Redevelop a small piece of prairie | Local news

by | Nov 21, 2021 | Golf Balls

URBANA – Early November may not be the optimal time to visit a tall grass prairie in central Illinois. But when you know what to look for, like my two guides do, it’s a good time like anyone else.

Despite the recent heavy rains, the prairie looks dry like a skull. Grass and flower stalks rattle in the cold breeze, and each plant seems to have its own unique variety of dried seeds, leaves and flower heads. The soil is still moist, but the tops of the plants are crispy.

I’m here with Fred Delcomyn and James Ellis, the authors of A Backyard Prairie, a book about Fred and Nancy Delcomyn’s personal project, a three-acre piece of prairie that they planted near their home in 2003 and have always tended to since.

We are on a quarter of a mile trail that Delcomyn mapped in the bare ground before he and a crew from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources began sowing. According to the book, the trail divides the prairie into three sections that are burned down every three years. The unburned zones provide refuge for the prairie dwellers fleeing the flames.

As we begin our exploration, Delcomyn draws my attention to a bur oak that stands somewhat defiantly on the edge of the new prairie. It’s only about 9 feet tall, but it’s the only larger tree around, aside from a tiny forest that buffers the house. Delcomyn tells me that he planted this tree when the prairie was first laid out.

“This seedling here is his offspring,” he says, pointing to a thigh-high tree that I would not have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out to me.

I learned from the book that unlike most trees, bureiches can withstand the regular fires that turn the prairie into prairie.

“If a seedling is destroyed by fire, it sprouts easily from the roots,” the authors write of the Bur oak. To keep the trees from withering, the team cuts back the grasses and moisturizes the area before burning them, says Ellis, who helps and advises with the burns and serves Delcomyn as a plant identification resource when he’s at a loss.

Beyond the edge of the prairie, we can see the stubble and silky remains of huge, recently harvested corn and soybean fields. Delcomyn and Ellis have dedicated a chapter in the book to the complex history of this landscape, from the last Ice Age to the present. Most recently, agriculture supplanted almost all of Illinois’ native grasslands.

“Overall, it is estimated that about 60% (about 22 million acres) of Illinois was prairie when the first Europeans appeared on the scene,” the authors write. Today only a few patches of restored prairie remain, with even fewer remnants of the original prairie.

Restoring a prairie on centuries-old farmland – especially if you start with seeds like the Delcomyns – requires a lot of patience and a lot of help. Their first job, besides clearing and preparing the land, was buying seeds.

“A healthy native prairie can easily contain 150 different species of flowering plants and grasses, far too many to consider for individuals with limited resources,” the authors write. The Delcomyns chose to sow wildflowers that would bloom from May to October. They also planted prairie grasses – and a few legumes to build nitrogen into the soil.

The book describes an IDNR program, Acres for Wildlife, which is helping landowners who are working to restore their property to a more natural state. This program provided manpower and equipment to sow the Delcomyns’ site.

“A Backyard Prairie” realistically describes the challenges in establishing a “new” prairie on agricultural land. Prairie plants take time to establish as most of their early development occurs underground. The book describes the early emergence of any kind of unwanted weed and the slow transition to a landscape dominated by prairie flowers and grasses.

Strolling this backyard prairie with Delcomyn and Ellis – and reading their book – is like a natural history seminar with two experts who love the subject. Every plant has a story and Ellis and Delcomyn would like to share it. There is the compass plant, whose broad leaves capture the morning and late sun but avoid the searing rays of midday. And white wild indigo that sends up beautiful flower tips but is difficult to germinate from seeds and is regularly attacked by weevils. There are rattlesnake masters with geometric white flowers that “look like miniature golf balls,” says Delcomyn. And several types of goldenrod, a late bloomer that sometimes gets a little too aggressive and needs to be mowed.

There are also the creatures that call this little paradise home: insects and spiders, voles, coyotes, rabbits and a wide variety of birds, all of which harness the riches of the prairie and contribute to the life of this ecosystem. Most of them are secretive, but the Delcomyns’ regular walks on the prairie trail reveal some of their hidden paths. Especially in winter, the snow reveals their coming and going with footprints and wing marks.

A Backyard Prairie provides a glimpse into the installation of prairie on a small but significant scale, adding to the prospect that these distant patches of what was once vast flowering grasslands can be reconnected – if only by wandering creatures and hopeful landowners.

Editor’s Notes:

Fred Delcomyn is a certified naturalist and Professor Emeritus in the School of Integrative Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Foundations of Neurobiology and has written more than 100 popular science articles. Since 2009, he has served on the board of directors of Grand Prairie Friends, an Illinois-based nonprofit conservation organization and land trust engaged in the protection and restoration of the prairie.

James L. Ellis is the natural area coordinator for the U. of I. and botanist for the Illinois Natural History Survey. He has published articles on prairie ecology, conservation, and management for both academic and general audiences. He is a longtime volunteer with the Grand Prairie Friends and served on the board from 2000 to 2021.

“A Backyard Prairie” is a 2021 publication from Southern Illinois University Press.