July 14 is bright and muggy, the sun burning through haze and massing clouds, as Charlotte Adelman introduces members of the Winnetka Weeders to the world that lives in the Centennial Park Prairie Garden.
As she tells her listeners about the tall grass prairie that sits just south of the Wilmette Park District’s Centennial Park pool, Monarch butterflies flutter and swoop in circles, stopping to light on bushes of common milkweed, their tiny bunched blush- and ivory-tinted flowers outrageously and unexpectedly fragrant.
Black and red beetles navigate the milkweed stems, while bumblebees investigate other flowers; brilliant clusters of orange butterfly milkweed that Adelman calls perfect showy blooms for any garden, ethereal clouds of purple vervain, tall and slender early sunflowers that nod in the wind, bright mounds of delicate eastern daisies.
Higher in the sky, red-winged blackbirds – native to Illinois but all too rare in urban and suburban areas – circle and flit, occasionally perching in the branches of one of the swamp or burr oaks that border the garden. Adelman points them out, saying “They’re living here now; they may be nesting! I was beside myself with joy when I realized that!”
The dozen or so Winnetka Weeders, who’ve come from Wilmette, Winnetka, Northbrook, Evanston and beyond, listen intently to Adelman as she enthusiastically introduces them to towering stalks of broad-leafed water-hoarding cup plants (“goldfinches and butterflies love them; they’re like a water fountain and a birdfeeder”) and impressive clusters of Joe Pye weed, its pale pink and white florets waving above almost everyone’s head, capable of attracting dozens of different native butterflies. Two goldfinches streak across the 1.5-acre garden during Adelman’s talk. Later this summer, more will arrive as the seeds of flowering plants swell and become attractive food for them.
Wilmette resident Carol Callahan organized the tour for the club: “I’ve had a real passion for this garden since it was put in, and it’s just such an amazing amenity that more people should know about. A lot of our members didn’t even know it was here.”
Adelman, an attorney, Midwestern plant specialist, and co-author of “The Midwestern Native Garden” with husband Bernard Schwartz, is more than happy to act as a native plant guide.
She plans another tour later this summer, with the Little Garden Club of Wilmette. (That group, with which she’s connected, works to educate gardeners on ways they can create their own Monarch butterfly haven gardens in front or back yards.) And she wants to do more tours, especially with young people.
“Frankly, I’d really like to be able to bring children here, have tours from schools or churches and synagogues, and show them what we have smack dab in the middle of Wilmette,” she said the day before she met with the Winnetka Weeders.
Adelman’s interest in the prairie garden is very personal; it’s largely her creation. She first approached the park district in 2009, asking for space to provide refuge and space to recreate at least a segment of Illinois’ vanishing tall grass prairie.
Although Illinois is known as the prairie state, precious little prairie remains. Of roughly 22 million acres that Illinois had in 1820, only about 2,000 acres remain. As prairie disappeared, so did native birds and insects, who depended on the prairie for food and reproductive space. Some had difficulty adapting to imported plants like lawn grass and non-native flowers. Others, like the monarchs, couldn’t adapt at all. Every new acre of prairie helps, she argued.
In 2010 district officials agreed to let her and Wilmette Boy Scout Joe Bruner work in the space south of the pool complex, at the time a grassy detention pond. The two planted upland prairie flowers, grasses and plants in five areas around garden border, then added more plants, like big blue stem grass and coneflowers. The park district hired a prairie restoration company to prepare the garden’s Midwest ecosystem by removing swamp oaks – native, but not part of the tall grass prairie – and planting a mix of wetland prairie plant seeds, much of that purchased by Adelman.
The garden has grown and changed since 2010, and more seasons will turn before each species in the former detention pond flowers. Eventually, dozens of species will bloom, fade and rise again yearly. With deep roots, the hardy plants won’t have to be watered, and need only the occasional controlled burn or cut back to thrive.
Today, Adelman is in her element as she points out red-stemmed dogbane and burgundy-tinged Sullivant’s milkweed, yet another butterfly home and food source, and answers questions about prairie maintenance (not extensive, except for the need to weed out invasive species like the misnamed Canadian thistle, actually a Eurasian import).
By the end of the tour, several Winnetka Weeders are almost as enthusiastic as Adelman.
“This is amazing,” club president Sara Wood says. “I wish more people knew about it.”
“This is the first time I’ve seen this,” Winnetkan Rebeca Massey says. “But my husband just loves common milkweed. I think I’m going to turn a corner of the garden into my own little prairie garden.”
For more information on the species you can find at the Centennial Prairie Garden, check the Wilmette Park District website at www.wilmettepark.org/prairie-garden. To learn about the garden clubs, visit the Winnetka Weeders at www.winnetkaweeders.org, and the Little Garden Club of Wilmette at www.facebook.com/pages/Little-Garden-Club-of-Wilmette/1447770958801270.