Q: Are there any native plant communities left at Midewin, or do the Wetlands Initiative and the Forest Service have to reestablish them all from scratch?

The short answer is yes, there are native plant communities that have persisted at Midewin. Even after decades of disturbance, “remnant” habitats can still be discovered hanging on there. Midewin as a whole is a very large place (31 square miles), and the Wetlands Initiative’s projects there are hundreds of acres in size. These remnant plant populations can take up much less than an acre, so we don’t always find them all when we’re first planning a project. In the course of fieldwork on our current Midewin projects at Lobelia Meadows and the South Prairie Creek Outwash Plain, we are regularly finding new, unexpected species.

In some ways, the land changes at Midewin mirror how Illinois has changed as a whole since it first became known as the Prairie State. This nickname arose when settlers encountered over 20 million acres of untouched prairie. The tallgrass prairie of the Midwest was so vast that settlers described it as a “sea of grass” stretching beyond the horizon. 

TWI restoration specialist Trevor Edmonson flags a remant population of prairie violets discovered at Midewin.

What happened to this magnificent landscape? In 1837, the prairie came under attack when John Deere invented the steel-bladed plow. This allowed settlers to farm on a large scale and to break apart the thick prairie sod of plant roots. Since then plows and tractors have only become more advanced and churning the ground that much easier.  Today less than 0.01% of Illinois’ original prairie remains.

By the early 1900s, the area that is now Midewin had been converted to a mosaic of farm fields.  In 1940 the U.S. Army acquired the land. The Joliet Army Ammunition Plant (as it became known) was in various levels of production from World War II until it became inactive in 1993. The plant employed more than 10,000 people and produced upwards of 1 billion pounds of explosive TNT at its peak. To run the facility required more than 1,400 buildings, 200 miles of roads, 166 miles of railroad, and nearly 400 ammunition bunkers. This infrastructure, along with many other disturbances like invasive species, pushed Midewin further away from its original prairie landscape.

In 1996 the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie was established, and the recovery slowly began. In fact, the word Midewin comes from local Potawatomi Native American culture and represents “healing.” What was left to heal after all the land had to endure over the last couple centuries? Prairie restoration in Illinois got off the ground by finding remnant prairie pockets that had survived in the forgotten corners of marginal lands, and Midewin was no different. At Midewin there were still wetlands, soil with shallow bedrock, railroad ditches, fencerows, and pastures where some native vegetation was making a last stand. 

Closeup of a prairie violet, an uncommon native plant that stands just six inches tall.

In close collaboration with the Forest Service, the Wetlands Initiative works to help identify these islands of biodiversity at Midewin and encourage their expansion back over the landscape. These small populations might be the only living colonies of their type in our area. One minor disturbance could wipe them out forever. We look to reconnect these pockets and form corridors through restoration so that plant populations can gradually spread to new areas. The larger the habitat we create for these plants, the more likely they will survive in the long term.  

In one of our projects at Midewin, we found remnant pockets of prairie violets and yellow star grass. Both are uncommon species that grow only to about six inches tall, with beautiful, distinctive flowers. Once these remnants are identified, we’re able to really work hard to protect them by eliminating threats such as pressure from invasive plant species. We mark the rare plants with flags and GPS so we can easily find them again and take special care while doing planting or invasive removal work in these areas. The Forest Service can then collect seed and propagate more plants to spread over newly restored prairie or wetland habitat in other areas. 

Trevor with a huge bloom in a remnant pocket of rose mallow found on the South Prairie Creek Outwash Plain.

Every once in a while you get lucky and the restoration of a site yields other surprises. Sometimes seeds survive in the soil until conditions are right for their germination. Recently at Midewin we had such a surprise on a project where, after four years of restoration, the extremely rare quarterman's hedge-hyssop popped up. This plant is restricted to a very specific habitat, dolomite wetlands with bedrock close to the soil surface, and it’s found only at a handful of sites across all of Illinois. We didn’t plant it, but we somehow unlocked the right combination through our restoration efforts to make it happy.

Many of these things are not yet fully understood, but it happens all the time. There is hope for the prairie yet.

An 1899 quotation from botanist E. J. Hill reaffirms this optimism:

In studying the flora of a restricted region, no matter how carefully it seems to have been explored, one is frequently surprised by new things. . . . No region can be regarded as thoroughly explored until every acre of its wild areas at least has been examined. Then some plants are so rare or local or grow under such peculiar conditions that a few square rods or even feet may comprise their range.

Learn more:

History of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/midewin/learning/history-culture/?cid=stelprdb5155180

Settlement of the Illinois tallgrass prairie: http://wwn.inhs.illinois.edu/~kenr/prairiesettlement.html

Botanist Ellsworth Jerome Hill: http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/Collectors/Hill_Ellsworth.htm

Trevor Edmonson is a restoration specialist and project manager for the Wetlands Initiative. He oversees day-to-day activities for TWI’s restoration sites within Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. He is currently the president elect of the Illinois Native Plant Society's Kankakee Torrent Chapter. On weekends you can often find Trevor leading a restoration effort on Langham Island to help preserve Illinois’ only endemic wildflower, the Kankakee mallow.