An Early Certified Garden: Lincoln Elementary School

The native garden at Lincoln Elementary in River Forest District 90 is ahead of the curve. Already certified with the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat, it is also registered with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the regional conservation organization West Cook Wild Ones as valuable natural habitat. (There may be other credentials – I could easily have missed a sign or two behind so much lush vegetation). It’s also a garden that’s been growing for a while and has recently been renovated with extensive community involvement. It now has very happy plants to show for it, as I learned on a tour of the plot given by two of the garden’s enthusiastic stewards.

On a subsequent quiet, sunny morning when I returned to observe flora and fauna, I immediately flushed a pair of house sparrows from the brush, and intruded upon this individual:

Although the site lacks any shrubbery or low trees, the density of the plantings, which thrive in full southern and western exposure, offers thick cover for birds and small mammals. It will continue to do so if left standing through the fall and winter. The close spacing of flower heads also offers efficient foraging for invertebrates, which are able to retrieve more pollen and nectar from a given area in a shorter amount of time.

Pollen-bearing pistils in the flower head of Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower)

During my half-hour visit, I was able to identify three species and three genera of bees, one species of wasp, two grasshoppers, and two beetles, while half a dozen flies and bees were too small or too quick for me. Undoubtedly there were more that I failed to note at all.

Two bee species, Apis mellifera (Honey bee, larger, right) and a bee of the Halictidae family (smaller, left), both feeding on the beautiful inflorescence of Asclepias tuberosa. It’s worth noting – and reinforcing for children – that it is entirely normal to walk among thick bunches of flowering plants being harvested by pollinators at no risk of injury from a sting. The European paper wasps, the quietly humming Bombus and other, smaller bee species dodging from flower to flower were uniformly less interested in me than in their next meal.

The Halictid family (above left) includes a range of species which are among the minority of bees that are social – they live together, collectively care for offspring, and practice flexible systems of division of labor. These behaviors seem to have arisen during a period of climate change 22 million years ago, and researchers suspect that climate change played a role in the evolution of this distinctive trait. (Wilson and Carril, The Bees in Your Backyard, Princeton: 2016).

The large and furry Bombus griseocollis (Brown-belted bumble bee) extending its tongue in search of the nectar of Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed).

When I visited the Lincoln native garden, a recent downpour had knocked some of the thinner-stemmed plants nearly horizontal. It’s always an opportunity to observe how such disturbances affect a plant community – by opening up space and light for competing species, for example. In the case of this bunch of Coreopsis, it also offers a study in abstraction, and a brief for the beauty of damaged or dead plants well past the peak season of summer flowering. I look forward to a visit after the first snow.

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