Forest Preserve District savanna: River Forest's hidden treasure

? Austin Gardens isn't the only spectacular spring wildflower display. Take a stroll past the Forest Preserve District savanna.

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At the moment it's a colorful quilt of Virginia bluebells, white trillium and greenery that looks uniform though it's anything but. Twelve years ago, however, the northwest corner of the Cook County Forest Preserve District property (by the corner of Bonnie Brae and Quick in River Forest) was an overgrown thicket of trees of heaven and buckthorn, recalled Richard Newhard, director of the Department of Resource Management.

Taking their cue from a 1991 study conducted by Ralph Thornton, the district's land manager, Newhard and Chet Ryndek, then superintendent of Conservation (now retired), decided to open things up a bit.

When they started taking down trees in March 1993, Newhard said, the neighbors were upset. They didn't like the idea because, they thought, instead of trees, they'd be looking at an FPD parking lot.

Newhard said they planted a natural screen of shrubbery along the fence, but anyone looking through that screen, and into the quarter-acre savanna beyond, is in for a treat. Ryndek conducted an inventory before he retired, Newhard said, and discovered "over 50 varieties of herbaceous native plants that had been suppressed by the overstory."

This year, said Newhard with contented understatement, "things are looking pretty good."

An understatement indeed. The occasional oak and ash trees allow plenty of sunlight down to the ground, and the wildflowers are taking full advantage. Newhard noted with satisfaction that many of the homeowners who initially complained are now among the savanna's primary appreciators, coming by with family to take photos. It was an education process, Newhard said, that won them over, but that's part of their mission.

Each year gets a little better without much effort on their part, he noted, as the flowers self-seeded.

"The seed base was already there," he said.

This year may be the best ever because of the unusually balmy April we've enjoyed. And this is the savanna's peak, he said. It's not nearly as colorful in the summer and fall. At the end of each growing season, they mow it all back to give the wildflowers a chance to break through the following spring. Controlled burning of the brush would be best, he says, but people get nervous about that though it's a safe, proven control measure.

Yet even without the burns, "It's looking better this year than in the 20 years I've been with the district," said conservationist Wayne Vanderploeg, as he made his way through the array of spring ephemerals.

He pointed to bloodroot (the sap is red, once used for war paint), trout lilies, sand coreopsis, garlic mustard (invasive, unwanted, they have a "pull" scheduled this week), toothwort (the roots look like teeth), yellow violets, Jacob's ladder, spring beauty (settlers found the bulbs tasty, though he doesn't condone consumption), clusters of mayapples (poisonous, by the way, so he really discourages consumption), and jack in the pulpit, among many others?#34;all of it natural though Vanderploeg suspects the Virginia bluebells may have been transplanted from the woods by the Des Plaines River.

He pulls up a rock and finds an ant colony beneath it. That's good he says. Ants are essential for the spreading of seeds.

The district has not been conducting tours like this for the community, but if anyone is interested, the man to pitch it to is John Elliott, director of education.

Or call Richard Newhard. "I'm proud of it," Newhard said. "And I'm proud that the neighbors have accepted it and feel a sense of ownership."

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