April 26, 2016
What if word got out that all but one percent of the Piney Woods ecosystem of East Texas had been leveled? There would be a huge public response. People love trees. But native grasses? By and large North Texans have not risen to their defense. Perhaps it’s because our Blackland Prairie lacks the epic, rolling vistas of Great Plains. That’s what happens when an ecosystem is decimated to near extinction. Around 20,000 square miles of it once ran in a 300-mile diagonal swath from the Red River to San Antonio. Now a diminutive patchwork is all that remains.
So the discovery of some significant Blackland Prairie acreage at White Rock Lake was huge news — a rare ecosystem right in the city of Dallas, in scattered spots along the eastern side of the lake. Native Plants & Prairies Day has its roots in that act of fortune. The celebration will be held on Saturday, April 30 at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas. Meanwhile, on the west side of the Metroplex, BRIT celebrates the local ecosystem with Prairie Day, on May 14.
A Call for Prairie Protection
“Native Plants & Prairies Day really came about in 2012 because of a growing concern about commercial development of White Rock Lake and the potential elimination of the 16 Blackland Prairie remnants that survived around there after decades of mowing and grazing,” said master naturalist James Folger, one of the event organizers.
“The North Texas Master Naturalists supported my recommendation for a public event to educate and inform the populace about the value of native plants and prairies,” said Folger. He added that Becky Rader, a master naturalist and one of the original discoverers of the lake's Blackland Prairie, had organized appreciation days in the early 2000s.
But Native Plants & Prairies Day is more than pleasant learning opportunities for nature nerds. It’s a call to arms for everyone to protect this rare prairie. The North Texas Master Naturalists’ plot is to wrap it all up in fun to lure visitors in — Aztec Dancers and music by The Ackermans, and food from Olivella’s Pizza, Samson’s Hot Dogs and Steel City Pops — then inspire them with talks, displays and up-close demonstrations on Blackland Prairie and its plants and animals. There’s even a bison, the living emblem of what the prairie once was.
Then prairie-crazed master naturalists like Randy Johnson of Native Prairies Association of Texas and Native Plant Society of Texas will troupe those interested out to the prairie and show them the delights only a close-up view will reveal. The way clumps of prairie tallgrasses and their long arcing strappy leaves give a place for rabbits and rodents to hide from airborne predators, the many birds, butterflies and bees that depend on its native plants; and the wildflowers, so many wildflowers.
The North Texas Master Naturalists’ plan is working. While a few hundred people showed the first couple of years, in 2015 more than 1,300 people enjoyed the event and estimates are for 2,000 in 2016.
“Last year's attendance was a welcome surprise,” said Folger, noting that growth of interest in the event reflects rising public concern, even outrage, at the threats and indignities White Rock Lake’s prairie parcels continue to endure.
“This past year, the local master naturalists approved the White Rock Prairie Restoration/Preservation Project. We will be working with a variety of groups that have an interest in preserving and restoring the areas around White Rock Lake. We will be working under the direction of the new city Urban Biologist, in conjunction with Dallas Park & Recreation Department.”
Groups in the prairie restoration range from nearby school classes, to various local eco non-profits, to Native Prairies Association of Texas, a non-profit land trust that manages significant prairie parcels around the state.
Rising interest in Native Plants & Prairies Day also reflects the growing participation in North Texas Master Naturalists.
“We had been a well-kept secret, a behind the scenes group in Dallas. That has changed over the last few years, as more people are taking an interest in the natural world and learning about us. Our 2015 class was 80 people, up from 50. We are now the largest chapter in the state.”
A Day on the Prairie
At Native Plants & Prairies Day, experience live raptors, snakes, lizards, insects and animals of the Blackland Prairie up close, including Miko, a live bison shown by his owner, Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee, Bree Worthington.
”The bison were regular fixtures in our past and vital to sustaining the prairies,” said Folger. Bring your kids for a walk on fostering family nature adventures called “Wiggle like a Worm; Giggle like a Gnat.”
Master Naturalists and others will lead short walks on insects, birds, animals, trees, and native plants of White Rock Lake, especially wildflowers (several opportunities) and even useful edible and medicinal plants. If you’d rather not get nature on you, settle into the Bath House theater where Ben Sandifer will present two talks with snappy photos on White Rock Lake’s birds and the Great Trinity Forest downstream from the lake. It concludes with a convo, featuring Becky Rader, District 9 representative for the Dallas Park Board, and Brett Johnson, urban biologist for the City of Dallas, entitled “The History and Future of White Rock Lake Prairies.”
“Urbanization is a fact of life,” said Folger, “and a perennial destroyer of habitat and ecosystems. Yet native plants and grasses are vastly superior to introduced species in needing less water, a fact that is becoming more relevant as our population grows and water supply diminishes. They are the preferred plants for bees and native pollinators that we depend on for our food supply. Some foreign species may provide a source of nectar, but they are unattractive as host plants to native insects, including butterflies. If we can encourage the public to set aside a small portion of their yard for the planting of native plants, that is a start.” The Dallas chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas will have natives for sale, with an emphasis on pollinator plants .
Major event sponsors Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, plus Botanical Research Institute of Texas, and Texas Discovery Gardens. Business sponsors include Pariveda Solutions, Rain Fresh Water, Whole Earth Provision Co., and Whole Foods Market on Park Lane.
Native Plants & Prairies Day
About: Speakers, guided walks, exhibitors, live animals including a bison, children’s activities, vendors selling plants and books. See complete schedule on the website.
Hosted by: North Texas Master Naturalists
When: April 30, 2016, 10am-3pm
Where: White Rock Lake, Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther, Dallas
The Wild West Prairie
Once west of Dallas, rainfall diminishes and soil shifts from deep black clay to more shallow and sandy, even rocky. The mid to short grass prairie there mostly falls into what’s called (appropriately enough) the Fort Worth Prairie. No place exalts it better than the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
When BRIT expanded May 2011 from their botanical research library in downtown Fort Worth to acreage adjacent to the Fort Worth Botanical Garden, prairie became a priority. Not just restoring the Fort Worth Prairie, but researching colonization patterns to see how native plants fare against invasive plants and animals. There are a passel of pocket prairies on their grounds, including one of the roof of the sleek LEED building.
BRIT’s celebration, Prairie Day, occurs on May 14 with live music, arts and crafts booths, and demonstrations on the benefits of using native plants in home landscaping. In addition to birds of prey and reptiles presentations, Bat World Sanctuary from nearby Weatherford will be showcased.
About: Family friendly festival featuring children’s activities, live animals, nature walk, bat presentation. See complete schedule on the website.
Hosted by: Botanical Research Institute of Texas
When: May 14, 2016, 9am-3pm
Where: Botanical Research Institute of Texas, 1700 University, Fort Worth.