FAYETTEVILLE -- Local partners are working to replenish Arkansas' native plant seed inventory to support statewide ecological restoration and conservation efforts.
"We want to provide locally sourced native seed for large-scale habitat enhancement, habitat restoration and revegetation projects in Arkansas," said Jennifer Ogle, Arkansas Native Seed Program coordinator. "Native plant materials are increasingly required for these types of projects in the state, particularly on public lands."
Native plants are valuable for use in areas such as highways, along rights of way and in foraging areas for cattle, said Jonathan Young, Audubon Arkansas' field projects manager.
Audubon Arkansas is working with the Arkansas Native Seed Program through its Native Agriculture to InVigorate Ecosystems Project, Young said, which began in 2012.
The project helps farmers establish plots to produce seed sourced from Arkansas' natural areas, he said.
Planting for the program in Northwest Arkansas includes the grass species of big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass, Young said. Flower crops include downy sunflower, large-flowered coreopsis, prairie blazing star, yarrow, bergamot and white prairie clover.
Locally sourced seed isn't available on a large scale in Arkansas, which often forces land managers to buy seed from other areas of the country, Ogle said.
"They are adapted to local climate and soil conditions, and so may have a better likelihood of establishing and surviving when planted as part of a restoration project," Ogle said. "Additionally, because the seeds are being used in the same region from which they were collected, they generally should have a similar genetic makeup as the native plants that occur throughout that region."
The Arkansas Native Seed Program is led locally by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and is a partnership between numerous state, federal and nonprofit organizations, including the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Arkansas, she said.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management began the national native seed initiative in 2015, Ogle said. The Arkansas Native Seed Program began in 2016.
Partners have been working to determine the demand in the state, develop target species lists, engage volunteers to harvest from collection sites, work with nurseries to clean the seed, propagate plants and work with farmers to grow plants and harvest seed for distribution, she said.
Audubon Arkansas has been working with farmers in the Ozarks, the Arkansas River valley, the Blackland prairie in the southwest part of the state and the Grand Prairie region of eastern Arkansas to grow native seed for several years, Young said.
The organization's staff began working with Northwest Arkansas farmers in 2019 to grow seed sourced from grasslands, Ogle said.
"We are helping restoration partners put the right seed in the right place at the right time," Young said. "We are also trying to show farmers that native grass and wildflower crops are beneficial to their operations, both in terms of the ecological services they provide and the income they can generate."
Arkansas' native plant species have declined as invasive and non-native plant species have been intentionally and accidentally introduced throughout the state, Young said.
"There is hardly a niche that was not being filled by a native species before the non-native competition was introduced," Young said.
Planting of non-native forage crops, erosion control plants and ornamental plants has been conducted for hundreds of years in the United States as a whole, Young said.
"Sometimes these plants escape onto the landscape by any number of methods, including wind, animals, erosion, hybridization," he said.
Many non-native and invasive plant species now dominate Arkansas' landscapes and at times contribute to the degradation of habitats, Young said.
"A Bermuda grass lawn, for example, only has a few species that can eat the grass," he said, adding it has no real ecological value as cover for birds and doesn't have as deep of a root system as many native species. "These grasses invade natural areas and push out diverse native competition," he said.
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture notes that some invasive plants in Arkansas include mimosa, Bradford pear trees, wisteria, tall fescue and Japanese honeysuckle.
Populations of pollinators and grassland birds such as monarch butterflies and northern bobwhite quail have greatly declined in recent years because of habitat loss and are in dire need of appropriate food habitats to increase their numbers, Ogle said.
"The species we have selected for the program benefit pollinators and grassland birds by providing that vital food and habitat for them," she said, of the grass and flower crops.
Three Northwest Arkansas farms are participating in the program, Young said.
Carolyn Tedford, 63, said she opted to dedicate 2 acres of her 15-acre farm in Fayetteville.
Participation gives her an opportunity to carry out the first farming on the property in about 20 years, she said. Work on the family farm decreased over the years as her parents grew older and their health declined, she said.
"It was a way of getting the farm back," Tedford said.
Audubon Arkansas guided Tedford and about 10 volunteers on how to plant 31 rows of a variety of native plants in September, Tedford said. The yarrow and bergamot are in bloom, she said.
"They smell absolutely wonderful," she said. "The plants have taken off and are just beautiful."
Farmers receive $350 per acre for their first year in the program, Young said.
Tedford said it will be a couple of years before she knows how much she may financially benefit, but her greater concern is Northwest Arkansas' environment.
Funding for the program doesn't allow for additional payments to farmers for their participation at this time, Young said.
"I have seen so many invasive plants," she said, noting people don't have to own a farm to increase the region's native plant presence.
"I hope that instead of seeing mowed lawns, which I see a lot of here, that people will plant more native plants for their personal lawns," Tedford said. "They can substitute native plants for their ornamentals. That would promote our pollinators for bringing back our monarchs."
Tedford anticipates harvesting native seeds in August and September, she said.
Program managers will let land managers know what seeds are available following the harvest so they can incorporate them into their forthcoming land projects, Young said.
There are no projects planned in Northwest Arkansas, he said.
Restorative planting is apt to occur this year in eastern Arkansas, where Young said the program has been operating longer. Potential projects that could benefit include a Grand Prairie irrigation project and a restoration project at Stuttgart Municipal Airport.
Next steps for Northwest Arkansas following the fall harvest include identifying more naturally occurring plant communities, developing a seed collection protocol and working with the University of Arkansas to conduct research on target species from different regions of the state, Ogle said.
"Future research may involve conducting genetic tests on these species to determine if plants from different regions are genetically distinct and if plants from different populations within the same region are reproductively compatible," she said.
The long-term ecological impacts of the program are likely to be extensive, Ogle said.
"We anticipate providing appropriate and beneficial habitats for declining species in Northwest Arkansas and beyond, as well as protecting remnant natural plant communities of the region," she said, adding she'd love to be able to hear more bobwhite quail and meadowlark calls in the region.
Young said he's confident partner efforts will lead to robust restorations that are well-suited to the soils and climate of Northwest Arkansas.
"I believe that if we can do this we can help restore some of the lost beauty and ecological benefits that the mountainous grasslands and woodlands of the Ozarks have to offer," he said.