True Tallgrass Prairie: Visiting a Central Illinois Prairie Remnant

A nineteenth-century headstone in Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve. (Image Source: David Hoyt)

When was the last time you saw Downy gentian/(Gentiana puberulenta) flowering in the wild? Or Rough Rattlesnake Root/(Prenanthes aspera) and Button Blazing Star/(Liatris aspera) scattered among the Bluestem? Or an even carpeting of Carolina Rose/(Rosa carolina) gone to fruit in autumn? Countless moths jumping at your steps, and Orange Sulphur butterflies by the dozens circulating among the aerial spikes of Solidago altissima? When have you last seen tussocks of Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed and countless sedges distributed as only a master landscaper would have it if she had been working in her profession, not for years, but for millenia – indeed, since the end of the last Ice Age?

The grassland ecosystem that covered an enormous portion of the central United States prior to European settlement was one of the world’s greatest landscapes. Currently, it is one of the most endangered, in most places surviving at less than 1% of its original extent. Those areas that have managed to escape the plow and conversion to agriculture are known as ‘prairie remants.’ We have one in western Cook County, over at Wolf Road Prairie. There is another one down in Orland Grassland, within the Cook County Forest Preserves. This one is downstate and, like many, it has survived by virtue of a fortuitous association with a marginal land use: here, an abandoned cemetery beside a faded farm community.

Downy gentian/Gentiana puberulenta flowering in September. (Image source: David Hoyt)

Walking through Weston Prairie, to me, felt like my first experience of a European gothic cathedral: older and more elaborate than anything I had seen before, full of art and relics accumulated over centuries, all of it enmeshed in labyrinthine webs of symbolism and cultural references which would require years to properly decipher. And so here. My own limited botanical ability surely caused me to miss much of what was there, but I saw enough to know that there was more, and different, flora here than that found in my backyard prairie or on sale from most native nurseries.

Rough Rattlesnake Root/(Prenanthus aspera) (Image Source: David Hoyt)
The modern prairie: ancient ecological diversity, industrial, petroleum-based monoculture, and the newest crop of all: wind. (Image Source: David Hoyt)

This, it was apparent, is what the botanists refer to as a ‘high quality’ area, one in which rare species perpetuate themselves in an ecological community that has remained intact as long as human civilization, and which once spread from one horizon to the other. The contrast with surrounding agricultural acreage was stark. My movement through the prairie flushed veritable clouds of invertebrates before me. Across the tracks, or beyond the surrounding property line, nothing moved in the corn or soy.

Weston Prairie remnant, never plowed, to the left of the tracks; ruderal vegetation on edge of a soybean field, to the right. (Image source: David Hoyt)
The prairie, foreground, and what replaced it, in rear. (Image source: David Hoyt)

Even this five acre plot was too small for many grassland birds. Although I flushed nearly a dozen Goldfinches at one passing, there were no Meadowlarks or Henslow’s sparrows: these birds and others like them typically require far greater undisturbed areas in order to nest and breed, and most of that acreage is now devoted to monoculture. Is it any coincidence that the 2018 report, documenting a 30% loss in North American breeding bird populations since 1970, finds the greatest decline among grassland birds of the central continent? Although removing invasives and planting native at home and in larger areas is without question beneficial ecologically – in fact is crucial – this situation illustrates the very real limits of conservation in small areas: some organisms simply need more room, and if they don’t have it, they won’t survive.

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