Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

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Hi Friends!

Native plants are in full bloom here in Illinois, the ‘Prairie State.’ So, early Saturday morning, we decided to explore a very special prairie. It was a rare, cool, end-of-July day, with skies threatening rain one moment and offering bright sunshine the next. My husband dreamed of walking through the prairie in the rain observing the insects, while I wished for blue skies, just right for taking flower photos. Off we went… both of us watching the skies!

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is the first national tallgrass prairie in our country. Once native prairie, this area then developed into a community filled with homes. Years later, the land became the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant producing ammunition used in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. In 1996, the Department of Defense transferred ownership of the 19,000 acres to the U.S. Forest Service to create Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. With the help of  local conservation groups and countless volunteers, the USDA Forest Service has been working to restore this land to native tallgrass prairie. Today more than 13,300 acres are open to the public.

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We stopped in the Welcome Center first to pick up trail maps and learn about the prairie restoration in progress. Restoring a prairie of this size will take decades. Much of what happens at Midewin is an ongoing experiment of trial and error as USDA staff study the small patches of native prairie that remain. Vast amounts of native plant seeds are being collected and spread each year by the dedicated volunteer workforce. Over time, Midewin staff continue to learn how the different parts of a prairie ecosystem work together.

Midewin, in the language of the Potawatomi People means 'healing.'

Midewin (pronounced ‘mih-DAY-win’) has made amazing progress toward its goal already. Friendly volunteer Rangers were eager to share the history and progress of Midewin with us.

We began our prairie hike at the Iron Bridge Trailhead. As we hiked along the winding trail, it was exciting to see the progress of  the largest prairie restoration underway in the United States.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

Our hot, rainy weather during July has helped the native plants put on a spectacular show of colors.

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Late July at the tallgrass prairie

Walking through the tallgrass prairie helps us to imagine the time when 60% of the landscape of Illinois was covered in prairies.  The grasses and native flowers often grew as tall as a horse and its rider. As covered wagons made their way through the prairies in the early days, only the tops of their canvas-covered wagons could be seen above the tallgrass prairie. They truly looked like ‘prairie schooners’ bobbing slowly through the waves of the tall prairie grasses.

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Left:  Prairie Sunflower; Right: Purple Coneflower, Blue Aster. Red Clover

While the prairie wildflowers and grasses grow to impressive heights, most of the plant is below the soil with its extremely long root system. In addition to the roots, microbes, insects, and burrowing animals also play a critical role in the underground ecosystem of the prairie. Over time, the tallgrass prairies created the deep, rich topsoil of the Midwest. Once the valuable soil beneath our prairies was discovered, the tallgrass prairies disappeared quickly. In just 50 years, the prairies were replaced by farm crops and pastures for livestock.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

Today, there are less than one hundredth of one percent of the tallgrass prairies remaining in Illinois.

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Yellow Coneflower

We are so fortunate that volunteers are working to restore Midewin. They carefully harvest the seeds of wildflowers and grasses, spread the seeds, remove invasive plants, maintain the trails, and teach visitors about this valuable prairie.

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Top: Red Spotted Purple butterfly, Black Swallowtail butterfly  Bottom: dragonflies on native grasses

The prairie wildflowers and grasses attract many pollinators vital to the restoration process. As we hiked, we were entertained by the birds, bees, butterflies, and dragonflies. Cicadas were singing loudly in the afternoon sun.

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We hiked along the Iron Bridge trail in search of  bison grazing on the prairie. Chatting with other hikers, we learned that none of them had seen any bison and were returning to the trailhead. So, we decided to turn off on another trail. I stopped to admire the Queen Anne’s Lace blooming profusely, and something moving near the horizon caught my eye. Could it be?

 As we watched, we could just barely see a line of bison moving through the tallgrass and native flowers. We decided to quickly hike up to a higher place on the trail and stopped to watch the herd of bison moving. It was truly an unforgettable moment to see these huge, iconic creatures moving across the prairie!

Bison played a very important role in our history, as the Native American hunters followed them across the plains. Bison provided food, clothing, and shelter to the Native Americans.

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In the Fall of 2015, Midewin introduced bison to the prairie, in an experiment planned to last 20 years. Midewin prairie ecologists are studying the bison to see if their grazing patterns will benefit the ecosystem of the tallgrass prairie. Bison feed only on grasses, opening the prairie to more flowers and other plants. This attracts a variety of birds, insects, and other animals, increasing the biodiversity of the tallgrass prairie.

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The bison herd at Midewin, relocated from Colorado and South Dakota, includes 24 adults and 12 young bison. Just this week, two bison calves were born. As we watched them walking in a straight line, tails swishing, I was able to count 18 bison in this herd. Next time, we will bring binoculars!

