The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project sign in Eunice, LA. This site was the impetus for the creation of the Cajun Prairie Gardens. The Cajun Prairie Gardens @ 1932 Fournerat Road, Eunice, Louisiana (from Google Search and Google Maps)—an aerial view of the gardens in early spring after a winter fire is provided here (cpg aerial).
The Cajun Prairie Gardens is a microprairie that is in the process of being created from plants native to the Cajun Prairie. The Gardens are products of efforts by the Vidrine family and their friends; the Gardens consist of an acre and a half of more or less rectangular plots representing a variety of habitats in the Cajun Prairie varying from wet areas (marais and platins) and dry areas (typical prairie). The Gardens were initially installed in 1996 coincident with the purchase of the land and the building of the Vidrine home. They are modeled after the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice, LA, which was initially installed by Charles Allen and Malcolm Vidrine and the community of Eunice during the winter of 1988-89 under the auspices of the non-profit organization, The Cajun Prairie Habitat Restoration Society (www.cajunprairie.org). Of course, the overall model was the actual Cajun Prairie.
The Cajun Prairie is (was) a 2.5 million acre portion of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Prairie, which extends from Corpus Christi, TX, to the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana. The easternmost portion in Louisiana was settled by the Cajuns, who lend their name to the prairie and the culture. The prairie has been modified by agriculture, oil production and urbanization to the extent that it is greatly imperiled and considered to be 99% destroyed/devoid of native plants. During the 1980s, Drs. Allen and Vidrine along with gathering colleagues rediscovered remnant populations of prairie plants along railroad rights-of-way—the flora and fauna of the prairie was modeled after descriptions of these remnants companioned with general knowledge of other prairies, including the western portions of the Gulf Coastal Prairie, the Great Prairies of the Midwest, and the Blackbelt Prairies of the southeastern United States. The people and the story of these discoveries and the development of the description of the prairie were summarized in Vidrine’s book entitled The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History (2010) and in Larry Allain and colleagues’ award-winning Paradise Lost brochure (http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/ref/collection/document/id/80). The concept of restoring prairies dates back to Aldo Leopold in the early 1930s, where he led an effort to restore prairies in Wisconsin and developed an entirely new way of thinking in the New World—a Land Ethic.
Creating the Cajun Prairie Gardens (CPG) was a rather simple and straight-forward process. With the experience gained from the construction of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project (CPRP) in Eunice, slight modifications allowed for a more simplistic and drawn-out process. Whereas the CPRP involved herbiciding, bush-hogging and disking the soil prior to planting, the CPG was simply mowed several times, as it was a commercial lot developed in a washed-out rice field, where a church had stood with a modest graveyard (removed before sale). In CPRP, seeds were collected by organizations and school classes and distributed over the disked soil in a single event, while plugs from remnant prairie rescues containing prairie propagules were transplanted over the next couple of years. In CPG, seeds were collected from the CPRP and from remnant prairies and then interseeded directly into the mowed sod, while selective plugs both from CPRP and remnant prairies were moved in only to enhance diversity. Thus CPG was created using seeds of plants that had already proved that they were preadapted for restoration purposes. Also CPRP is a 10 acre plot that is monitored only occasionally, while the CPG are monitored daily as they are in the front yard of the family that created them.
In both cases, the prairies developed slowly. The old adage ‘First year, sleep; second year, creep; third year, leap’ applies. By the 5th year, the plots remarkably resembled the remnant prairies to a good extent, but analyses of diversity clearly showed that in situ diversity was much reduced in the restored prairies (on a square meter analysis, restored prairies usually have less than 10 species while remnant prairies often had 30 or more species). But it was obvious that the structure of the prairie was returning as were the animals from bugs to birds. Massive root systems began developing during those first years—obvious from the increase in size and health of the plants even during the lean times. Today, both prairies are thriving and grossly resemble the remnant prairies, although they lack the immense biodiversity of the remnants (ca. 200 species in the restored prairies versus more than 500 in the remnants). However, the restored prairies are gardens in that they require maintenance, including annual burning and removal of exotic species, especially trees.
The purpose of the CPG is to serve as an outdoor laboratory and classroom that can be used to demonstrate the diversity of the native landscape. Using rectangular plots permits demonstration of small scale landscaping possibilities. Wet plots display large populations of irises, hibiscus, crinums, and other plants that require moist footing. Dry plots display large populations of blazing stars, wild indigos, rosinweeds, and other plants that require drier footing. These plots undergo biweekly change in the floralscapes, such that every 2 weeks, the plots take on an entirely different appearance; however, the plant diversity provides nearly 8 months of color with sporadic explosions of color signaling the blooming of one or more dynamic species—few species bloom throughout the growing season, and in fact, most species bloom for 2 weeks and may rebloom especially if damaged either by mowing, burning, or insect damage, aka butterfly chewing as in Monarchs eating milkweeds. The plots as a whole provide a kaleidoscope of color changing not only seasonally but monthly thus signaling the changing of the seasons and the interplay of plants and the natural world. Companion these changes in plants with the appearance and disappearance of pollinators and predators and you get a vision of a dynamic natural system in miniature—a microprairie garden—where lessons of ecology and evolution play out daily.