Project Assistantship Third Check-in: Aster Graphical Model

In one of our most pristine tallgrass prairie habitats that remain in west central Minnesota, an accident was made in its management (not by Team Echinacea or members of The Echinacea Project). A Minnesota non-native Echinacea, Echinacea pallida, was seeded into the habitat. These non-native Echinacea flower at a similar time to our native Echinacea angustifolia and we suspected that they could cross-pollinate. To test this, an experimental cross was conducted where pollen from donors of both species E. angustifolia and E. pallida were applied to stigma of receptive Echinacea of both species (so we have four crosses: Ang x Ang, Ang x Pal, Pal x Pal, and Pal x Ang). These crosses produced some viable seed and the progeny were grown in an experimental garden. We monitored the progeny’s survivorship, size, and reproductive effort (once they began flowering in the 5th year). These data will allow us to answer questions about the fitness of hybrid Echinacea compared to non-hybrids.

I made an aster graphical model that I am going to use to test hypotheses about the fitness of hybrid Echinacea. The graphical model contains survivorship (represented as ld or “living during”), whether the plant flowered (Flowering), and a count of the number of heads produced by a flowering plant (HdCt). A noticeable feature of the graphical model is the absence of flowering in 2019, this was because none of the plants in the experiment flowered that year. In the previous year, the first plant flowered and it was the only plant to flower, interestingly it was a Pal x Pal cross.

We’ll burn that prairie when we get to it

Members of Team Echinacea are freshly returned from a successful burn outing! We completed five experimental burns during our trip to western MN. A major win for the experimental design of our MN ENRTF funded research on prescribed fire and ground nesting bees as well as for conservation! Here is the scoop:

Late Friday night we got to the Hjelm House and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. In hindsight, I think this auspicious sighting boded well for our good fortune in burning conditions.

On Saturday morning we headed to Torgeson’s to burn the northern unit. Because it was predicted to be a dry day, we got an early start and were ready to burn by 10:45. We got to see lots of spring flora before the burn: pucoons, violets, sedges, pussytoes, etc… These plants will be even happier next year. With help from Lee, the burn went very smoothly. Torgeson’s is a hilly site, so the burn was slope driven and we had a great view. Things are pretty greened up in the area, so the burn was quite smoky. USFWS, who were burning a big restoration right next door must have been burning cattails- look at that thick, brown smoke coming from the other side of the road. Almost like we are having bonfires at neighboring campsites. Cute!

Jared secures the break at torgen before we stand back and watch the fire burn out.

Next we ventured into Grant County. No burning there- and if you’ve been following along that may not be a surprise to you. So it was back to Douglas Co. After lunch the crew headed to hutch to burn the western unit. Another Hilly site. We prepped our breaks and were ready to go! Burn number 2 down!

Sunday was a no-burn day because wildfire smoke from Canada was hanging over many counties in MN. A great day to get work done on the porch and venture into Morris to revisit old haunts. We anxiously awaited the next day’s updated report on burn restrictions.

Monday morning we got the go ahead to burn in Grant county!! We called in our backups (former team members Daytona and Liam plus a few of Liam’s friends) and headed to Yellow Orchid Hill West to train our first time burners in at a smaller site. The wind was squirrely but our burn was successful and we were just a hop, skip and a jump away from the revered hulze unit. After 3 failed attempts, was this finally our day?

Stuart and Jared watch the last flames burn out in the center of hulze.

Yes! Drive down highway 55 and you will see for yourself! A hilly expanse of charred earth! A sight for sore eyes after the last burn way, way back in 2003.

By this time, restrictions were lifted in Douglas Co. and the crew headed to Nice Island for a final burn before calling it a day and heading back to the farmhouse. Over Jean’s rhubarb cake we envisioned a utopian or maybe dystopian future on team Echinacea where we have a high tech call center and everything is drone operated. We’ll keep you posted on the call center and the rest of the burns we hope to get done this season.

Seed counting milestone

Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer and community scientist Allen Wagner just counted his 1,500,001st Echinacea fruit today. Allen counts fruits of plants from science projects that shed light on pollination of purple coneflowers in experimental plots and in natural prairies. Allen has collected data for the Echinacea Project research initiative since 2017 to help us learn about the effects of prescribed fire on plant reproduction and about the magnitude of inbreeding depression in fragmented prairie populations.