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Hedge apples (Maclura pomifera), also known as Osage oranges and Bois d’arc

Turning off onto the Hedge Apple Trail, we passed a tree laden with this bumpy fruit. The Osage People used the strong, flexible wood from these trees to make their bows. These trees were often planted as wind breaks to prevent soil erosion. Their sharp thorns turned rows of Hedge Apple trees into cattle-deterring hedges, before the invention of barbed wire for fences.

As we walked along the trail, we were greeted by vast areas filled with Queen Anne’s Lace in bloom. We followed a smaller trail deeper into the prairie. I stopped and spun around very s-l-o-w-l-y taking in all of this natural beauty. It felt just like I was standing in the middle of a beautiful, watercolor painting!

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As we hiked, these Yellow Coneflowers, with their drooping yellow petals were among my very favorite prairie plants. It was fascinating to discover that so many plants from my cottage gardens at home are native wildflowers. Aster, Spiderwort, Beebalm, Purple Coneflower, ‘Blazing Star’ Liatris, Marsh Phlox, Obedient Plant, Allium, Black-Eyed Susan, and Anemones grow in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and in the garden at our ‘Little House Near the Prairie.’  🙂

If you ever have the chance to walk through a tallgrass prairie, it is an experience that you will always remember! Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a treasure… and one that will continue to teach us to care for the land in so many important ways!

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Thanks so much for walking through the tallgrass prairie with us today!

Have you ever visited a prairie?

Do you grow any native prairie plants in your garden?

Happy August days!

♡Dawn

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31 thoughts on “Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

  1. You do great justice to the prairie, Dawn, especially the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It is exciting to read that the Bison are thriving and that you were able to see them. It has been a few years since we’ve visited Midewin. Your post compels me to go again.
    I did not know that the wood from the Osage trees were used for arrows. Thank you for telling us this. The apples are great in Autumn and winter arrangements (and I know a good place to gather them).
    Your photos are lovely. I like how you captured the different phases of the Queen Anne.
    Well, you know my love of prairies . . . I think I’ve asked before, but, have you been to the Wolf Road Prairie?

  2. Oh, thank you, Penny! You must plan another visit to Midewin. Be sure to bring your binoculars (or borrow some from the Welcome Center). It was such a powerful experience to witness the bison herd walking across the prairie! We just happened to be in the right place at the right time, for other visitors didn’t see them as they hiked along the Iron Bridge trail. The Volunteer Rangers were so engaging and eager to share so much information about the tallgrass prairie. It was really a great day for us! The cooler weather on Saturday was perfect for hiking.

    The wood from the Osage trees was used to make the bows. It’s flexible, yet very sturdy. The Native Americans found so many interesting ways to live off the land. I love to fill a basket with Osage oranges in Autumn. It’s hard to find an Osage tree in our neighborhood, so you are lucky to have a special gathering place! 🙂

    I thought of you often, as we walked through the tallgrass prairie. Thank you for reminding me about the Wolf Road Prairie! Next weekend looks perfect for walking, so maybe we can visit there. I am captivated with the simple, quiet beauty of prairies… and want to learn more, more, more!
    Wishing you a wonderful start to August, dear Penny! Rabbit! Rabbit!

  3. The Wolf Road Prairie is fascinating to wander through. It was actually saved by the Great Depression. I just this past week read about a prairie I did not know of on in the southern ‘burbs. I think it is called the Paintbrush Prairie. Tom and I are hoping to visit it soon.
    Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit! 🙂

  4. Heartfelt thanks, Penny, for sharing so much prairie inspiration! Summertime sounds like a perfect time to visit Paintbrush Prairie, too! Doesn’t the name conjure up the most wonderful images? We will definitely check them out! We both love prairie walks. He teaches me about the insects and I teach him about the flowers. So much to learn! Can you believe that August is here? Today will be a wonderful day in the garden! Enjoy, my friend! ♡

  5. Awesome pics!!!!! And you got to see the bison yeah!!!!!!!!!! They were out of view the day we were there. Thanks so much for posting this, it’s almost as good as being there. Hugs!

  6. What a wonderful escape! Thanks for taking me along! I miss the Midwest so much, especially now when we are just scorching here, and the earth is opening with huge cracks because it is so dry. We have not had rain since June. But that is West Texas and you think I would get used to it after 23 years, but this Ohio girl probably never will.
    Interestingly, there was an Osage Orange next to the creek when I first moved here. I was so surprised to see it. I gathered up some of the fruit and put it in a basket on my potting bench. Every morning there was one less fruit, until they were all gone. I am thinking raccoons! Haven’t checked that spot in years, but maybe I will wander to the creek and take a look and see if it survived the drought.
    Thanks again for the escape from this triple digit heat. Hope to get home in September/October for a visit.
    Chris

  7. There is a cemetery, Starr’s Grove, that is contained in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie which contains the graves of several of my spouse’s cousins who came from New York to the Illinois frontier. It is wonderful to see the photos of the kind of land they came to back in the 1800’s. I have been hoping to visit Midewin, Wolf Road and Paintbrush Prairies for quite awhile. I also hope to visit Starr’s Grove cemetery. Thanks for the lovely photos of our wildflowers and the bison. I wonder if the cousins saw bison when they came here to start a new life on the prairie.

