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No rain? No matter at Somme
Some plants won't bloom, but savanna bears drought

Thursday, August 04, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Barbara Brotman

Have your garden plants been crying for water?

This is the sound of savanna wildflowers: Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah.

The native plants in the 90-acre Somme Prairie Grove in Northfield were built for drought. Some have roots 20 feet deep. Even the shallow-rooted plants can take it, though they may also take a pass this year on blooming.

So behold: Natural glory in the form of a restored oak savanna, a grassland with trees.

There are bright, bobbing heads of purple prairie clover; small pod-like flowers that look like tiny white brains but are called rattlesnake master; nodding wild onion bowing delicately on their slender stems; tall wisps of big bluestem grass, sectioned like bamboo; and so many other wildflowers that when Stephen Packard reels off their exotic names, it's hard to keep up.

"Five thousand years, it looked like this," said Packard, director of Audubon-Chicago Region, one of the founders of the North Branch Restoration Project and site steward of the Somme Prairie Grove.

Twenty-five years ago it looked like a dump. Teenagers drove in to party, leaving tire tracks and car seats.

But Packard saw the possibilities. He and the other restoration volunteers had begun restoring a nearby prairie. Somme's open areas were, essentially, prairie.

And so they turned to the Somme savanna. In cooperation with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, volunteers by the hundreds cleared invasive buckthorn. They fanned out to gather wildflower seeds, then planted them. They set controlled fires that cleared the way for the wildflowers to blaze back even stronger, as lightning-sparked fires once did.

Their labors have borne luscious fruit.

Stand in the grove, and you can still hear the traffic on Dundee Road and planes overhead. But you see nothing but savanna--waving wildflowers dotted with oaks, some of them 350 years old. Overhead, look for savanna birds: indigo buntings, great crested fly catchers, the once-threatened Cooper's hawk.

Also a plant that can walk. It is porcupine grass, which produces a seed pod with a spiral tail nearly a foot long. The tail coils and uncoils as it gets wet and dries out, propelling the seed across the ground.

There are also eight species of endangered plants, which Packard is not at liberty to name or point out. People have been known to return later and dig them up for their own gardens, though their crime probably doesn't pay. The plants can't live anywhere but the complex community where volunteers have coaxed them back.

What if nature had been left to run its course here? Packard walked just a few steps from sunny prairie into dark, ominous woods so choked with buckthorn that no light can reach the floor. In the absence of wildflowers, it was mud.

"It's a death zone," he said. "There's nothing. Just garlic mustard and buckthorn."

Back on the savanna, the wind rushed through the distant trees. A king bird swooped by, hoping to catch flies as we stirred them with our walking.

So what's to do here?

Walk. Draw. Paint. Photograph. Watch birds. Count butterflies. Sit and look around.

Jane Whedbee and Rafael Sanchez were wandering knee deep in flowers and grasses when I wandered by. Whedbee, a public school librarian who lives in Edgewater, was identifying wildflowers, field guide in hand. Sanchez, of Sauganash and until recently a school assistant principal, was hoping to spot an indigo bunting.

They pressed Packard into service identifying flowers. They had visited two weeks earlier, but the nature show was completely different because different flowers were in bloom. Whedbee was planning to return two weeks later to see the next performance. Sanchez asked Packard about volunteering.

"I love being here," Sanchez said. "It's beautiful."

We headed back through an oak woodland, the trees spaced widely and sun dappling the flowers below. The first white settlers had described such woods as so open you could gallop a horse through, Packard said.

There is something else you can do at a prairie or savanna: Help restore it.

Volunteer groups in area forest preserves welcome help. Their work days are posted on the North Branch Restoration Project's Web site (

"It is now a major recreational activity in all the forest preserves," said Packard, whose group holds bonfire barbecues in winter. "It's fun, sort of like Habitat for Humanity, but for nature."

Stand in the savanna, look around and see the past. And maybe, if enough people join the restoration fun, the future.

Full moon alert

Wouldn't it be cool to see a full moon rise over Lake Michigan from a kayak?

On Aug. 19, is offering a sunset/moonrise kayak trip off Montrose Beach from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. And if you can't make the full moon that evening, the almost-full moon on Aug. 17 or 18 should be almost as good.

The trip uses stable sit-on-top beach kayaks, costs $20 and leaves from the east end of Montrose Beach. For more information or reservations, visit or call 708-445-0341.

Northwest Passage also will offer a moonlight paddle on Aug. 19 from Gillson Beach in Wilmette. The trip will be from 6 to 8 p.m. and costs $40. For more information, visit or call 800-RECREATE (732-7328).

- - -

If you go

From Chicago, take the Edens Expressway to Dundee Road west. Turn right on Waukegan Road (Illinois Highway 43). Go .5 miles, then turn left into a gravel parking lot in front of the sign for Somme Woods Prairie.

Take a map from the wood box labeled "Site Information." The other box, labeled "Mouse House," is just that, built by volunteers who saw that mice enjoyed the map box. Open it to look at the white-footed mice, which are cute even to a mouse-phobe.

Wear long pants and spray your ankles to avoid chiggers.

For a list of prairies throughout the Chicago area, visit the Web site of the Chicago Wilderness coalition at

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