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A Prairie From a Cornfield

A restored prairie blooming with grasses and pink coneflowers
The 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie
June 28, 2017

When you wander the paths cut through the Schulenberg Prairie in summer, you’re surrounded by swaying grasses and tall flowers alive with butterflies, bees, and birds.

None is there by accident. It has taken more than 50 years of hard work to create this tapestry of life: The prairie is a feat of human ingenuity as well as a place of natural wonder.

Sixty years ago, the prairie was a cornfield, a remnant of the many farms that were pieced together to become the Arboretum. Before it was plowed under, however, it had been part of the tallgrass prairie that once covered much of the land that would become Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas.

In the 1950s, Clarence Godshalk, director of the Arboretum, asked staff member Ray Schulenberg to create a “native planting” on the old cornfield. Schulenberg attempted to replicate the former prairie—one of the first times such a restoration had ever been tried. He based his plans on what he could learn from the few scraps of tallgrass prairie that remained among the Chicago area’s highways and subdivisions.

Schulenberg collected seeds of native grasses and other plants from remnant prairies, railroad rights-of-way and undeveloped lots. The first planting took place in 1963, and over the next few years, staff and volunteers planted not only seeds but more than 80,000 seedlings Schulenberg and his staff had grown. With few other restorations to guide them, they devised techniques as they went along and used different ones in different areas.

Today, the prairie is regarded as a benchmark in the development of ecological restoration in Illinois. Like a natural prairie, it’s dominated by grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparius), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). Visitors love the many flowers, such as white false indigo (Baptisia alba), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). They also love the animals attracted by this lush habitat, most conspicuously the many butterflies and choruses of birds.

Managing the prairie takes work. Crews of volunteers continually remove non-native plants that invade the prairie. It is renewed by regular burning, which suppresses invasive plants and enriches the soil.

Arboretum scientists have been studying the Schulenberg Prairie since it was planted, trying to understand how it compares to a natural prairie and learn how to improve restoration techniques. The success of a restoration is judged by how many different native plant and animal species  live there, and by that standard, the Schulenberg Prairie is quite successful.

It still does not have as rich and diverse an array of plants as the native tallgrass prairie had developed over 10,000 years. But for patch of land that was a cornfield just a few decades ago, it’s a marvel.