Prairie beauty reborn at Centennial
Native plant specialist Charlotte Adelman of Wilmette is shown at the Centennial Prairie Garden on Monday, Aug. 20, 2012, at Centennial Park in Wilmette. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
WHAT: Centennial Park Prairie Garden
WHY: Reclaimed prairie ecosystem lures native birds and endangered butterflies.
On the Web
For more information on the species you can find at the Centennial Prairie Garden, check the Wilmette Park District website at www.wilmettepark.org/prairie-garden.
Updated: August 30, 2012 8:54AM
WILMETTE — Drive too fast through the intersection of Wilmette and Crawford Avenues these days and you could miss a glorious slice of Illinois’ natural past.
Drivers who slow down and look at the southwest corner will see a newborn but already vibrant Midwestern prairie, resplendent in the late summer golden splendor of brown-eyed susans. If they look closer they will spy pale clumps of the modestly-named flea bane flower, milkweed flowers with tiny petals of ivory and pale pink, the occasional flame of a cardinal flower and purple heads of native thistle, bordered by waving sedges and grasses.
If, like Wilmette resident Charlotte Adelman, you walk along the perimeter of the Centennial Park Prairie Garden, you will see goldfinches and native swallows wing their way above it, attracted by the insects that make it home. You’ll catch the constant thrum of honey and bumble bees moving from flower to flower, watch dozens of native nectar-loving moths and flies do the same.
Just about now, you can also catch the fluttering dance of dozens of Monarch butterflies, sipping nectar and spreading their stained-glass wings to catch the warmth of the sun.
Monarchs, who can breed only on milkweeds, and whose future dimmed as the millions of acres of prairie wetland they once called home fell to development and the invasion of imported plants and flowers, may be dearest to Adelman’s heart.
The retired lawyer is a champion of native Midwestern plants who has authored two books focusing on them. The garden is her brainchild, one that shelters rare or endangered Midwestern plant and insect species.
She calls it an oasis, and it isn’t hard to see why. The ground beneath the carpet of flowers and grasses was moist Aug. 21, even after a hot and largely dry summer, perhaps proving the accuracy of the prairie wetland designation.
Only three years ago, however, it was simply a 1.5-acre grass-covered detention pond.
Adelman first approached the park district in 2009, suggesting that they might have space in which to grow a prairie garden. Officials liked her proposition, parks and planning superintendent Bill Lambrecht said last week, but didn’t initially know where they wanted to do it.
That changed in 2010, when Wilmette teen Joe Bruner approached the district about doing a district-focused Eagle Scout project. Lambrecht sent him to Adelman. Together they came up with a plan, including the suggestion of using the area at Wilmette and Crawford.
It seemed the ideal space, Lambrecht said: “It’s not interfering with anything, it’s an open area that’s not being used, and the prairie garden actually masks the ... function of the bowl.”
Aided by district staff and volunteers from Bruner’s Wilmette Boy Scout Troop 2, he and Adelman planted upland prairie flowers, grasses and plants in five areas around the detention pond. Bruner caught Adelman’s enthusiasm and returned in 2011 after his project ended to add more plants to the perimeter.
Those species – the big blue stem grass, the meadow blazing stars and milkweeds, purple and orange coneflowers and more, all suited to a slightly dryer soil than their wetland relatives in the hollow – gave onlookers a preview of what can bloom in a reclaimed prairie, Lambrecht said.
Adelman and Bernard Schwartz, her husband and co-author of “The Midwestern Native Garden,” took on the projects costs and worked with 3D Design Studio to develop how the entire garden would look.
In 2010, the district hired Wisconsin-based Tall Grass Restoration, which specializes in reclaiming Midwest ecosystems, to prepare the space, which included removing swamp oaks for replanting elsewhere. When Adelman acquired a mix of wetland prairie plant seeds, Tall Grass planted them and hundreds of thousands more seeds.
The reclamation process is long term and multi-year, with different species taking more than one season to establish themselves. Last year the bowl looked a bit unprepossessing, Lambrecht said.
“I was afraid there was going to be some push back from people (about the garden), because I know in this area there are certainly people who perceive prairie plants as weeds, and last year, that’s kind of what it looked like.
“But it came along a little quicker than I expected, and this year a number of people have commented to me about how they’re impressed with what we have.”
Eventually dozens of species, including multiple types and colors of the Monarch-nurturing milkweed, will bloom, fade and rise again yearly. With deep roots, the hardy plants won’t have to be watered, and will need only the occasional controlled burn (mimicking natural prairie fires that encourage growth) to thrive.
For Adelman, this year’s gold and yellow flowering riot represents a moment in time, before the full prairie palette adds more scarlet, purple and blue to subsequent seasons and as even more creatures call the garden home.
Its promise has already been fulfilled, though, in the hum of honey and bumble bees, the arrival of goldfinches and Midwest swallows, and the fluttering dance of Monarch butterflies.
“Look at all the beauty here,” she said. “It’s amazing.”