Into the Wild: Pecatonica Ridge Prairie a legacy for future generations

Displays of pale purple coneflowers, pasque flowers (pictured) and other species are enhanced. (Photo provided)

Into the Wild

In recognition of the United Nations designation of 2010 as the Year of Biodiversity, the Four Rivers Environmental Coalition and The Rock River Times present this bi-weekly series to help readers discover the amazing array of plants and animals in the rivers, prairies and woodlands “in our own back yard.” FREC is an alliance of 35 member organizations “dedicated to educating and advocating for the plants, animals, natural resources and ecosystems of the Four Rivers Region.” Please visit

By Suzette Merchant

Pecatonica Ridge is a rare gem of original prairie nestled in the countryside east of Pecatonica, Ill. It is one of only about 250 fragments scattered throughout our Prairie State that has survived in good condition.

The Natural Land Institute (NLI) purchased Pecatonica Ridge Prairie in 2005. With the support of its members, the not-for-profit land conservation organization was able to respond quickly when the farm with the precious prairie was listed for sale at auction.
Pasque flowers and prairie smoke are the earliest of spring-blooming flowers.

In late June to early July, pale purple coneflowers and leadplant cover the hillside. Other grasses and wildflowers include porcupine grass, prairie dropseed, little bluestem, rosinweed and New Jersey tea.

Songbirds include dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow, field sparrow and Eastern meadowlark. Sandhill cranes and great blue herons can be observed from the prairie as they move to and from their nesting areas along the Pecatonica River. The preserve provides habitat for fox, badgers, deer and coyotes.

Because the original prairie covers only about 8 acres of the 80-acre preserve, NLI staff and volunteers have worked to restore wildflowers and grasses to 32 acres on the rocky hillside next to the remnant. They collected seeds from plants within a 10-mile radius and planted them over a three-year period.

Asters, sunflowers and black-eyed Susans now cover the restoration area, filling the gap between the prairie and the 40-acre wetland on the north side of the preserve. Displays of pale purple coneflowers, pasque flowers and other species are enhanced. Populations of shooting stars, heart-leaved golden Alexander, fringed puccoon and prairie violet are increasing.

Volunteers also provide stewardship at Pecatonica Ridge Prairie. They help conduct prescribed burns to clear out unwanted brush and weeds, to release nutrients from burned plants and to help seeds grow by breaking their protective coats. Volunteers remove brush and invasive species that threaten to choke out native plants.

Native prairies like Pecatonica Ridge are rare in Illinois. John White, chief ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in the 1980s and designer of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in the 1970s, visited the prairie in 2005 and wrote:

“It takes an extraordinary combination of good fortunes to allow a prairie to persist into the 21st century in Illinois.

“In the case of Pecatonica Ridge Prairie, it was a combination of three factors: (1) an unusual physical environment (thin, rocky, limestone soil that favors native prairie plants), (2) a fluke in land use and local geography (a pasture without a water supply), and (3) ultimately and most importantly, landowners who saw and appreciated the beauty and rarity of the prairie flowers—and who intentionally kept the prairie safe in recent years.”

NLI was founded in 1958 and has its headquarters in Rockford. It promotes voluntary private land conservation for the benefit of our local communities and natural ecosystems in northern Illinois, and it is a long-term caretaker of the wetlands that border our rivers, the prairies that adorn our hillsides, and the woodlands that provide ciritical wildlife habitat.

Access to Pecatonica Ridge Prairie is limited to events hosted by the NLI. The public is invited to attend the annual Pasque Flower Walk at 6 p.m., April 1. For information, call (815) 964-6666, e-mail or visit

From the March 30-April 5, 2011 issue

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