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Looking good at 75: Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center celebrates

November 13, 2011 at 05:49 PM

The State Journal-Register

If only the rest of us could look as good as Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center looks when we turn 75.

During the spring, wildflowers carpet the forest floor and flowering dogwoods and crabapples line the hiking trails.

Throughout summer and into fall, the colors on the canvas change from lush greens to a splendid display of yellows, oranges and reds.

Smooth sumac, the shrub that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright art-glass window designs, turns scarlet. Sugar maples glow orange.

Basswoods drop yellow heart-shaped leaves on the trails, and oaks hold on tight to their leaves into December.

Even after a harsh winter, all it takes is the promise of spring for the garden to look brand new again.

Today, Mother Nature will get a little extra help from central Illinois Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, who will gather to plant more than 130 trees along the garden’s trails.

The event commemorates the day 75 years ago when Scouts planted hundreds of acorns that became the trees towering above the garden today. (See details below.)

At 2 p.m., a brief ceremony will take place in the Lincoln Council Ring, after which everyone will be encouraged to explore the garden.


The event demonstrates how far the garden has progressed from a nearly empty field along the shores of the newly created Lake Springfield in 1936.

Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen was invited by Harriet Knudson to design the garden.

When Jensen, who died in 1951, was invited to work on the design, he was winding down a distinguished career in Chicago, where he designed several city parks.

A contemporary of Wright, he was a leading figure of the Prairie School of landscape architecture.

Jensen wrote about Knudson, calling her a “good soul” who dreamed of the possibility of a memorial garden in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

Knudson convinced the city of Springfield to devote 63 acres of land at Lake Springfield to become a memorial to the 16th president.

The garden was intended to be a lasting monument, yet ever changing.

“Did Jensen expect it to change?” asks Jim Matheis, executive director of Lincoln Memorial Garden. “I think he did. He had the idea of plants and their relationship to other plants, even though he was not formally trained (as a botanist).”

Matheis said the view from his office window changes with the seasons and from year to year.

“You can tell the difference year to year by how many buds are on the dogwoods and how many acorns are produced,” Matheis said.

Flora and fauna

There are other subtle differences, too, noticed mostly by garden staff.

Invasive plants, insects and others threaten the native species that Jensen loved.

“It is something that is never going to stop happening,” Matheis said. “The best we can do is try to keep them from overwhelming us.”

Even though nature seems vulnerable sometimes — an ice storm bowed many of the garden’s flowering ornamental trees four years ago — Jensen saw the garden outlasting traditional monuments of stone.

Wildlife there has changed. There are certainly more deer today than in Jensen’s time. He may not have seen a single one.

“I remember coveys of quail that would come to the feeders,” Matheis said. “Now I have to go the prairie center and maybe I will hear one.”

Matheis said the way people use the garden is changing, too, with more emphasis on physical fitness.

“I see more runners,” Matheis said. “They still come to enjoy the outdoors, but it seems now there are two purposes, exercise and enjoyment of the outdoors and nature.”

Still, the primary focus is on education.

“I’d like to see even more education,” Matheis said. “And it needs to be used for that.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.

Scout Day

Where: Lincoln Memorial Garden & Nature Center, 2301 East Lake Shore Drive

When: 1 p.m. today

Events include: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts planting trees along the Garden’s trails

Contact: 529-1111

Did you know?

The Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

The original goal was to plant only plants native to Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, the three states in which Lincoln lived.

Besides commemorating the planting of the Garden, observations are scheduled for June 2012 and October 2013 to mark other notable dates in the development of the Garden.

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