Elkhart Hill bluebells provide rare sight in central Illinois
The State Journal-Register
ELKHART — Rising out of the flat central Illinois prairie, Elkhart Hill is an anomaly.
It’s just not like anything else around, and that is especially true in spring, when Virginia bluebells flower in profusion in the hill’s woodland.
“This is an exceptional time of year to be on Elkhart Hill, there’s no doubt about that,” said Bill McClain, a retired biologist and member of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
“Elkhart Hill has one of the more exceptional bluebell populations of any place I know of in central Illinois,” he said. “There may be others, but I’m certainly not aware of any.”
McClain is leading a pair of wildflower walks today, weather permitting. Both already are full.
Such is the draw of Elkhart Hill in the springtime.
“It is a just a beautiful, wonderful place,” said Lisa Pasquesi, one of the owners of Old Gillett Farm, which is part of the woods registered as a state nature preserve. Other parts of the hill also have some level of legal protection.
And since the woods are privately owned — by multiple owners — access is limited to two wildflower walks and a spring bird walk hosted by the Elkhart Historical Society.
The bird walk is scheduled for April 30.
Visitors to the bed and breakfast at Old Gillett Farm also are free to walk the woodland trails.
Pasquesi said new wetlands have been built, and prairie reconstruction is under way to provide a natural buffer to the woods.
Glaciers are responsible for piling up gravel and sediment — called glacial drift — and leaving Elkhart Hill behind. The hill is unusual in other ways, too.
Bluebells more often are found along stream banks and other lowland habitats.
But somehow, Elkhart Hill retains its moisture, and plants and trees found at lower, wetter elevations are at home right on top of the hill.
“There are Kentucky coffee trees and elms, lots of hackberries, black walnuts and lots of sugar maple and basswood,” McClain said. “They are plants and trees you would associate with a streamside, lowland forest community.
“There are no white oaks, but there are some chinkapin oaks and bur oaks. And there is blue ash.”
McClain said there were sloughs around the hill, providing permanent sources of water, and a pair of active natural springs was reliable enough to be tapped by people.
McClain said he believes the natural springs and the tree canopy help Elkhart Hill keep its moisture and its bluebells.
“It is quite unusual in that regard,” he said.
But even the remarkable can’t last.
Bluebells will flower for a couple of weeks until the trees leaf out and shut off light to the forest floor.
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
The Virginia bluebell is a spring woodland wildflower native to the eastern half of the United States, occurring as far west as Kansas. The plant is listed as one step below endangered (exploitably vulnerable) in New York and threatened in Michigan.
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