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Illinois Prairies are Brilliant with September Colors and Wildlife

Aug 31, 2020 11:00AM ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo by Steven D. Bailey

Stepping into a prairie in September overwhelms the senses as vibrant purple and yellow blooms sway in the wind and bees buzz gathering pollen amid the final days of summer’s heat and humidity. “Goldenrod and New England asters are so bright and rich at this time of year,” says Veronica Hinke, public affairs officer and public services team leader at the USDA Forest Service Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, in Wilmington. “This is the time of year when cheery yellows of goldenrods and deep purples of asters and bottle gentian come together, and the prairie is vibrant with complementary colors.”

She notes, “Even the grasses provide new color this time of year. You can see fields covered in hazes of browns and yellows, and if you look closely, you might even see the bottle gentian blooming.” Bottle gentian is one of several species that produce purple blooms in high-quality prairies.

Before European settlement, the prairies, a blend of short and tall grasses, along with forbs that bloom spring through fall, covered 60 per cent of present-day Illinois. Bison herds once roamed there. Approximately 2,300 acres of high-quality remnant prairie is left in the state, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey. “A remnant is simply prairie that is untouched by the plow or by construction and development,” explains Cindy Crosby, author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Both the 20,000-acre Midewin and the 3,600-acre Nachusa Grasslands, near Franklin Grove, harbor remnant prairies as well as woods, wetlands and restored prairies maintained to approximate how they looked before they were settled. Other small parcels of untouched prairie include the Berkeley Prairie Forest Preserve, in Highland Park, James Woodworth Prairie, in Glenview, and Wolf Road Prairie, in Westchester—all open to the public. A native prairie remnant was discovered on Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property in Hanover Park, although this parcel is not open to the public.

Volunteers and staff at Midewin, Nachusa and many other natural areas in the state are constructing prairies where they did not exist before or returning disturbed land back to the prairie it once was. Two examples are the Schulenberg Prairie at Morton Arboretum and Fermi Lab Prairie, in Batavia. The latter is one of the nation’s earliest tallgrass prairie restorations, a term often used interchangeably to refer to any remnant, planting or reconstruction being cared for by land stewards. Midewin and Nachusa serve as two examples of how private citizens and governmental agencies can work together to restore native prairie. Both offer unfettered views of the prairie landscape and the opportunity to see reintroduced bison.

Nachusa Grasslands, managed by The Nature Conservancy, is open from dawn to dusk, and allows the public to hike anywhere, even off trails, except for fenced areas. In the 1980s, prairie lovers told The Nature Conservancy about farmland 100 miles west of Chicago where a few acres of remnant prairies remained intact interspersed with woodlands and cornfields. A 300-acre purchase back then led to the eventual protection of 3,600 acres of prairie, wetland and woodlands. There, staff and volunteers remove invasive species, sow seeds, make prescribed burns and monitor wildlife to help prairies thrive.

Crosby, a volunteer steward, says visitors to Nachusa should start at the outdoor visitors center pavilion, open from dawn to dusk daily. Displays there provide a sense of the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Visitors to the grassland can hike near the visitor center, spot bison or drive to one of five trailheads to explore the September grasslands and associated wetland sand woodlands. They are also encouraged to leave the trails to explore, something not every conservation area allows.

Crosby recommends hiking Clear Creek Knolls to wade in a creek on hot days. The trailhead is on Lowden Road, north of the visitors center. Visitors can hike on mowed lanes or go off trail among 300 acres of restored prairie and a remnant hill prairie.

In September, look for cup plant, Western sunflower, fringed gentian, prairie gentian, rough blazing star, showy goldenrod, cream gentian, partridge pea, compass plant and rattlesnake master (NachusaGrasslands.org/september.html).

Midewin is USDA Forest Service land, and was established as a national tallgrass prairie in 1996 on the former site of the Joliet army ammunition plant, and 200 acres within the property are untouched remnant prairie. Roughly 3,000 acres at Midewin are being restored to prairie. Thirty miles of non-motorized trails can be explored from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Having local seeds is important in prairie restorations, and at Midewin, visitors can see many flower species in bloom at the River Road seed beds. To get to there, exit River Road off Interstate 55, drive east for 1.5 miles to Boathouse Road and go north to the parking area.  “At the River Road seed beds, you can see fields full of all different types of goldenrod, now at their peak and in full color,” Hinke says. Aster species are also blooming; some are white, others are pink; some have large flower heads, like the New England aster, with its purple petals and yellow center.

“This area is just bursting with color,” Hinke adds. Among her favorites are the bright white asters. “It’s incredible to see that,” she says. “It’s like snow in September.”

Grassland Versus Prairie:

Grasslands is a broad term referring to regions worldwide that are dominated by grasses with very few trees. For example, Brazil has grasslands called cerrados, and in Asia, grasslands are called steppes. North America’s grasslands include tallgrass prairie. So all prairies are grasslands, but not all grasslands are prairies.

Prairie Happenings

The annual Midewin National Tallgrass Prairies fall color hike will be held virtually at 7 p.m., September 15. To participate, email [email protected].

The Forest Preserve District of Will County will host a prairie pedal bike ride from 8 a.m. to noon, September 26 in observance of National Public Lands Day. The ride will go through Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. For more information, visit ReconnectWithNature.org and choose the September calendar link.

Conditions may change, check the websites in advance. Be sure to follow all location, local and CDC guidelines for masks and social distancing.