Hugging the Military Ridge State Trail on the west side of Verona, just south of the Epic campus, is the Sugar River Wetlands State Natural Area.
Although the surrounding prairie obscures the view of the river for bicyclists and runners using the trail, the plants here play a critical role in the health of the watershed by protecting the soil from erosion, reducing runoff and attracting native pollinators and other wildlife.
But that’s not possible when native prairie plants are crowded out by woody invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle, which has been happening for decades.
So for the past four years, the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association has been the volunteer steward to help restore this state Department of Natural Resources managed area, from removing and burning invasive species to collecting and distributing prairie seeds.
On the last Saturday in October, just before the first snowfall of the season, a handful of volunteers carrying bags or buckets walked waist-high through a field of withering plants to collect prairie seeds from about 15 species, including compass plant, yellow and pale purple coneflower, wild quinine and rattlesnake master.
“I seem to know the plants better when they are dead than alive,” USRWA executive director Wade Moder said while inspecting wild bergamot.
After its lavender petals drop, this plant is often identified by its oval-shaped seed head that is made up of tubelike structures (called calyx) and has a familiar aroma (it flavors Earl Grey tea).
Moder estimates more than 100 different people have volunteered for this project over the last few years.
DNR State Natural Area Volunteer Program volunteer coordinator, Jared Urban said participating in volunteer work days such as this is a “great way to be outside, get exercise and make a difference.” Plus, no experience is necessary as training is provided on-site.
Among the volunteers on seed collecting day were Nancy Vue, of Madison, and her sister, Jenny Vue, who was visiting from Omaha, Nebraska. They agreed it was a way for them to get outside and do something more productive than sitting at home on a chilly day.
Fellow first-timer Cara Savage, of Fitchburg, also chose to volunteer with groups like USRWA now that she is out of college and has more free time, especially because her “family talked about the importance of giving back to the community.”
Once the collected seeds are dried, the process will come full circle on the morning of Dec. 7, when volunteers plan to spread the collected prairie seeds in the area where they removed invasive species.
Urban, who was awarded the USRWA 2019 Candle on the Water award, said a remarkable moment for him during the transformation of this area was seeing azure bluets, a threatened state species, emerge after volunteers cleared invasives and allowed sunlight to reach the calcareous soil.
“Natives like monarda, Joe-pye weed, Canada rye, spiderwort, yellow coneflower and more are bringing back the diversity this landscape once enjoyed,” USRWA shared on Facebook. “This is all due to the efforts of our volunteers who have embraced this project when we took it on in 2016.”