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Perfect prairie? No, but a pioneer

When Ray Schulenberg and other Morton Arboretum staff members set out to recreate a prairie on an eight-acre patch of farmland 51 years ago, there were no instructions to follow. It was only the fourth attempt in the nation to restore a prairie, and no one was sure what techniques would likely work best.
 
Native plants and native landscapes have been part of the Arboretum’s focus since its early years. Restoration of the Schulenberg Prairie began more than a half a century ago, as concern grew about the loss of the native eastern tallgrass prairie in the Prairie State and the rest of the Midwest. The goal was to create a prairie that included the range of plants—more than 250 species—still found in small prairie remnants within 50 miles of the Arboretum.
 
The first eight acres of the Schulenberg Prairie were planted with seedlings raised in the Arboretum’s greenhouses. They had to be watered and hand weeded, according to a history prepared in 2012 by Plant Conservation Biologist Marlin Bowles and Urban Soil Scientist Bryant Scharenbroch, but most survived. Later parcels were planted with seedlings or by sowing seed directly in the ground. The prairie has further expanded as seeds blew into nearby areas.
 
Another ingredient was essential: fire. In the native prairie, fires set by lightning or by native Americans had kept out trees and other plants whose seed blew in and returned nutrients to the soil. The Arboretum’s prairie has been burned on a regular basis since it was first planted. It also is carefully monitored for invasive plant species that need to be removed.
 
Studies have shown that even after more than 50 years, the Schulenberg Prairie is not as diverse as an established native prairie would be. It actually has a lower proportion of grasses than a natural prairie, with more summer flowers and fewer spring-blooming plants. The plants’ diversity may be affected by how often different parts of the prairie are burned; research has shown that prairies that are burned more regularly have more different species.
 
Today, the Schulenberg Prairie has grown to about 100 acres, incorporating several types of prairie ecosystems and savannas with scattered oaks. And it remains an important model for restoration projects in the region.