Rice detention pond to become ‘pocket prairie’

As part of Earth Day festivities at Rice, the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum Committee recently hosted an urban prairie planting event at the Harris Gully Natural Area near Wiess College.

As part of Earth Day festivities at Rice, the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum Committee recently hosted an urban prairie planting event at the Harris Gully Natural Area near Wiess College.Organized by Rice’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 324 class with technical and material assistance from the Katy Prairie Conservancy (KPC) and The Nature Conservancy, the planting will restore and protect a portion of Houston’s native coastal prairie ecosystem that helps retain flood water, sequester carbon and sustain a variety of native species. The class is taught by biosciences lecturer Cassidy Johnson ’11.

“The event was perfect for Earth Day – an act of both ecological restoration and ecological inspiration,” said Richard Johnson ’92, director of Rice’s Administrative Center for Sustainability and Energy Management and co-chairman of the Lowrey Arboretum Committee.

Rice’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 324 class

Rice’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 324 class organized the urban prairie planting at the Harris Gully Natural Area. Pictured, left to right, are Shaian Mohammadian, Sasha Figel, Jacob Torres, Celina Tran, Briley Mullin, biosciences lecturer Cassidy Johnson ’11, Anu Dwarumpudi, Claudia Xian, Matt Miller, Rebekah Bryant and Cindy Ryoo. Photo by Brandon Martin

Richard Johnson said the “pocket prairie” project was born after the Arboretum Committee created a master plan for the Harris Gully Natural Area that called for planting more trees. Students of Cassidy Johnson, who was using the space as a focus of study for her class at the time, asked to meet with the committee and offered an alternative vision: to plant an urban prairie.

To learn more about the idea, several members of the Arboretum Committee visited an urban prairie at MD Anderson Cancer Center in the Texas Medical Center and were inspired to follow the students’ recommendation.

This spring, the committee provided full funding for Cassidy Johnson’s EBIO 324 class, which built upon previous classes’ work to design the first phase of the Harris Gully prairie. One acre was planted April 20, with more planting tentatively set for late fall.

“There are a number of species that depend on these plants, including migratory birds, pollinators and other insects that are crucial to a functioning ecosystem,” Cassidy Johnson said. “If we want to maintain Texas’ incredible biodiversity, we must start looking at our urban cores to enhance and improve habitat.”

KPC was key in providing both educational and technical support for the project. Former KPC Community Conservation Director Jaime Gonzalez, who is now the urban conservation program manager at The Nature Conservancy, visited several of Cassidy Johnson’s classes to talk about coastal prairies, provide information on urban project restoration and discuss how to effectively communicate with the public about prairies.

KPC provided advice on “how to best make a prairie accessible through building paths, how to design effective signs to advertise the prairie, finding organizations that can offer us seeds and plants and what planting designs work best,” said Brown College junior Matt Miller, a student in Johnson’s EBIO 324 class.

KPC also started a fundraiser, Grassroots for Change, in 2016 to benefit three campus prairies in Houston: Shasta’s Prairie at the University of Houston, the University of St. Thomas’ Father Meyers Prairie and the Harris Gully Natural Area at Rice. Money raised was put toward purchasing plants for the projects.

“Pocket prairies on university campuses are a fantastic way to increase awareness about the coastal prairie and the wildlife and people it supports,” said Ali Dodson, advancement director at KPC. “We expect Rice’s pocket prairie to be a vibrant example of bringing the prairie into the city for all to enjoy.”

Nature Conservancy Upper Coast Project Director Aaron Tjelmeland hosted students from Cassidy Johnson’s class for a visit to the Texas City Prairie Preserve and donated harvested seeds for the Harris Gully project. This was a crucial contribution, Cassidy Johnson said, as native seeds cannot be purchased commercially.

Among the native species included in the Harris Gully planting were brownseed paspalum, switchgrass, silver bluestem, angelstem beaksedge, Texas coneflower, rattlesnake master, longspike tridens, eastern gamagrass, various milkweed species, Indian blanket and blazing star.

”Historic prairies had 300-plus plant species,” Cassidy Johnson said. “We have a long way to go to reach this level of biodiversity at Rice, but I think it is a goal worth aiming for.”

Next spring, EBIO 324 will help the Arboretum Committee develop a planting concept for the east side of the Harris Gully. When complete, the prairie will encompass 3 acres, making it almost twice as large as the MD Anderson prairie.

“The Arboretum Committee’s intent is for this to be a showcase urban pocket prairie project by the time it’s done,” Richard Johnson said.

He credited Philip Dierker, Rice Facilities Engineering and Planning grounds manager, and his team with helping to prepare the site for planting and maintaining the area.

Katy Prairie Conservancy is a local nonprofit land trust that works to protect green space for its conservation and recreational benefits, enhance wildlife habitat, restore tallgrass prairie and wetlands, sponsor scientific research and offer public programming and activities. It has protected more than 20,000 acres since its inception in 1992.

The Nature Conservancy, founded in 1951, works to conserve natural habitats across the world. Its restoration and preservation efforts in the Houston area have included the Texas City Prairie Preserve, the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve, the Nash Prairie Preserve and the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary.

The Lowrey Arboretum consists of a collection of woody plants dispersed throughout the Rice campus that represent native and introduced species suitable to the wet prairie climate of the Houston area. As an outdoor classroom, the arboretum supports environmentally focused programs in biology, engineering, architecture and literature.

About Matt Wilson

Matt Wilson is a senior editor in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.