Caitlin McWilliams

Echinacea Project 2021

I am part of the Class of 2025 at Carleton College and I plan to major in Environmental Studies.

Research Interests

In general, I am interested in helping to conserve natural prairie areas through networks and corridors so that they can become more resilient to climate changes. I am also curious about how to connect with stakeholders and landowners to make this happen, but also how to combine my interest in GIS with prairie restoration.


I am from Rochester, MN, but my home away from home is our cabin near Lanesboro, where I help to restore the surrounding native prairies, forests, and savannas. I also greatly enjoy hiking the bluffs there with my family and dogs.

Collecting seed with my dad at our cabin for Project Wingspan

Wrapping up the field season

It has been a hectic couple weeks for the Echinacea Project. Last week we braved fog, wind, and rain to wrap up the 2021 field season. Mia and Alex drove up from Chicago to help finish planting and pick up flags in the remnants.

On Thursday and Friday, Mia, Alex, and I sowed Echinacea seed in the 76 transects that comprise our seed addition experiment. This experiment will help us quantify the effects of fire and other environmental variables on seedling emergence and survival.

The planting went smoothly, we averaging approximately 2 minutes per transect. Prior to sowing seeds, we located transects and found nails designating the start and end of focal 1-m segments. We laid a meter stick on the ground stretching from start nail to end nail. We then spread seeds evenly between the 5 and 95 cm marks of the meter stick in line with the transect. Once empty, each seed envelope was given one last flick to dislodge any stubborn achenes and we gently tapped the meter stick against the ground to ensure any achenes that landed on blades of grass or other vegetation were not catapulted across the prairie when we picked up the meter stick.

Barring a shift in the weather that brings more favorable conditions for burning, Team Echinacea has moved indoors for the winter.

Establishing seed addition transects

As part of the 2020 NSF grant to study fire effects on plant reproduction and population dynamics, we are implementing a seed addition experiment in numerous remnants. From previous studies, we know that fire can improve recruitment which is important for population growth. However, our previous observations of recruitment in remnants conflate the amount of seed entering the seed bank and the seedlings emerging from the seed bank. The goal of this seed addition experiment is to help us directly quantify the effects of fire on seedling emergence and early seedling fitness. We will use these data to parameterize demographic models for Echinacea.

For the seed addition experiment, we established 76 transects distributed across 32 prairie remnants with Echinacea. Transect locations were determined by generating an ordered list of random points (random integers corresponding with MN state plane coordinate system) within each remnant and selecting the first 2-4 random points that were located within ~5m of an adult Echinacea but avoided dense patches of flowering plants where we may have difficulty distinguishing experimental seedlings from natural recruits. Each transect originating at a random point is 4-m long and contains four 1-m segments. Most transects extend North from the random point but some extend East (in sites where North-South transects may span an entire ditch). One segment per transect was chosen at random to be planted in fall 2021 and one transect chosen at random to be planted during fall 2022. The study includes 9 sites burned during spring 2021 as well as 7 sites slated to burn during spring 2022.

Over the past week, I have been using a GPS unit to stake the transect locations. I marked the start and end point of each transect using a blue pin flag and installed nails at 1-m intervals using measuring tape (this will facilitate the use of meter sticks and/or measuring tapes in the field). We used 4 inch galvanized common nails. Pro tip: these nails were considerably less expensive at Fleet Farm than other vendors. I plan to finish setting up transects either this afternoon or tomorrow afternoon. Our goal is to begin sowing seeds later this week.

Days growing shorter and colder

After a balmy stretch of weather (at least balmy for Minnesota in October), colder temperatures and shorter days have descended upon western MN. We experienced a killing frost Saturday (Oct 16) morning. Dwight and Jean reported that their tomatoes and other frost-sensitive garden plants are done for the year. I also awoke to frost this morning after a cold and rainy Wednesday (Oct 20).

During two of the next three nights, overnight lows are predicted to dip below 30 F. The forecast is also calling for a chance of snow (mixed with rain) Sunday morning. We had hoped for a dry, sunny stretch of weather this fall favorable for burning but the next week looks iffy.

The Echinacea Project heads south

Last week, we wrapped up the last of the fieldwork in Minnesota, although four Liatris plants are taking their sweet time and weren’t ready to harvest on Friday. The remaining members of Team Echinacea packed their bags and headed to the Chicago Botanic Garden, with the exception of Jared, who is staying to monitor the stubborn Liatris. Previously, I had never been to the Garden before, so it’s been a fun place to explore. I’ve also enjoyed the elaborate Halloween decorations in the neighborhood.

This week at the Botanic Garden, we welcomed back Allen, our first volunteer since the beginning of the pandemic. It will be terrific to have some experienced volunteers to process the backlog of echinacea heads from the past several years.

At the lab, we’re also preparing for the seed addition experiment. Today, Wyatt trained us on the seed blower, a contraption that separates light achenes from heavy ones. The heavy (rich) achenes should contain seeds, and we will next randomize the rich achenes for planting this fall. We need 12,800 seeds for the experiment, and after several trials with the seed blower, we estimate that we should have enough.

Summer was fun and fall will be too!

Wyatt here,

I had a blast being a part of Team Echinacea this summer. In my 14 weeks with the project, I spent my days in beautiful prairies, gained lots of sciency skills, made many friends (both people and plants) and enemies (mainly ground squirrels), and overall had a lovely experience.

