Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nachusa Grasslands

Last week I made a family visit to the lil town of Princeton, Illinois. To a mountain girl I must say this town, although quaint and peaceful, seems mighty flat, surrounded by cornfields on all sides complemented by tall shade trees here and there. However ever since visiting a protected patch of prairie at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes with Uncle Rick some years ago ( I have known that there is far more to the Midwest than just corn even if it may appear that way at first glance, or second, or third. This landscape used to be tall grasses and wildflowers, roaming buffalo and insects endemic to the prairie flora and soil. The Nature Conservancy is working to restore a 3500 acre plot of farmland, now called the Nachusa Grasslands, to its once wild state. Lucky for me they were holding their annual Autumn on the Prairie event, a day of plant walks and bison tours, while I happened to be in town!

Bernie Buchholz identifying native prairie plants
I had the opportunity to take a walk with Bernie Buchholz. He claimed to be relatively new to the prairie ecosystem, however his last 10 years volunteering at the Nachusa Grasslands have served him well, as he was able to identify not only the flowering plants but the seedstalks and curling leaves of nearly every plant that surrounded us.

Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus)

Gentian (Gentiana spp.)

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) gone to seed

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

 Marbleseed Plant (Onosmodium spp.)

As we crunched our way through the drying stems and stalks of summer's flowers we noticed the disproportionate ratio of flowers to grasses. This is because the grasses take longer to establish themselves than the wildflowers do. However, as walked further into the rolling landscape, the grasses became more plentiful as we then stood in a patch that had been managed and allowed to proliferate.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Restoring Nachusa is no small feat but rather one of autumnal seed gathering from the prairie, plantings in the spring and periodic burns. How the gathering and planting of seeds encourages growth is clear, whereas burning the very vegetation you wish to nurture may seem self-defeating. But, prescribed burns are quite the opposite. Burning portions of the prairie on a rotating schedule helps to stimulate microbial activity in the soil and therefore increase nutrient availability, suppresses non-native plants (in particular shrubs that can easily take over), and even extends the growing season for warm weather plants. The bison herd that was recently introduced here even plays a role in the maturation of the prairie by "tilling" up soil with their horns and hooves, inadvertently aerating the soil and planting seeds. On a well established prairie filled with grasses, they are also apt to eat grass as opposed to flowers, maintaining a healthy balance between the two.

Unfortunately I was not able to capture any photos of the bison herd as the line for the shuttles to that particular portion was easily 100 people deep. Now if the flowers could only get that much attention!

Trail through Nachusa Grasslands
After the guided plant walk I returned by shuttle, mind you this was a pick-up truck's tailgate packed with 10 other plant enthusiasts (this in all seriousness added greatly to the fun) to the main entrance of the Grasslands. Here I found a self-guided loop trail that one could walk with a number of prairie plants conveniently labeled for identification. Therefore any plants of which I had failed to scribble down the names as Bernie had rattled them off, I was able to gather here.

Prairie Thistle (Cersium canescens)

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Not only is Nachusa home to native prairie plants and bison, but it also provides a home for some of the 1700 prairie dependent insects....perhaps these are a couple here....any insect experts reading?

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedpods along with crawlies
Along this prairie loop the grasses also easily reached over my was once said that these grasses stood so tall, a man on horseback could stand amidst them and barely be seen, apparently the same could apply to an herbalist...

Me and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) overhead
I  walked this loop, and then a trail that wandered further out into the prairie without any signs or posts or tags, in the golden sun and under an exquisitely blue sky, and found myself wanting to savor this place, a lil of the past in the present. I walked amidst the oranges and reds of the changing wildflower leaves and stalks, the cottony tufts of thistle seed heads and brown button-tops of dead standing coneflower. It was me and the flowers in a sea of Big Bluestem and others of which I hadn't yet learned the names. I stretched out my arms to feel the grasses on my fingertips, to be a part of this meadow for a moment. To commit its beauty to memory.

Yes...lucky me.

Thank you Nachusa Grasslands for nurturing this place and providing me with an opportunity to experience some true Illinois landscape, a glimpse into the past and a hidden gem amongst all that corn. I will surely be returning.

To learn more about Nachusa, visit, or volunteer, you can check out their website:


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