The Conservation Garden of the Great Plains
Lauritzen Gardens is a one hundred-acre urban oasis located just minutes from downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Welcoming more than 250,000 visitors a year, we are renowned for beautiful gardens and landscape plantings and a spectacular conservatory. We are also dedicated to the conservation of plants, the stewardship of biodiversity, and the advancement of conservation principles. Lauritzen Gardens became a CPC Participating Institution in 2012.
As the only botanical garden situated along the entire length of the Missouri River, our efforts are focused on the Central Grassland of North America, specifically the tallgrass, mixed-grass, and shortgrass prairies of the Midwest and Great Plains. This work has five key components:
- Conduct conservation assessments for plant species at risk of extinction
- Support ecosystem-scale conservation in Nebraska and the Great Plains
- Establish seed banks and gene banks for at-risk plant species
- Practice ecological stewardship of the one hundred-acre Lauritzen Gardens property
- Inspire a conservation ethic
Seed banking is part of our integrated conservation strategy for imperiled plants. A seed bank serves as a safeguard against extinction in the wild and as a supply of seed for restoration efforts. We have established conservation seed banks for eight imperiled plants to date, including three that are ranked as critically imperiled (G1) by NatureServe: Ozark leatherwood (Dirca decipiens), blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii), and Capulin goldenrod (Solidago capulinensis).
The survival of imperiled plants ultimately depends on the health of the habitat in which they occur. Lauritzen Gardens has taken on an unanticipated role as authority and advocate for an at-risk but overlooked ecological system in our region—sandsage prairie. This shrub-steppe community occupies five million hectares (twelve million acres) of dune habitat in the western Great Plains and is dominated by sand sagebrush (Artemisia filifolia). Our relationship began with a rare plant survey in the sandsage region of Nebraska, followed by a range-wide (seven state) reconnaissance of sandsage prairie which resulted in the first comprehensive account of vegetation structure and dynamics. This year, a decade after first getting to know this “Cinderella” ecological system, we published a paper demonstrating that sandsage prairie is a biodiversity hotspot for the Great Plains and worthy of landscape-scale conservation efforts.
While much of our conservation effort focuses on grasslands and grassland species, we also work with the trees of our region. Lauritzen Gardens is part of a collaboration led by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum to conserve butternut (Juglans cinerea), one of the most imperiled trees in the United States. We are a partner in the Global Conservation Consortium for Oak and the lead institution for the Great Plains Bur Oak Project, which aims to safeguard the unique genetic diversity and drought-tolerance found in Great Plains bur oak trees (Quercus macrocarpa) by collecting seed from these trees and establishing living conservation collections at a network of collaborating public gardens.
As a botanical garden that engages over 250,000 visitors each year, we are uniquely positioned to educate the public on the importance of plants and to advocate for conservation. Since many of our rare plant conservation projects happen in remote places far removed from the garden, having an on-site component to our conservation program helps make this aspect of our mission more evident and relevant to our visitors and members.
To this end, we are working to gain understanding of the biological diversity supported by our one hundred-acre property, with the aim of practicing the best possible ecological stewardship. This involves ongoing surveys of birds, butterflies, bees, and moths that not only document the species observed, but how these species utilize the garden. Armed with an enhanced understanding of the ecological context of the garden, we are implementing practices that achieve horticultural goals while at the same time protect and enhance biological diversity. This on-site component to our conservation program has fostered a strong working relationship between our conservation and horticulture programs.
To accomplish the conservation goals of our mission, Lauritzen Gardens collaborates with an array of organizations, agencies, and institutions. In addition to the Center for Plant Conservation, these include Creighton University (Omaha), The Nature Conservancy, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, U.S.D.A. Agricultural Research Service, U.S.D.A. National Laboratory for Genetic Resource Preservation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. National Park Service.
This institutional dedication to conservation owes its origins to the vision of Spencer Crews, Director Emeritus of Lauritzen Gardens and current member of the CPC Board of Trustees. We continue to pursue this vision here at the garden and throughout the Great Plains.