How to Read the Midwestern Landscape

Understanding what you see and observe in the landscape and knowing key indicator plants (axiophytes) aid in identifying each Illinois region community. Learning a few characteristics of each area can help with this identification.

Each area has its separate restoration challenges, however the wetland communities are the most frequently restored regions, followed by prairie, savanna, and woodland, respectively.

Wetlands

Some of the main, topography indications of a wetland are:

  • Standing water during growing season
  • Drift lines
  • Watermarks
  • Sediment deposits

Sometimes because of drain tiles, dams/dikes, or channeling of streams, this might not be as reliable of an indication.

Conducting a soil test is the next test. Wetlands have a hydric soil characteristic described as one or more of the following:

  • predominantly peats or mucks
  • have bluish-gray coloring
  • contain dark streaks of organic material
  • include decomposing plant material

Plant indicators include cattails, bulrushes, cord grass, sphagnum moss, bald cypress, willows, sedges, rushes, arrowheads, and water plantains. Additionally, several types of oak, tamaracks, and pine trees occur in wetlands.

Wetland restoration relies heavily on the hydrology of the location. Generally, when natural water patterns return to an area, the usually, highly viable seed banks of the wetland overwhelm invasives. This makes for the easiest restoration, as most invasives cannot thrive in the wet conditions. Volo Bog is an example of how the returning of hydrology (breaking of drain tiles), along with overseeding, can restore a wetland.

Prairies

prairie land with yellow flowers

Identifying a prairie area should begin with an observation of the layout. Prairies are flat or gently undulating, dominated mostly with grasses, and generally treeless. Some of the plant indicator species include (but not limited to) big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, black oak, round-head bush-clover, butterfly milkweed, lead plant, heath aster, grey headed sunflower, compass plant, and cup plant.

Prairie soils (Mollisol) are very rich in nutrients. This is why many prairies are destroyed to grow other crops.

One challenge of prairie restoration lies in the condition of the site when presented for restoration. This will dictate the amount of time and money needed for the task. Another dilemma is the ability to burn. Many smaller restorations near communities that have banned any type of burning, must use alternate methods for restoration, which may delay the re-establishment for years.

Savannas

savanna land with wildflowers and trees

Savannas are recognized by grassland-like features, with scattered trees that are few enough in number not to affect light penetration to the ground.  Indicator plants consist of: yellow & purple giant hyssop, tall anemone, purple milkweed, prairie brome, cream wild indigo, woodland boneset, oaks, and Jacob’s ladder, to name a few.

Savanna’s restoration issues also lie with ability to burn, but time is also a huge factor. Reconstruction may require the planting of oaks and other native trees, which take years to mature.

Woodland

wooden bridge in woodland area

Woodland is an area with dotted trees where the portion of the land surface covered by the crowns is more than 30% (open woodland) but less than 60% (forest). Indicator species can include; oaks, shagbark hickory, black walnut, bitternut hickory, bottlebrush grass, woodland phlox, elm-leaved goldenrod, cut-leaf coneflower, brown-eyed susan.

The main challenge of restoring woodlands is time. Canopies need time to develop, and the understory elements might need to develop later because of this. Many times money and long-term dedication are the biggest hurdles.

© The Naturarian

10 thoughts on “How to Read the Midwestern Landscape”

  1. I wonder how you would approach a small yard in an urban or older suburban area. We have less than 1/4 acre and I try to make a “prairie-style” garden in front and a woodland garden in back, though in truth we probably don’t have quite as much sun as we should in front. We are in Evanston, about 2 miles from the lake shore. The landscape has been so transformed that it’s hard to imagine what it once was.

    Like

    1. You are in my ‘Designing Hood’! =-)
      I live in Lake Barrington, however have worked in the Northshore area for 8 years.
      Without knowing anything about your yard than what you’ve stated (I’ll go stalk your blog in a sec), however knowing the general area (also assuming you don’t face north)… If you wanted to achieve a better diversity of prairie plants in the front, I’d think about a ‘crown prune/thinning’ on the trees that shade the area. Then assess where the ‘sun pockets’ are during the day and plant sunny-sided type plants there. These pockets are where I like to put grasses, which will flop if denied 8 hours of sun =P
      When it comes to woodland gardens in general, I feel folks miss putting later blooming plants into the landscape. So many plants are ephemeral, then disappear by June. My cure that is to place a larger, later blooming plant in front, so you don’t see the fading foliage.

      Liked by 1 person

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