Thank you Allen for your dedicated service to the Echinacea project, to advancing science, and to the conservation of prairie habitat!

Alan has been a volunteer at the Chicago Botanic Garden for 19 years and has been working on the Echinacea project in the plant reproductive biology lab at the Chicago at the plant conservation sign center since 2017. For his dedication, and speediness, Allen has been invested as the Count of Achene County and CEO of Echinacea Inc. What’s next… President of the Echi-nation?

NB. ‘Achene’ /uh-keen/ is the technical term for an Echinacea fruit.


Hello my Big BlueFamily, sorry for my lack of an update last week! Totally slipped my mind. Weighing is done, and the dataset is almost ready, I’m super excited!! People were kind enough to finish weighing for me because I am highly allergic to my study species…. oh well. We are moving on to concreting the question I want to ask and my hypothesis. Currently I have two different questions that I need to decide between. One is looking at the impact of black smut fungus on reproductive effort as measured by seed output, and the other is looking at the difference in black smut fungus’ impact on plant health between low and high density areas. There’s a lot of variables here that I need to figure out, like how pollination impacts seed output, as well. Next week I believe the dataset will be ready and I will be able to start my analysis, which is exciting!

See y’all next week Big Bluefam.


Project Assistantship Second Check-in: Further Data Exploration

An R file of my exploratory work into experiment 7 can be found here:

The goal of this second data exploration was to determine the number of plants living in 2023 in each cross type and their plant status (e.g. basal, flowering, etc).

Additionally, we wanted to know how many plants flowered each year given their cross types.

Justin’s research on prescribed fire and soil properties

There are so many interesting questions to ask within the study design of our MN ENRTF funded research on prescribed fire and ground nesting bees! We are lucky to collaborate with researchers in the area who are taking them on.

Justin presents his research at the MSU-Mankato research symposium

Justin Kjorness, undergraduate at Minnesota State University-Mankato, worked with Drs. Mrganka De and Matt Kaproth (and many more) to collect soil samples at our remnants and restorations this summer. He has since been asking questions about the effects of prescribed fire regimes on soil physical properties. He presented these results at the MSU-Mankato research symposium this week!

Learn more about Justin’s results below!

Burn and Bust Industry

This weekend Team Echinacea had nothing short of an adventure. Expecting good burn conditions on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and maybe even Wednesday, we packed our bags and headed northwest from CBG. After the quintessential falafel stop in the Twin Cities, we arrived at Hjelm around 9pm. Before we could hit the hay, however, we had one important issue to resolve: the farmhouse didn’t have any running water. We’d picked up some jugs of drinking water along the way, but we decided that it might be nice if everyone also got a turn to flush the toilet. So without further ado, we went and collected water from the roadside in 5 gallon buckets to have around for filling the toilet tank. This operation looked totally normal and chill.

After eating breakfast and topping off the septic tank with pond water the next morning, we prepped for a burn at the hulze site. This involved filling water packs/buckets/tank, raking and mowing burn breaks, prepping radios, etc..

Once we finished our prep work, we returned to Hjelm and had a hearty chickpea meal. Yum! A classic! I like to add salt and pepper and paprika and olive oil and spinach and hot sauce to mine. This is also when our reinforcements arrived. This was a bigger burn relative to most of our sites, a whole 15 acres, so help was appreciated. Thank you Amy and Brad and Amy and Colleen! Jared briefed us on the mission, and we got to hear the frustrating tale about how we’ve been skunked at this unit two years in a row. Every time we’ve tried to burn it, it’s been called off last minute for one reason or another. Last year there was allegedly too much smoke from Canadian wildfires and we were told no go. Will this year be different? Third time’s the charm, right?

Wrong. Once again, after all of our prep work was complete and we were ready to light a test fire, Stuart called in the permit and was told to hold off. The county was concerned about gusts over 25 miles per hour, though that’s not what we were measuring at the site. We waited hopefully for over an hour for a call back giving us the go-ahead, and eventually gave in to the fact that there would be none. So we packed up and headed back to Hjelm. There’s still hope for burning this unit later in the spring, but needless to say we were slightly grumpy.

