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The Prairie State

Posted: July 7, 2020

By: Christina Keasler, Assistant Youth Department Director and Youth Technology Librarian

You may have heard that Illinois is called The Prairie State. From Prairie State College to the Prairie Path, we have embraced the nickname. Our state prairie grass, the big bluestem, may sound familiar since “Bluestem” is also the name of a book award. Did you know that a prairie is made up of more than tall grass? If you were to put a hula hoop on the ground in a prairie, you would find more than 30 different species of plants! Some of these plants have roots that reach nearly 20 feet below the ground. They have adapted their roots to reach deep water tables and survive the seasonal fires that used to sweep across prairies long ago. The most amazing, and most tragic, fact about prairies is that they are the most endangered ecosystem on the planet. I was surprised to learn that prairies are more endangered than rain forests, and just as important.

There are plenty of ways for you and your family to not only enjoy nearby natural prairies but help your local ecosystem.

Visit a Prairie

College of DuPage has restored 11 acres of prairie land. You can visit both the Kirt Prairie and the Ecological Study Area. A half-mile trail allows you to explore these natural areas. The Swift Prairie Forest Preserve in Addison features a variety of ecosystems, including a recreated prairie. The West Chicago Prairie has nine different trails to discover, some of which connect to the Illinois Prairie Path!

While visiting, bring binoculars to see how many animals you can spot. Go on a color scavenger hunt or just imagine what life was like as one of Illinois’ first settlers.

Help a Prairie

Restoration requires some manual work, and organizations are always looking for volunteers. The whole family can participate in a native seed harvest. Volunteers can also become park stewards that help manage preserves by removing non-native and/or invasive species. If you want to go hard core, you can sign up for a certification class to help with prescribed burns. If you’re interested, reach out to the Park District, Forest Preserve, or even the Morton Arboretum.  

On a smaller scale, making your own restored prairie in a small section of your yard is an enriching family project that also benefits your community and its local wildlife. You will learn about native plants that once used to grow in your area and the insects and animals that depend on each of those plants.

Learn About Prairies

Many nature centers are opening up and preparing for people to visit safely. These centers provide lots of free educational entertainment, often including life-sized models and live animals. Willowbrook Wildlife Center may be the closest. Lake View Nature Center and Hidden Oaks Nature Center are a little farther but worth looking into when they reopen. In the meantime, you can still explore the outside areas, even when the inside is closed. Many of these places are offering free or inexpensive educational programming virtually, as well.

While your interest is peaked, you can check out these great resources to buff up your prairie knowledge!

Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage

Prairie Boy: Frank Lloyd Wright Turns the Heartland Into a Home by Barb Rosenstock

Prairie Plants by Terri Sievert

Prairie-Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live by Lynn Steiner