Botany lesson with Uncle Alan

Botany lesson with Uncle Alan

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Alan Branhagen, ex-Rockford resident who was director of Resource Management for the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District from 1987 to ’96, and is currently director of Horticulture at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, Mo., was in Rockford from Sept. 12th to the 15th. Alan gave two lectures to the Illinois Master Gardeners Convention at the Clock Tower Resort on Friday the 13th.

I spent part of the 14th with my long-time friend, Uncle Alan, and as usual, I had a great time and learned many things about the outdoors. Alan is not really my uncle; that’s just a given nickname he picked up in Rockford.

We decided to visit a couple of forest preserves that didn’t exist during the Branhagen regime. First, we traveled to Deer Run Forest Preserve located two miles south of Cherry Valley on River Road. We’d just entered the preserve when the critique began.

“Look,” said Alan. “They put the road right through the middle of the field; they cut the habitat in half! They should have put the road way over to the right by the tree line; that would free up the whole middle to become prairie habitat. But with the road cutting through the middle, it opens it up, fragmenting the habitat, and there’s too much bluegrass. They moved too much on each side of the road, which is a waste of manpower, machinery, gasoline and money. I guess they just don’t get it. In forest preserves, nature comes first.”

Uncle Alan was right; that darned mowed bluegrass seemed to stretch to the Wisconsin and Illinois rivers, depending on what side of the van you were looking out of.

The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District’s current vision of making the preserves more people-friendly was hurting the fauna and flora. And this preserve appeared to have just two people in it: us. And on a Saturday afternoon, the people-friendly plan wasn’t working for wildlife or people. Alan had one positive comment: “The fragmented prairie restoration looked to be in good shape.”

We left Mowers Run Wild, oh, I mean Deer Run Forest Preserve, and headed south a couple miles to Oakridge Forest Preserve, unofficially named Dagen’s Bottom because of an alleged group of very active Satanists who live a few miles directly east of the preserve. Oakridge is entered from Blomberg Road, and like the rest of the connected preserves in the area, the Kishwaukee River runs through it. From the get-go, Oakridge looked appealing, from the scoured river banks to the small groups of huge, ancient bur oak trees with savanna and prairie restorations beneath and between them.

First, we ventured toward the canoe launch when I recognized what I thought was burdock. “No, that’s cocklebur,” said Alan. “It’s native, burdock isn’t. Cocklebur likes disturbed soil on flood plains. It likes soil scoured by floods.” Then he showed me one of the prickly seed pods. “See, each pod only has two seeds, and they won’t germinate at the same time; they germinate three months apart, giving the species a bigger window for survival. And look at the prickly stick-to-ya seed pod. The cocklebur pod inspired the invention of Velcro! Yes, that’s a fact.” Wow, being disabled, I know Velcro has made my life easier!

Other plants we observed that do well in disturbed flood plains were smartweed, pigweed and giant ragweed. Higher on the bank we stopped to look at Golden Glow (Rudbeckia), an attractive, tall plant with yellow flowers. Then we examined a yellow-flowered plant called sneezeweed that doesn’t make you sneeze. However, the Native Americans would take the plant, dry it, break it up and use it to induce sneezing in a nasal purification ritual.

Climbing out of the flood plain, we headed for the huge bur oaks as the grasshoppers jumped from the ground in our path, popping up like popcorn, dozens per square yard. The bur oak trees were alive with birds, especially bluebirds young and old, several at a time attacking the savanna prairie restoration, catching the popcorn grasshoppers.

We moved toward other open groves of old bur oaks, examining the lesser-profiled prairie plants and savanna along the way—plants such as frost aster, calico aster, prickly lettuce, gromwell, tall nettle, false sunflower with its almost orange flowers, false boneset and tall boneset. “All the tall boneset flowers in the Midwest except in the Ozarks are female clones. The female plant produces seeds without male flower parts,” explained Alan.

The birds were flying over in flocks now—redwing blackbirds, grackles, cedar waxwings and mourning doves. What little I’d seen of Oakridge Forest Preserve, I liked. Rumor has it that the forest preserve district wants to put campgrounds in the bur oak tree areas. That would be stupid! These areas are teeming with wildlife.

All good things and excursions must come to an end, so we headed back only to be mired in traffic. “I thought the country was in a recession,” exclaimed Alan. “This far east side makes me ill. It’s over-developed, and they just keep building. I hate driving on Puriville.” “That’s Perryville, Alan,” I said, giggling.

Then I pointed out a big, fairly new furniture store. “Dozens of large tamaracks and white pines died for that furniture store, Uncle Alan,” I said.

Then at a red light, I looked at Alan and said, “I think I’ll move to Alabama. It’s wild and undeveloped down there, isn’t it?” “No,” he said. “Most of the trees have been harvested by chipmills to make paper and billboards. Billboards for Alabama with Jesus on them and ads for vasectomy reversals. They’re so worried about getting to heaven, they’ve let hell creep in all around them.”

Cruising down Garrett Lane, we noticed that the Funderburg land between the bike path and the Midway Village forest was mowed very short. I couldn’t help myself; I just had to burst out in song—”Gotta mow, gotta mow, gotta mow, gotta mow, gotta mow, gotta mow, gotta mow”—sung like that “I gotta go” to the bathroom commercial. To our left, a mow, blow and go lawn crew raced from a yard.

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