The connection between Colorado wildfires and an idyllic Chicago nature haven isn't immediately apparent.
There's a building called the Rice Plant Conservation Science Center — named for donors Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice, not the food staple — and inside it science indeed occurs. That research includes Andrea Kramer's work finding better plants to restore the Colorado botanical ecosystem in the aftermath of the state's devastating series of fires.
Kramer, a conservation scientist on the Botanic Garden staff, has been shuttling out to Grand Junction, Colo., on the Western slope of the Rockies, for more than a year now.
While she complains that it's sometimes hard to make research botany sound sexy, consider this: The villain in her quest is a foreign, invasive species with the black-hatted name of "cheatgrass." The heroes that she and her associates are trying to identify are known as "native winners," a coinage for native species with the potential to, in essence, outgrow the cheatgrass. Marked in some instances by their deeper taproot, they have names like tansy aster, wooly plantain and globe mallow.
And then there is the place inside the Rice center where much of the research happens: the Reproductive Biology Laboratory. It's not quite Masters and Johnson — it's for plants — but it's not a Sunday afternoon canasta game at the senior center, either.
Why the West? "It's where the greatest need is," says Kramer, a 35-year-old native Nebraskan who started working at the Botanic Garden as a volunteer in her early 20s. "In many cases federal agencies have one botanist for every 20 million acres of federal land."
Her patience in explaining what she does makes it clear why science, with its series of meticulous steps leading to sometimes very specific change, suits her.
She works on federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property testing which plants are hardy enough to repopulate firescapes with something resembling their natural foliage.
This will be not only better for the soil and better at resisting future fires, but it will help such near-threatened species as the sage grouse, a foraging bird that has lost much of its natural sagebrush habitat, she explains.
The cheatgrass that has been winning the battle greens early, but also browns early and burns easily, making it great fuel for the next fire. It provides poor food for livestock, and it keeps a more varied group of plants from establishing themselves. It is, in other words, a non-native loser.
The botanist's passion for her work shows itself in subtle ways — when she talks about ash that has washed into the Colorado River from the post-fire "lunar landscape," when she calls the sage grouse "a really cool bird," or when she labels as "so cute" one of her potential native winners, a wooly plantain specimen that looks nice enough preserved on a herbarium card at the garden but is still several steps removed from Beanie Babies.
"That guy doesn't look particularly like a native winner," she says of the plantain, "but that's the only thing that was able to flower and produce seed two years ago during a crazy drought."
Or she'll walk you over to a greenhouse, where a student she is advising, Northwestern University masters candidate Alicia Foxx, from Maywood, has about 60 pots set up to test how cheatgrass does against native plants. (Kramer doesn't worry about cheatgrass establishing in Glencoe because it can't handle the comparatively moist conditions, she says.)
Hunched over a laptop, Kramer shows pictures of some of her work in Colorado, on land plots north of Grand Junction: "This is one of our study plots where we sowed in different mixes of species to see what would happen over time. This is months after the (14,000-acre Pine Ridge) fire, kind of a lunar landscape. So that would have been in Nov. 2012.
"This is what it looked like when we went back in May. All of that green is cheatgrass. You can see areas where the fire burned a little more intensely and the cheatgrass was able to persist after that.
"So this is the same plot, again. and all of the white is cheat grass. This is when I was out there last month. So you can see that it's ready to carry a fire again."
In current land restoration practice, Kramer says, "the BLM is spending millions to literally dump seed out of a helicopter. It's very situational, but it's kind of the best we can do right now. It is what is done. But there is definitely room for improvement. We're hoping we can get the right seeds in the hands of the right people at the right time to make those practices more successful."
The land management bureau is "the largest seed purchaser in the western hemisphere, maybe in the world," she says, and right now there isn't even enough native species seed available to meet its demands. So it is essential to also work with seed growers to identify plants that not only will thrive in restoration areas — which these days include natural-gas fields — but are commercially viable. Ones with sticky seed pods or that disperse via the wind are challenging for growers, she says.
In addition to Kramer's Pine Ridge Fire Native Species Trials, the garden and several of its peers are partnering with the BLM, an agency of the Department of the Interior, on a program called Seeds of Success, aimed at collecting, preserving and propagating native plant seed.
Wayne Padgett, recently retired from the bureau as its Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program Coordinator, says Kramer is "making tremendous progress. She's been very aggressive in getting some research study out there. I expect to see results in the next year or so. which is very fast for research these days."
With climate change and the number of fires on the rise in recent years, the need is profound, Padgett says: "Restoration in the Colorado Plateau and throughout the desert West is a real challenge because of a lack of water and introduction of a lot of non-native invasive species. We desperately need to find some native plants that have the ability to compete with these non-native species."
Work like Kramer's helped open his, and the agency's, eyes, he adds.
"It changes how we approach fire restoration tremendously," Padgett says. "A lot of these species she's using we've never thought about using, like the tansy aster she's working with. But I think the mindset is changing and it's really exciting."