To raise our spirits, we took a walk around the Wagenius property to scout out areas to burn the next day and check up on places we had burned in the fall.

Abby, Blue, Jared, Stuart, and Gretel walk through the southeast corner that we burned in November. Hope you like galium! They were plentiful here (as was brome).

For dinner, Abby, Ian and I made Abby’s chili recipe (the secret ingredient is farro (and paprika) (and dark chocolate) (and love)) and Stuart and Gretel made their cornbread. Yum again! I mixed my cornbread and chili together with butter and hot sauce and honey and, upon Abby’s recommendation, apple cider vinegar, which is now an essential chili condiment in my book.

I do something cooking related while Ian stirs the pot.

Having full tummies and hearts, we went to bed with the knowledge that Jared and Stuart were excited about burn conditions tomorrow, and thus, so were we. But you know who wasn’t? The state of Minnesota. That’s right, we woke up bright and early to find that the DNR had placed burning restrictions on much of the western part of the state, including the counties we conduct our burns in. That means another day with no burns. And we thought Sunday would be perfect! ARG. This forced us to take a step back and consider our options. We didn’t have a ton of other stuff to do in the field, and the forecast for the next few days was getting more dicey. So, with great reluctance, we made the call to head home early. We put away burn equipment, packed our vehicles, and were on our way.

Stuart helpfully supervises as Abby caries a 40 pound water pack down a flight of rather unforgiving stairs to store until next time.

Not wanting to end our trip on a sour note, we stopped by Staffanson Prairie Preserve on our way out to see who was flowering.

We stopped in the Twin Cities for lunch, donuts, and to drop off Stuart’s truck at his parents’ place for them to have handy. For those of you keeping track at home, that means we have a 7ish hour journey to make in one vehicle that will be carrying 7 souls (one of whom is a dog). This made for a tight squeeze, but we made it work.

I tried to take a selfie to capture the coziness of the moment, but failed. Ian and I are prominent in the front, and you can spot Blue and Stuart in the back. Behind me are also Gretel and Abby, and Jared is in the passenger seat next to me

By midnight, we’d all made it back to our homes safe and sound. While we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do on this trip, perhaps, as Ian suggested, the real burns were the friends we made along the way.

Project Assistantship First Check-in: Data Exploration

An R file on my initial exploration of the various data files that make up experiment 7 can be found here:

The goal of this initial data exploration was to determine questions and hypotheses that I will be exploring with aster models. To do this it is important to see what groundwork has been laid. Nicholas Goldsmith is the one who laid most of the groundwork on analysis for this project and it can be found here:

Initial question: How does pedigree effect reproductive effort (i.e. flowering)?

This is of interest because 61 plants in experiment 7 have flowered since 2018 (this may not be 61 unique flowering plants but instead 61 unique instances of flowering across those years [2018 – 2023]).

Update 2: Andropogon Awesomeness!!

Hello one and all and welcome back to my (India’s) research progress! This week I’ve made a lot of progress: I finished cleaning all the Andropogon samples and weighed about 100 samples today. I also have learned a bit of R! I now know how to make a histogram, a bar graph, a scatter plot, a box plot, a density plot , and learned much more about coding formatting and different statistical visualizations! I’m having a surprising amount of fun with it– my dad’s a programmer, so I guess coding is in my blood… or so I hope. I think my daily bagel intake helps significantly. Still recovering from a mild head injury and I am also allergic to my study species (that’s some gallows irony right there…) so things aren’t perfectly smooth, but I’m having a great time here at the gardens and am super excited to continue with my work!

Tune in next week for part 3! I will be done with weighing by then!

India’s Project Update!

Hello dear readers… today I am updating everyone on my new project on Andropogon gerardii, or Big Bluestem! I finally have a direction that I would like to go in, which is studying the black smut fungus (Sorosporium provinciale) and whether plants that have been exposed to controlled burns have greater resistance to the fungus, as monitored by reproductive effort! Today I also started learning R, which is something very new to me, as I’ve never coded before. I’m excited! I’ll be using the homework assignments of our dear team member Lena, thanks to her fall quarter stats class. I’m almost done with cleaning all of the Andropogon samples, and then will move on to weighing. I look forward to updating everybody next week!