House on the Little Prairie 

When a Wilmette couple transformed their backyard with native plants, it wasn't long before the idea took root with their neighbors too.

Not long after moving into their Wilmette home in 1972, nature lovers Charlotte Adelman and Bernard L. Schwartz decided to plant some shrubs to attract birds. "What we put in had berries and thorns," says Schwartz, "but it wasn't native to the area. At that point we weren't really informed. But they did attract more birds than what we'd had."

"We were out there planting daylilies," says Adelman.

"They're nice," says Schwartz.

"They're nice for China," Adelman rejoins, noting that the Eurasian plant is not native to Illinois. "We were at fault as much as anybody," she continues. "But we've mended our ways."

These days the pair of retired attorneys--he was a Cook County public defender; she specialized in divorce work--are advocates of native prairie vegetation, and last year they coauthored and self-published the Prairie Directory of North America (available at www.lawndaleenterprises.com). The first of its kind, the 352-page guide lists prairies throughout the U.S. and Canada; 50 pages are devoted to Illinois and include the pristine 5.3-acre James Woodworth Prairie Preserve in Glenview, where Adelman volunteers, the North Park Village Nature Center prairie on Chicago's northwest side, and an unnamed tract alongside Green Bay Road between McCormick Boulevard and the Evanston-Wilmette border.

"One-tenth of one percent of native Illinois prairie is left, and it's still being destroyed," says Adelman, noting that prairies exist only in North America, between the Rocky Mountains and the forests of the east; Illinois itself is a mix of savannah, forest, and tallgrass prairie, which is 60 percent grass and 40 percent flowering plants. "When the pioneers came here there were 22 million acres of prairie in what is now Illinois," says Adelman. "There are so few left. They're all fragmented and separated.

"If people visit and know about the prairie they'll respect it and try to protect it," she says. "I'm hoping they'll maybe plant some prairie plants in their backyards and help the native creatures and give some money to prairie preservation and, if it comes to a vote, they'll vote to save it instead of turning it into another shopping center."

Although they'd always gone for a natural look in the yard, the couple didn't get serious about going native until the early 90s. "I was walking my dog one day when I saw a goldfinch sitting on a purple coneflower in someone's front yard," says Adelman. "The colors were beautiful--a brilliant lemon yellow bird with black wings on a purple coneflower with purple petals and an orange, iridescent mound of seeds in the center. It was a prairie scene in miniature, and I thought, 'I want to create that in my backyard.'"

That spring Schwartz turned over a ten-by-ten plot of soil and Adelman planted seeds from a prepackaged prairie mix they got at the local nursery. A short time later, plants started to come, followed by goldfinches and other birds, animals, and insects. The following year they decided to turn their entire 50-by-100-foot backyard into a prairie. They hired a botanist who specialized in prairie plants to turn over the lawn in the fall so the grass would die over the winter. ("It's better to plant it in an empty space as opposed to having a lot of competition from other things that are growing," says Adelman.) In the spring the expert sowed a variety of native flora such as compass plants, pokeweed, joe-pye weed, buttercups, bottlebrush grass, and blue columbine. After regular watering the seedlings started to sprout, and soon the yard bloomed, attracting even more birds, along with bees, butterflies, and other insects such as milkweed beetles and hummingbird moths.

"We also planted native honeysuckle vine, which has orange tubular flowers, hoping that hummingbirds would be attracted to it," says Adelman. "One day I looked out the window, and there's a hummingbird on my native honeysuckle flowers. You kind of gasp when that happens."

Over the years, the colorful, wild-looking yard evolved into more of an ecosystem than a garden; it's constantly changing color--from pink, blue, and lavender flowers in the spring to yellows in the autumn. "It's not like seeing a green lawn and pink impatiens all the time," says Adelman. "I tried a lot of things, and a lot of things have failed. The seeds move around. If something doesn't do well, another plant will take over. It gives it an English-garden look--there are many things blooming in wild randomness. It gives you a feeling of going with the flow."

Because their fence is tall and the prairie is in the backyard, village officials can't see much of it, and neither can the neighbors, who Adelman says have been more than supportive. The neighbors to the south agreed to let Adelman plant a small patch of big bluestem grass and butterfly milkweed along their shared driveway; it attracts hummingbirds and several types of insects, and now they want more.

"My neighbor on the other side asked me if I'd plant a prairie in her backyard," says Adelman. "We had to put stepladders on either side of the fence so I could go back and forth. Now I water it with a hose over the fence. It's coming along quite nicely--I suspect that in about two years it will be quite filled in and really look good.

