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52 Notes from the Konza Country In his book Konza Prairie: A Tallgrass Natural History, O. J. Reichman explores the intricate underground associations that underscore the complexity of a grassland ecosystem. South of Manhattan, Kansas, Konza Prairie is a former Flint Hills cattle ranch purchased by the Nature Conservancy and used as a research station by Kansas State University. The preserve is a beautiful remnant of the original Flint Hills ecotype, where ongoing research has studied the interactions of grassland and fire, grazing by both cattle and buffalo, and prairie soil dynamics. The soils of both the northern and southern Flint Hills are essentiallytheerodedresidueoftheregion ’slimestone,sandstone,andshale geology, resulting from seawater inundations occurring periodically over hundreds of millions of years. Layers of bedrock tend to be thick while the soils are thin yet fertile,bad news for farmers and their plows but a benediction for those who love windswept grasslands and hope to protect what’s left. Native prairie plants use their extensive root systems to colonize the stubborn skin of hills that, following a burn, may expose what appears to be a cracked tile of limestone or sandstone surface . Still, the grasses and forbs that prosper here are expert at mining the depths needed to survive during times of environmental stress. 53 Notes from the Konza Country They manage with roots that, if laid end to end, would stretch out for miles, each root aided by millions of tiny root hairs. According to Reichman, these extremely fine root hairs are extensive . His book reveals that the roots of a single rye plant contained 14 million root hairs providing more than 4,000 square feet of surface area, or more square footage than two large family homes. These hairs have evolved a working relationship with stringy soil fungi called mycorrhizae, strands that help the plant absorb nutrients in exchange for a gift of carbohydrates from the parent plant. Giving back a little of what the mycorrhizae have provided is an excellent trade-off for the plant. Reichman’s readers will discover that the inclusion of mycorrhizae in each plant’s metabolic activities helps extend the zone of nutrient -seeking activity by at least a factor of five. Research like that ongoing at Konza explores the notion that prairie plants can hook up with the fungi when in need or shut down this association entirely during times of stress, such as extended drought. When environmental conditions stabilize, the mycorrhizae once again aid prairie plants in securing vital minerals, including phosphorus. According to Reichman, Konza Prairie research with big bluestem revealed that introduced seedlings must either be fed phosphorus fertilizer to stay alive or inoculated with mycorrhizae so that the young bluestem specimens can obtain the life-giving mineral on their own. These symbiotic assistants have been discovered at work in association with prairie grass roots down to depths of seven feet, an indication of how extensive the mycorrhizae relationship actually is and how deeply prairie plants probe for the nutrients they need. Nitrogen is a major element in plant health. Yet it can’t be derived from the weathering of rocks and therefore isn’t readily available in the soil. Instead, research has shown that prairie plants rely on atmospheric nitrogen, which doesn’t exist in a form that plants can accommodate . To make this nitrogen both usable and available in the soil, plants have formed a relationship with bacteria that are capable of “reformatting” atmospheric nitrogen into a substance that the plants can’t live without. Most of the prairie’s nitrogen-fixing plants are members of the legume family, the familiar tribe of peas and beans. The nitrogenfixing bacteria enter the legume root hairs while the plants are still in the seedling stage. Once established, the host plant produces root nodules to house the bacteria and their enzymes. Over time, each 54 Notes from the Konza Country plant returns a certain amount of nutrients in an effort to sustain the symbiotic nitrogen-fixing partners living in association with its roots. The trade-off ensures that the plants will have an ample amount of available, usable nitrogen. Other plant forms, including blue-green algae, convert some atmospheric nitrogen. But by and large it’s the legume tribe—native prairie plants like leadplant and scurf peas, wild indigos, wild alfalfas, and milk vetches—that does the bulk of nitrogen conversion. Reichman’s book reveals that ongoing research from experimental stations like Konza shows that an acre of native lowland prairie may...


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