  8. Many thanks, Lisa! ♥ We planned our visit because of your rave reviews of Midewin when you were in town for the North American Prairie Conference. I am so impressed by and grateful for the work they are doing to restore the tallgrass prairie. We were most fortunate to have a cool day for exploring. Late July was a perfect time to visit since there was so much in bloom. I felt like I was walking through a watercolor painting, as the flowers danced in the breeze! We were so lucky to be in the right place at the right time to see the bison herd. It was a moment!!!! I was close to tears, just imagining what the pioneer families saw as they traveled in their covered wagons. We plan to visit Midewin again throughout the seasons. We are following your list of prairie favorites!

    You must come visit The Prairie State again, Lisa! It would be such fun to walk through the prairies with you, soaking up all of your knowledge about these native treasures! Thanks so much for stopping to visit this morning, Lisa! Waving from our ‘Little House Near the Prairie!’ ♡

  9. So happy to see you today, Chris! I just had to share the beauty of the tallgrass prairie. For us, it felt like a wonderful respite from our busy days. I’m so glad that it brought you a brief escape from the scorching heat of West Texas. It would be a huge adjustment for a Midwestern girl to endure the hot Texas summers each year!!

    I love your story about the Osage Oranges! What fun to see if they are still growing there! I haven’t seen any Osage Orange trees in our neighborhood. But a friend told me about her ‘secret’ tree nearby. Osage Oranges always make me think of Autumn. So, perhaps they will help you countdown the weeks until cooler weather arrives!

    I’ve been thinking of you, Chris, and wondering if you were able to see Susan at Book People during her booksigning tour? I’d love to hear all about it! Let’s email soon. I’d love to hear your latest news. Keep dreaming of cooler days… and b.r.e.a.t.h.e. 🙂 Wishing you gentle rains over your garden very soon! ♡

  10. Hi, Aquila! So happy that stopped to visit and share more interesting details about Midewin. Starr’s Grove must be be such a peaceful place of rest. The whole area is gorgeous, thanks to the work of the USDA Forest Service and countless volunteers. We only saw a small glimpse of the area on Saturday. So, we will definitely return often. There is no entry charge. Free tours and binoculars on loan are available, too. I hope you are lucky enough to see the bison when you visit Midewin! You will feel a real connection to the beauty of the land that your cousins experienced! Thanks for being here, Aquila. ♥ Wishing you only good things in August! ♡

  11. Truly my pleasure, Marcia! I was delighted to see so many blossoms dancing in the breeze. In July, we had twice our normal rainfall, so the prairie plants with their lengthy root systems should thrive. It was fun to see so many flowers from my own garden growing in the prairie. The bison were such a vital part of American history. It was just lovely to see them walking through the prairie eating grasses and swishing their tails! Such a huge treat!! Thanks so much for visiting today, Marcia! ♡

  12. Rabbit, rabbit! So very pleased to have you as our guide to the prairie and remarkable bison. Some things, like friendship, are meant to last!

  13. Rabbit! Rabbit! Wishing you only the best in the new month, dear Anne! We were both so happy as we hiked and admired the beauty of the prairie. It’s such a peaceful place to walk. The bison have 1,200 acres to roam freely. They need a great deal of space. Bison weigh up to 2,000 lbs and can run as fast as 45 mph for five miles! They can do a standing vertical jump of six feet! The bison habitat at Midewin is surrounded by seven miles of six-foot tall fencing. As we watched them, the bison always appeared to move in a straight line. As they changed direction and walked closer to us, it looked like they were playing ‘Follow the Leader’ across the tallgrass prairie! Flocks of birds were flying near the bison herd. It will be so interesting to discover the impact these remarkable creatures have on the the prairie during this 20-year experiment!

