The Virgin Prairie
Nature Bulletin No. 120 June 14, 1947
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation
THE VIRGIN PRAIRIE
Illinois, the Prairie State, should establish a state park preserving a
remnant typical of her virgin prairies. The following account of such a
prairie is condensed from an article published several years ago by
Albert W. Herre, of Stanford University. In the seventies he lived near
Delavan in Tazewell County, in a one-room log cabin on the fringe of
a small grove of timber on a low ridge at the edge of a great tract of
virgin prairie too wet for the plow.
At that time a few farmers lived on the low sand ridges which were the
only lands cultivated. Here and there the prairies were sprinkled with
permanent water holes, roughly circular and locally called buffalo
wallows. Around them grew dense rings of sedges, cat-tails and tall
saw grass. The prairie vegetation grew to moderate height as a rule but
here and there became very rank. At on low place, not far from the
cabin, a man on horseback could not be seen 30 yards away.
Two kinds of lady's slipper, a little yellow one and a white one, grew
abundantly within a few yards of the cabin. Bluebells grew everywhere
and Dutchman's breeches called "flies" by the pioneers, were profuse.
At the edge of the woods grew wild lilies -- the western meadow lily --
their lovely flowers as high as a boy' s head.
He remembers the prairie in spring as the most marvelous sight of his
life --- a waving rippling sea of lavender when the wild Sweet
William, a species of phlox two or three feet in height, was in full
flower. As the sea of phlox faded, it was succeeded by another
marvelous flower bed, and then another, until midsummer.
Then the great coarse perennials with composite flowers dominated,
and instead of a single mass of color there was a vast garden of purple
cornflowers, black-eyed Susans, rosin-weeds, blazing stars, asters,
golden rods, and others.
Every spring the prairie wag covered with water and the whole country
was a great lake. Only the sand ridges emerged here and there. All day
long, swarms of water birds filled the air and the night was full of
their cries. "What a pity that some of it could not have been preserved
so that those born later might enjoy its beauty also. Now it is merely
flat unending corn fields, and moderns may read these words as being
only the iridescent childish romance of an old man."
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Update: June 2012