of heavy wet snow can eventually flatten stands of tall prairie grasses, yet clumps often remain providing access to the surface for small critters. For deer mice, voles and shrews, it provides an insulation barrier from the cold and protection from predators.” – Carl Kurtz

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this photo or requesting information on possible use of any of our “Nature Walk” photographs, please contact Carl Kurtz at cpkurtz@netins.net. View our other Nature Walk posts!

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Day of Insects

A coma butterfly rests on milkweed in the Ringgold Wildlife Area in southern Iowa. (Photo by Clint Farlinger)

A coma butterfly rests on milkweed at the Ringgold Wildlife Area in southern Iowa. (Photo by Clint Farlinger)

How much do you love insects? Probably just as much as Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens, the host of the 7th Annual Day of Insects on Saturday, March 28, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Whether you’re a proud insect enthusiast or you’ve never even heard of DOI, you’re welcomed with open wings arms. Fifteen presentations from professionals, academics, advocates and enthusiasts alike will span a range of insect-related topics. Check out “Bioluminescence in Arthropods: Not Just Fireflies” or “Glimpses into the Amazing Lives of Insects and Spiders” or even “Are Bites and Stings Just B.S.?” We know you’re curious.

On Friday, March 27, a casual opening reception will connect insect enthusiasts from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The reception is available to anyone signed up to attend DOI. The deadline to register for Day of Insects is Monday, March 23. A full list of presentations can found here.

This year, DOI follows the announcement of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, a collective established at ISU to enhance monarch butterfly reproduction and to assist community-led implementation efforts.

As a partner, INHF will provide funding and support for the Consortium. INHF president Joe McGovern voiced his excitement for the project to Iowa State:

“The consortium will build on Iowa’s experience in related conservation efforts and can make great strides in benefiting monarchs. We look forward to getting the word out to all Iowans about how they can help increase monarch habitat.”

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The Importance of Native Prairie

Turin Prairie lies in the heart of the Loess Hills, adjoining a state preserve, viewed from a national scenic byway.

Turin Prairie lies in the heart of the Loess Hills, adjoining a state preserve, viewed from a national scenic byway.

This latest blast of winter weather has us dreaming of spring. It won’t be long before the snow is gone and the year’s early bloomers – pasque flower, prairie smoke, early buttercup – are lighting up our native prairies. Won’t that be nice?

Until then, we can look forward to a great educational prairie-themed event. The Bur Oak Land Trust of Johnson County is hosting the 32nd Annual Prairie Preview on Thursday, March 12, at the Celebration Farm just outside Iowa City. This event is a great opportunity to meet fellow nature lovers.

The program will include information and displays from various local environmental organizations and agencies, including INHF. Conservationist Jim Kessler’s talk, “Why Planting Local Natives and Restoring Habitat Matter,” will focus on the importance of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, sedges and grasses.

This year’s theme is “The Importance of Native Prairie.” INHF has worked both to restore and to preserve native Iowa prairie land through projects such as Razor Prairie, a prime site for harvesting native prairie seed, and Turin Prairie, a major expansion of the Turin Loess Hills Preserve and Wildlife Management Area.

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Nature Walk: Bird Feeding

“Year around feeding of song and game birds is practiced across the country. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, bird feeding has been an American tradition for more than 150 years. There are a wide variety of feeders one can hang from poles strategically placed on one’s yard; however, one can often attract more species and larger numbers by placing food on the ground. It is familiar territory for common winter visitors such as the dark-eyed junco.” – Carl Kurtz

“Year-round, the feeding of song and game birds is practiced across the country. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, bird feeding has been an American tradition for more than 150 years. There are a wide variety of feeders one can hang from poles strategically placed on one’s yard; however, one can often attract more species and larger numbers by placing food on the ground. It is familiar territory for common winter visitors such as the dark-eyed junco.” – Carl Kurtz

If you are interested in purchasing a print of this photo or requesting information on possible use of any of our “Nature Walk” photographs, please contact Carl Kurtz at cpkurtz@netins.net. View our other Nature Walk posts!

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