Riverwoods Preservation Council

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In Our Own Backyard - Chapter 4 Extract

The first Europeans to explore the Midwest confronted a tallgrass prairie extending from the Midwestern Canadian border to the southern tip of Lake Michigan, south to central Texas, and west through Nebraska. They saw a sea of grasses and wildflowers, some 8, 10 and 12 feet tall! Sadly, by 1900, most of this centuries-old prairie had been plowed under and by 1978, an Illinois Natural Areas Inventory concluded that only 0.01% of the original 22 million acres of Illinois prairie remained.

FernTechnically, the term "grass" includes turf grass, cereal grains, ornamental grasses, and bamboo, but commonly the term "grass" is applied to a range of plants having narrow to strap-like leaves - including true grasses, sedges, rushes and cattails. To distinguish them, remember this rhyme: "Sedges have edges and rushes are round; grasses are hollow and sway all around." ...

Grasses differ from many other plants in that they depend on wind, not insects, for pollen dispersal. Instead of bright flowers to attract insects, grasses have large masses of tiny flowers that are grouped into clusters, known as inflorescences. There are various forms, including spikes, pendants and fans, having textures ranging from bristly to silky or feathery. Unlike the flowers of many garden plants, grass flowers are usually shades of green, gold, pink, brown, maroon or silver. For many, it is the form and texture of the flowers, rather than their color, that is their greatest appeal. ...

Although all of our plants and wildflowers are beautiful, it is the abundance of trees, and particularly our native woodland trees, which distinguish our community. ...

Trees2In Riverwoods, where white oaks are the tallest species, some of the older trees may be 80 or more feet tall. These large trees, which form the woodland canopy, need access to sunlight to reach their full size. They often do not survive if they are in the shade for too many years. Others, like the sugar maple or green ash, may live in the shade for long periods, waiting for the taller trees to die and provide an opportunity to grow larger and become part of the canopy. ...

Beneath the understory trees are the multi-branched woody shrubs. They provide food, shelter and protection for many of our native songbirds. Sun-loving shrubs grow in the open prairies, meadows and savannas that once covered most of the state and also do well in sunny gardens. Most native shrubs need protection from deer. ...

ViburnumPeople sometimes forget that woodlands are composed of more than just trees and shrubs. An integral part of the habitat is close to the ground. Flowering plants, ferns, vines, moss, sedges and grasses carpet the healthy forest floor, providing food and shelter for the insects, birds and mammals who live there - and beauty for people to enjoy. In low, wet spots, these plants, along with the trees and shrubs, drink up the moisture in the spring, control erosion and act as natural water filters. Woodland flowers will grow in your landscaped shade gardens, too. When restoring woodland areas, remember that healthy habitats need plants from ground to canopy. ...

[In Our Own Backyard contains drawings and descriptions of various trees - canopy and understory - shrubs, and woodland plants, as well as tables of recommendations for various soil, moisture and sunlight conditions.]

 


© Riverwoods Preservation Council- - Page last updated: December 2009