This flog post is to reminisce about all the fun I had this summer and to commemorate the fact that I will be staying on the team through the fall and for the foreseeable future! Because the Chicago Botanic Garden is so close to Northwestern, I’m able to travel there by bus to work in the lab. Better yet, Stuart was able to set up the position so that I would be able to receive work study funding from the school.

Here’s to an echinacea-filled autumn!

The end of summer

As summer’s vibrant greens give way to fall’s golden glow, Team Echinacea remains hard at work in western MN. A skeleton crew is diligently wrapping up the field season. Our most important task is harvesting seed from study species so that we can quantify fire effects on plant reproduction in remnant prairies. Here is a brief update on progress for our focal species:

Echinacea angustifolia harvest: 383/383 plants harvested

Andropogon gerardii harvest: 370/370 plots measured and harvested

Liatris aspera harvest: 202/231 plants harvested

Lilium philadelphicum harvest: 79/80 plants harvested

Asclepias viridiflora: all plants harvested (~30, Jared forgot to check harvest data sheet…)

In addition to wrapping up the harvest, we are beginning to make preparations for fall burns and getting materials organized to implement a seed addition experiment designed to assess fire effects on seedling emergence and survival.

Roadkill Birthday

Hi Flog

Yesterday was my birthday, this is the second birthday that I have celebrated out here in Western Minnesota. The work day started with some sling (seedling re-finds), Alex and I did sling at Steven’s Approach and then we set off to Nessman. We quickly discovered that part of the site was mowed, and we had to go back to Hjelm to get the GPS to re-find the circles we needed to visit. We were driving away from Nessman at the corner of Dairy drive and 27 I saw something on the road. I asked Alex what it was, and she peeked out the passenger side window and said, “it’s a zucchini!” As we drove back to get the GPS, we contemplated whether we should rescue the zucchini or not. Once we saw the zucchini again, we knew we had to rescue it. After we finished at Nessman, we set of to procure our roadkill! We decided that it was most likely fell of a truck and then was run over. We scooped it up and removed the ant and millipede then buckled it into the back seat.

We then set off to Staffanson to visit two more sling circles, the two circles are on complete opposite ends of the prairie preserve. Neither circle was fairly straight forward so after we finished the last circle Alex flopped down onto the ground, I quickly joined her, and we just laid there for 10 minutes staring up at the sky taking it all in. We eventually decided that we should probably head back for lunch, and after a bit of a hike back to the car we were shocked to see the zucchini since we had forgotten all about it.

After lunch I set of two experimental plot 1 to try and sort out some issues with the measuring data. Alex and Jared worked on sorting out some demo problems. It got up to 84 degrees Fahrenheit which might be the record high for September 28th (or at least it is based on my working memory).

For dinner Jared made spring rolls, he even had ripe avocados! Spring rolls have been a staple/highlight of the summer meals. After a yummy dinner Alex and I set out to turn our roadkill into cake. We quickly determined that the zucchini was in fact not zucchini but some other sort of squash. We decided out of impatience to not peel the squash. After making the cake and very patiently waiting for it to cool, we tasted it and it was surprisingly slightly crunchy. Overall it was a wonderful day, spent in a great place, with good friends, and good food.

Moral of the story: Always peel the roadkill

Checking off the checklist

This morning (Wednesday), I got a bit of a late start because I made a double-batch apple crisp this morning, and the apples weren’t quite cooked yet. For the crisp, I used combination of northwest greening and haralred apples from the trees around Hjelm, and Mia and Wyatt kindly helped me slice up the mountainous 8 cups of apples. When the crisp had finally cooked, I met up with Mia and Wyatt, who had just finished adding stapes in p1. (check!)

Next, Wyatt and I headed out with Collins to finish up total demo at tplot and shoot a few more flowering plants at hegg in an area which is being renamed nrpal, or near pallida. Total demo is now done! (check!)

After lunch, Wyatt and I tackled the remainder of the Andropogon harvest sites. Our record was a plot at kjs with 163 Andropogon culms! Andropogon harvests are now complete. (check!)

In the evening, we had another bonfire, and we were joined by Stuart’s parents. The rest of the crew cooked up some fabulous breakfast burritos for dinner, crowned with Mia’s famous pickled red onions. The wind had been gusting all afternoon, and now it pitched in to help fan the flames of the bonfire, which caught rapidly. We ended the day with some delicious home-grown apple crisp!

Exciting day

Today was indisputably exciting for all parties at the Echinacea Project and even the DNR.

First off, check the sunrise. Nice and foggy. Neat.

We woke around 6:30 this morning to make a cake to celebrate the 25th birthdays of the echinacea Stuart planted in 1996. We ended up making two cakes because the first one didn’t turn out exactly as anticipated (apparently accidentally substituting ingredients can cause problems) but the second ended up lovely.

We packed the good cake—the other we’ll eat later with copious quantities of ice cream to mask the questionable taste and texture—along with the noodles we made last night and headed to work.

Alex and I spent most of the work day playing with the GPS units, but I think Collins was feeling kind of cranky today because her case shut on both of my pinky fingers on separate occasions.

After work, we stayed at Hjelm because conditions were finally right to have a bonfire and get rid of some wood piles that had been accumulating. This bonfire also doubled as the birthday party for the ’96 plants.

The bonfire had calmed down by around 8pm, when we packed it up and called it a day. The coals need to be cold to the touch tomorrow at 8am to be in line with regulations, so if the pile is still in any way “on fire,” it’ll be getting a dousing with a hose.

Huzzah, Wyatt