    “Some things, like friendship, are meant to last!” So true… and so beautiful, my dear friend! Sending big hugs! ♡

  14. Dawn,
    What a wonderful site. I’m always encouraged when I read that there are efforts to preserve some our natural wonders. What a fun outing and beautiful hike this must have been.
    Thank you for sharing.
    xo,
    Karen

  15. Thank you, Julie! I took so many photos that day. There was beauty everywhere I looked! You have the perfect walking trail, Julie. I’m sure that it changes each day, so it’s fun to notice the subtle changes. Nature revives our spirit… always! Thanks so much for visiting today! ♡

  16. Hi, Karen! Two nature-loving friends had recommended a prairie walk through Midewin. I’m so grateful that they did! We have seen the sign along the highway for a few years, but never took the time to stop and check it out. I’m delighted that we found a nice, leisurely Saturday and could enjoy the tallgrass prairie in full bloom! My husband enjoys watching the insects, while I admire the flowers. So, something for everyone! The chance to watch the bison roam across the prairie was truly the ‘icing on the cake!’ We will always remember that experience! The dedication of countless volunteers under the direction of the USDA Forestry Service has gifted the ‘Prairie State’ by restoring an amazing part of our historic landscape. ♥ We are so very grateful!
    Hope your summer is going well, Karen! It’s really going fast, isn’t it? I’m so happy that you stopped to visit today! ♡

  17. Hi Summer! Thanks for your kind words this morning. Prairies are a very special part of our history here. We are so grateful that people are taking care of our prairies. Your garden looks so pretty, too! Thanks so much for stopping to visit today, Summer! ♡

  18. Dawn, thank you so much for sharing about your special visit to the Midewin Prairie and for teaching me about this fascinating ecosystem. I love the way you describe the tall grasses and the Prairie Schooners. How wonderful your community has taken great pains to restore such a valuable part our world. I’m so happy you spotted the bison! How thrilling to see such magnificent animals. Your photos make me want to visit this area and see the lovely flowers blooming. We have many of these natives growing in our area. This year has been a wonderful year for Queen Anne’s Lace. It’s so nice seeing it bloom along the highways. I love that you have many of these natives growing in your “Little House on the Prairie.” ♥

  19. Hi, Martha Ellen! The Queen Anne’s Lace was just stunning in the prairie. Standing in the midst of the prairie blossoms truly felt like I was standing in the middle of a watercolor painting! We were so lucky to see the bison that day. It’s fascinating to learn about how those dedicated volunteers and the Forestry Department are working step-by-step to restore Midewin. It is truly a labor of love! We are planning to visit throughout the seasons. We were so fortunate to have experienced a lovely summer day on the prairie! If I transplanted all of the native plants sprinkled throughout our perennial beds into one area, we would have a little patch of prairie of our very own. 🙂 You’ll never guess what I’ve been thinking all week long… Thanks so much for stopping to visit tonight, Martha Ellen! You are never more than a thought away, my friend! ♡

  20. What a beautiful post that drew me to your site this gorgeous Sunday morning Dawn. I felt I was right there talking the hike with you. Every single picture is so well captured and explained. To view the bison in their natural habitat had to be an adrenaline rush. Thanks for sharing the Prairies with us, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it first hand, (except in National Geographic), so going with you on your journey was just wonderful! Happy Sunday.

  21. Oh, Loretta! Thank you so much for your kind words! There was so much beauty everywhere we looked in the prairie. (I took 150 photos!) It was hard to choose which ones to share. The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is such a wonderful place to learn about the prairies that covered our state long ago. Its quiet, natural beauty transports us back to simpler times. It felt like an oasis of peace! I think I left a bit of my heart there, so I look forward to visiting Midewin again and again. Happy Sunday, dear Loretta! ♡

  22. What a wonderful transformation from a place that made something that took life to a place that is teaming with new life. I’ve never been to anything like this, but know I would love it. Your photos are wonderful. The line of bison put the biggest smile on my face. I’m not sure why that tickled me so much but it did. I’m so happy to see you out and about, enjoying your wonderful surroundings. Thanks for sharing the beauty with us.

  23. Oh, thank you, Cathy! I kept stopping to admire the prairie blossoms as we walked. We were surrounded by beautiful sights and sounds as we hiked. Thank you for stopping to visit today! ♡

  24. You would love this prairie, Alys! Although I knew that the bison herd was always moving across the Midewin prairie, I really hoped we might be fortunate to catch a glimpse of them. It was really hard to believe it when I spotted them moving along the horizon! We made our way to a higher part of the trail and the bison kept walking closer and closer. It was a hike that we will always remember! Thanks so much for stopping to visit today, Alys! ♡

  25. Heartfelt thanks, JoHanna! Living in the Prairie State my entire life has made me appreciate the little bits of prairie that remain in Illinois. The incredible efforts of countless volunteers to restore the Midewin prairie is just remarkable. When I saw the line of bison walking across the prairie, I was close to tears! I often think about the brave pioneer families that crossed our land in their prairie schooners with great admiration. Standing in the midst of the tallgrass prairie was a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ moment that I will always treasure! So happy that you stopped to visit, JoHanna! ♡

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