Rare red flower crops up in high numbers at Fermilab

A unusually dense patch of cardinal flowers was found thriving along a tree line on Fermilab grounds. Photo: Ryan Campbell, FESS

Thanks to the efforts of one dedicated student, Fermilab has more than 4.5 million seeds of cardinal flower—the most ever collected at Fermilab. The red flower crops up in small, scattered patches around Fermilab, but this summer Roads and Grounds came across an unusually dense stretch hiding beneath some trees.

The rare occasion was too much for student Michael Shemanske to pass up. This summer Shemanske worked with Roads and Grounds to fulfill community service hours for the Gustafson scholarship offered by Waubonsee Community College. Although his scholarship requires 10 hours of community service, Shemanske enjoyed the work so much he spent 40 hours harvesting Fermilab’s fields.

About eight of those 40 hours were spent collecting cardinal flowers and extracting their seeds. Cardinal flower seeds are much smaller than poppy seeds, and 4.5 million seeds amounts to about a pound.

“It was cool to be involved with collecting seeds from such a weird, rare plant,” Shemanske said. “But it was just as rewarding as harvesting other plants in the area.”

The plant is native throughout parts of Canada and the United States and flourishes in swampy regions. Fermilab grounds have few areas where cardinal flowers can thrive and so they are a rarity within the area.

Shemanske will graduate from WCC in December and begin studying aerospace engineering in January at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He will not be around when Roads and Grounds disperses the seeds, but he plans to return on occasion to see the fruits of his efforts in full bloom.

Fermilab employee and restoration ecologist Ryan Campbell expects that Fermilab will start to blush red within the next couple of growing seasons.

“Michael took it upon himself to make sure we collected a lot of this seed and that it was processed correctly,” Campbell said. “His contribution is important to keeping Fermilab’s native species alive.”

Jessica Orwig