Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Putting Down Roots

One of the characteristics of prairie plants is their deep root systems – the roots of some plants extend further below the ground than the yearly growth above it. Like prairie plants, efforts to preserve, restore, and maintain prairie remnants along the Illinois Prairie Path have deep roots in the Path’s origins. May Thielgaard Watts wanted to convert an abandoned railway line into a footpath because she understood that northern Illinois’ original tallgrass prairie plants still existed along railway lines, fences, and other narrow strips of unmowed, uncultivated land. In her letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Watts envisioned these prairie remnants flourishing alongside carefully cultivated garden spaces and wilderness that contained both native and invasive species. By the 1970s, ecologists and prairie enthusiasts had discovered that it was possible to preserve, restore, and maintain sections of land and encourage native species to thrive. Three Illinois Prairie Path members, Melvern (Mel) Hoff, Lawrence (Larry) Sheaffer, and Keith Olson, played an integral part in identifying native plant species along the path and restoring and maintaining pockets of prairie. The Elmhurst Great Western Prairie, the Volunteer Prairie, and other smaller pockets of prairie along the IPP stand as testimony to their efforts.


From the early 1980s on, Hoff, a chemist, and Sheaffer, an elementary school teacher, kept meticulous records of what plants appeared in particular areas of the path, and how their populations changed over time. These records form the basis of prairie preservation and restoration efforts.


Sheaffer and Olson, a science teacher, had previously worked with the ecologists who restored prairie to Fermi National Laboratory in nearby Batavia in the mid to late 1970s. Sheaffer, Hoff, and Olson knew how to prepare the soil, who to contact to obtain the seeds necessary for prairie restoration, and how to maintain the restored prairies.


Preserved and restored tallgrass prairies require a significant amount of maintenance by humans if they are to survive in a suburban landscape. Hoff, Sheaffer, and Olson have all organized and educated bands of volunteers to remove unwanted plants, reseed areas of prairie, and conduct controlled burns to reduce woody growth and open up the surface to renewed prairie growth.
Use the cards at the bottom of each page to explore various parts of the "Growing a Path from the Grass Roots" chapter. There will always be a card to take you back to the chapter introduction or you can go back to the Wild in the City overview.

This page has paths:

This page references: