In 1837 H.L. Ellsworth wrote of Illinois "Among the oak openings you find some of the most lovely landscapes of the west, and travel for miles and miles through varied park scenery of natural growth, with all the diversity of gently swelling hill and dale; here the trees are grouped or standing single, and there arranged in long avenues, as though by human hands, with strips of open meadow between."
Quercus! The word is fun to say and somewhat poetic. Quercus alba! Quercus velutina! Quercus macrocarpa! Quercus rubra!
White Oak! Black Oak! Burr Oak! Red Oak!
Nachusa Grasslands is known for its acres of remnant and restored prairie. These prairies reflect the landscape of “The Prairie State” as it was two hundred years ago. While 60% of Illinois was covered in ecosystems dominated by grass, significant portions of the state were also forested. In northern Illinois oak trees were found in forest and savannas. Today oak savannas are among the rarest ecosystems on the planet.
A savanna could be considered a sparsely wooded grassland where abundant light is able to penetrate the leaf canopy to become available to the plants on the forest floor. Like the prairies, savannas endured because of prevailing climatic conditions and fire. The oak trees and the oak savannas have dwindled because of the demand for wood products, the need for agricultural lands, the suppression of fire, and for other reasons.
In addition to the prairies, Nachusa Grasslands is home to tracts of woodlands, many of which were once savannas. Big Woods, Bennett Woods, Brandt Woods, Tellabs and other units are dominated by trees, including some large and magnificent oaks. In the absence of fire and as a result of years of grazing the nature of the woodlands has changed. All over Illinois other types of trees have filled in the once open area beneath the oaks and interfered with the dominance of the oak trees. These oaks were the dominant trees in the state at one time. Now, but five percent of the trees in Illinois are oak. Maples, honeysuckles, Box Elders, Buckthorn and other shade tolerant species are now found where once the oaks dominated. There are stewards and volunteers at Nachusa Grasslands who are working to restore the savannas and woodlands. The very first task I undertook upon becoming the steward of East Tellabs was to “free” a white oak. Hours were spent cutting and treating the honeysuckle that had formed an impenetrable fortress around the tree. In the wooded units at Nachusa, stewards and volunteers are working to eliminate the invasive species, cut and clear excessive dead fall, and spread the seeds of desired species. There have been successes, sunlight is reaching the ground, young oaks are emerging and there is still a lot to do. The goal is to return part of Nachusa to the diversity of species and color described by Joseph Mudd in 1888.
"When the county was first settled there was no underbrush or small timber such as now exists. The timbered lands were open, the trees standing so far apart that hunters could see the deer at distances from one to fire hundred yards. The entire surface of the country was then covered with a rank growth of vegetation, consisting of native grasses and wild flowers, which gave the landscape, especially the timbered lands, a much more beautiful appearance than it has now.” In 1907 school children in Illinois voted the Oak Tree the state tree of Illinois. More specifically, in 1973 the White Oak was selected as the state tree. Native Americans used the acorns of the white oak as a food source. The wood of the white oak is used in making furniture and caskets. Barrels made of white oak aged whiskey and wine. The oak leaves and branches provide homes and food for many varieties of insects and birds. The acorns are eaten by deer, squirrels, and other animals. And anyone who hikes the wooded areas of Nachusa will pass beneath the spreading branches of the oaks and enjoy the shade, the movement of the leaves, and the texture of the bark. Come to Nachusa Grasslands and enjoy the grasses, the flowers, the bison and the Quercus.
Thanks to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for the quotes.
Charles Larry I'm a retired librarian from NIU. I've been taking photos at Nachusa for over 20 years.
Dee Hudson I am a nature photographer and freelance graphic designer. I have been taking photos for Nachusa since 2012. Leah Kleiman I am the manager's daughter and a resident prairie critter. I currently attend Sauk Valley Community College and I have been drawing Nachusa my whole life.
Mark Jordan I am a semi–retired teacher and the Steward of Nachusa's East Tellabs unit. I have returned to the grasslands after 30 years in the north.
Paul Swanson I am a hobby naturalist who works with knowledgeable people to help restore native ecosystems at Nachusa and in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.