Illinois hunting and fishing

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID ZALAZNIK

Jubilee prairie finally peaking

July 11, 2010 at 02:56 AM

Prairie viewing

While 99 percent of Illinois’ prairie has been wiped out, there are places to see native plants at their peak.

Restored prairie is the focus of upcoming tours of the Gilles Family Farms northwest of Princeville. Tours are July 19 and 22 at 6 p.m. and July 20 and 23 at 9 a.m. Reservations are required. Call (309) 671-7040, Ext. 3.

Wildflower walks at Forest Park Nature Center in Peoria Heights are July 22 and Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m. and July 31 and Aug. 14 at 9:30 a.m. Call (309)

For the more adventurous, there are high-quality prairies in Illinois nature preserves. Click here for information.

Click here for another informative site, maintained by retired Illinois Natural History Survey researcher Ken Robertson.

BRIMFIELD — Prairie plants are not much for instant gratification.

You can’t sow many native seeds in spring and admire your labors a few months later.

Patience is the key to prairie restoration. A perfect example is growing in Jubilee College State Park, where the long process to prairie has seen controversy over corn and beans, weedy fields and now, finally, abundant blooming wildflowers.

While native plants bloom all season, now is about the peak for many showy summer flowers.

At Jubilee the newest planting of flowers and tall native grasses is located right along the main park road and adjacent to many day-use picnic areas. For years the same field was mowed regularly, providing little wildlife habitat or eye candy.

Shortly after site superintendent Tom Hintz arrived, he initiated Crops for Coneflowers — a project designed to convert cool-season grasses to warm-season prairie. One step in the process was to earn money for seed by renting ground for row crops.

That didn’t sit well with some park patrons, who were upset to see corn and beans growing in a state park. Much more pleased were deer, who mowed down the soybeans and cut farming efforts short.

So three years ago Hintz enlisted volunteers to help plant 60 different species of native plants, cultivated by Lou Nelms at Earthskin Nursery near Mason City. Joining in the planting effort were first and third-graders from Brimfield Elementary School, members of Richwoods Christian Church, numerous boy scouts and other interested volunteers.

After a few years of weeds, the fruits of their labors are becoming evident this summer.

Bergamot and gray-headed coneflower are blooming abundantly and purple coneflower is coming on strong. Here and there you can find rattlesnake master and coreopsis.

In time the planting will become more diverse. Compass plant and prairie dock take longer to start flowering, though you can find them already at the campground prairie and in other fairly recent plantings.

Overall Hintz estimates there are more than 100 acres of prairie scattered through the 3,200-acre state park.

Two of the most diverse plantings are the Prairie Dog Prairie north of Brimfield-Jubilee Road and the center prairie, accessible via trail from the equestrian campground or from the Valley View area. “If people really want to go see what Illinois looked like they need to see the center prairie. The walk there is not for the faint of heart, but it’s worth it,” Hintz said.

Similar words are spoken about many prairies. No wonder. Most flat, easily accessible areas in Illinois have long since been planted or pastured. What’s left for native plants are odd pieces here and there — often in remote, hard-to-access spots.

Pioneer cemeteries. Sand ground. Small hillsides. Those are places you’ll still find remnants of virgin prairie.

And that’s what makes the new planting in the middle of Jubilee so unique. Access is easy. You can drive right past the plants and hear bees buzzing without leaving your vehicle. Or you can drive to a parking area and walk mowed trails through the prairie.

“That’s what we want. We want people to come see the flowers and all the butterflies. There are butterflies everywhere here,” Hintz said. “We’re hoping we can get more signs to draw people in and have more interpretive stuff going on.”

But be warned. As you drive into the park, you will still see crops planted here and there along the main road. “Everything that’s cropped is eventually going to be prairie,” Hintz said.

Just be patient. Give the prairie a few years to gain a foothold and then enjoy the show come summer.

Illinois hunting and fishing