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Golden days on the prairie

Purple wildflowers in a sunny meadow full of grasses
The prairie in late summer.
July 30, 2013
Late summer is the best time to enjoy the Schulenberg Prairie, and imagine what the Illinois landscape was like when the settlers arrived in this rippling sea of grasses and other plants.
Grasses make up most of a prairie, and August is when they are at their most spectacular, turning golden and swaying in the wind. If you take the Prairie Trail or the Acre Trail from the Prairie Visitor Station (Parking Lot 25), you’ll be seeing such grasses as big bluestem, switchgrass, sideoats grama, Canada wild rye, prairie cordgrass, little bluestem, and prairie dropseed.
The prairie’s golden hue is amplified by summer prairie flowers scattered among the grasses. Look for prairie dock, a tall plant that has yellow daisylike flowers; stiff goldenrod, which has flat clusters of small bright-yellow blooms; and sweet black-eyed Susan, whose yellow flowers have dark brown centers. Mixed in will be other colors such as the white of mountain mint, with a fluffy cloud of tiny  flowers and a minty smell, and the purple of New England aster, wild bergamot and prairie purple clover.
One of the most interesting prairie flowers is compass plant. It has blooms resembling sunflowers up and down its very tall, hairy stem. But look at the large, intricately shaped, rough-surfaced leaves: You’ll see they are all oriented the same way, north to south. The plant evolved to point its leaves this way to expose the least surface area to the sun, reducing the amount of water that evaporates—giving the plant a survival edge out in the hot, dry, open native prairie.
Prairie plants are drought-resistant because they have long roots that can grow 10 or 20 feet deep to collect water from deep in the soil. As old roots decay, they enrich the soil. When the settlers arrived, they found the prairie incredibly fertile.
The native eastern tallgrass prairie is almost gone, turned up by the plow. The Arboretum’s prairie is not one of the remaining scraps, but was one of the first attempts to recreate the prairie landscape.
History of the Schulenberg Prairie
In 1962, using seeds that had been collected from railroad rights-of-way and other small parcels of undisturbed land around the region, Arboretum staff and volunteers began trying to construct a prairie on a parcel of land that had been farmed for decades before it became part of the Arboretum. In 1987, the prairie was named after Ray Schulenberg, who led the effort.
The prairie has been cared for and studied for more than 50 years. Lessons learned from the Schulenberg Prairie have helped restoration ecologists understand what is required to restore or recreate a prairie and have guided many other prairie restorations in the Midwest.
So when you visit the Schulenberg Prairie, you can not only enjoy the spectacle of waving grasses and sparkling flowers, but know that what you see has helped the prairie return to at least some parts of its former empire.