Prairie grass restoration beautifies Illinois roadways
As the heat has threatened to damage crops and garden plants, the native vegetation that is part of a roadside restoration project continues to thrive.
Thursday, July 28, 2011 - 12:49
SCENIC ROUTE: These native flowers make the drive a lot less drab. (Photo: Cy Tottleben)
The roadways in rural Illinois are absolutely gorgeous right now. As the heat has threatened to damage crops and garden plants, the native vegetation that is part of a roadside restoration project continues to thrive.
In a state touting the moniker "The Prairie State," most of the 22 million acres of prairie that once covered Illinois have been converted to agriculture, leaving only 1 percent of the land devoted to its original condition.
Three kinds of prairies exist in Illinois, based on the soil and terrain of the area. These also include the living structures growing in the region, the wildlife that thrives in the plants, and the fire that must occur to kill off invasive species and reinvigorate the soil to promote better growth.
The plants serve many purposes besides brightening my daily commute to work. Their root systems can grow to 30 feet, keeping their blooms healthy through even the toughest drought, and taking a strong stand against erosion. Many species were essential to the diet and holistic medicine of Native Americans, some of which (Echinacea) are still very popular today. However, since John Deere introduced his steel plow in 1837, these beautiful fields have given way to row after row of the 'new' tall grass: corn.
The black soil prairie, known to the central and northern parts of the state, was virtually wiped out by agriculture. For years the remaining native flowers grew only beside railroad tracks, in old cemeteries or in protected areas. Today these plants line our roadways and are part of a growing restoration project seen in many parks, trails and private gardens. The Wolf Road Prairie in Cook County, which also features savanna and wetland areas, is considered one of the largest black soil prairies east of the Mississippi River.
The gravel, dolomite and hill prairie is found mostly in northern Illinois or the areas around the Mississippi River. A prime example of this can be found at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, a 22,500 acre protected open space near Joliet. Built at a former military site, this area features the Drummond Dolomite Prairie, and was the first national tallgrass prairie established in the U.S.
The sand prairie typically grows near bodies of water, whether current or no longer with us. The different soil allows for a more scattered array of vegetation, and a variety of plant life that particularly thrives in sand. The Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie Nature Preserve near Fulton has 212 acres devoted to sand prairie, including the plains prickly pear cactus, and serves as a habitat for a few unusual reptile species.
While the deep root systems of this native vegetation allows it to thrive for months through the summer heat, this is an excellent time to enjoy it. Groups throughout the state devote time to burning, planting and studying the species and are always looking for volunteers. If you have the land and are interested in growing your own part of the prairie, you can't be afraid to set it afire on occasion. A great website for DIY prairie planting can be found here.
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