"The neighbor beyond has asked for pokeweed in his yard. Even the neighbor farther down on the corner wants me to help her plant an area of grass with prairie plants. They say the future of local butterflies depends on local gardens. If everyone planted a small prairie garden in the backyard, the butterflies who depend on them would have a fighting chance."

Last year Adelman was working on a book about the history and evolution of the prairie when she and Schwartz hit on the idea for the Prairie Directory. "The last chapter was supposed to be where to see them," she says. "It got out of control, there were so many. At that point my husband was kind enough to take over."

He turned the chapter into the directory. The DIY effort includes his cover photo of their backyard and Adelman's illustrations of various plants. Schwartz learned QuarkXPress and typeset the book--an experience he says he'd prefer not to repeat--and did most of the research, combing Web sites, brochures, and publications from state and private organizations for information. "I'd find material that said there were grasslands at such-and-such a place," he says. "I'd call up and it'd be a park or some state preserve and I would ask the person who answered the phone if they have a prairie there. They'd say, 'What's a prairie? What do you mean?'"

Adelman is still working on the history book, and she recently gave the Chicago Public Library a list of ten local prairies that are open to the public, to be used as a resource for readers of Willa Cather's My Antonia (the current pick for the city's "One Book, One Chicago" program), which takes place on the Nebraska prairie. She also recently called an Evanston municipal office to give them a heads-up that people might be asking about the Green Bay Road site. "I spoke to a very nice man who said, 'I drive by it a hundred times a day. Is that a prairie? I didn't know that.' It's so typical that a person lives in the Prairie State and doesn't know what a prairie is."

In spite of the native plants, bird feeders, and dozen birdbaths in the backyard, most of the birds Adelman sees these days are temporary visitors, like some olive-backed thrushes from the north that stopped recently to gorge on pokeweed berries before continuing on to South America. "They have to gain a lot of weight in order to travel," explains Adelman. "With so little prairie left, there's not that much for them to eat."

Most of the locals--chickadees, grackles, and finches--died this summer of West Nile virus. Adelman first noticed the damage in late July, during a walk in her yard. "I was taking a picture of a chickadee, and I noticed it was sick," she says. "The next day it had died--it fell into the bird bath."

"When they were alive, our chickadees came almost every day--except when they were nesting," says Schwartz. "There were 30 or more crows. Now there's not one."

"It's lonely without the birds," says Adelman. "It's like the silent summer."

They do still see black-and-white downy woodpeckers, which feast at the bird feeders outside the rear window and on a recently fallen tree, and once in a while they spot a cardinal or goldfinch. "We also have sparrows and starlings, but we really aren't trying to attract them," says Schwartz. "They were brought here by the British."

The pair also lobby against alien plants that are pushing out the locals--such as the ubiquitous burning bush, a Eurasian native, the "hideous, twisted" Japanese maple, and the deceptively beautiful European purple loosestrife, which is invading the forest preserves and suffocating the indigenous plants--and all other imported vegetation. Adelman is trying to amend the state's Exotic Weed Act to add the burning bush, garlic mustard, and many other plants to the list of aliens that are outlawed in Illinois. She's also been pushing the city of Wilmette to have a garlic mustard pulling day at Keay Nature Center, which she says is full of mustard that edges out local vegetation.

"I happen to have nothing else to do," she admits. "I'm a retired lawyer, and I like to fight."

The couple's other pet peeves include heavily pesticided, "drug-dependent" lawns that must be watered regularly, leaf blowers, and the Illinois Department of Transportation's policy of planting prairies along the expressways and then mowing them down at regular intervals, "before they flower," says Schwartz, "and before the birds nest."

Earlier this summer Adelman ran into U.S. representative Mark Kirk at a street fair in Glenview where she was selling the directory. She told him about IDOT's apparent enthusiasm for mowing and followed up with a letter. He kicked the issue to state senator Kathy Parker, who contacted IDOT, and earlier this month Adelman got a call from someone at the department who said they're going to be "more vigilant" about not mowing the whole thing down. "He said he drove out himself and looked at the area and that it looked bad," says Adelman. "He's going to make sure the guys know they can't mow beyond a certain line and let the rest of it grow."

The roots of some tallgrass plants can go down as far as 20 feet, which is partly why Illinois has such good farmland. "When John Deere's plow came along," says Schwartz, "and turned over the biomass, it made for very rich soil. . . . The prairie absorbs as much carbon dioxide as the rain forest because of the biomass, most of which is below the surface. It does the same thing as planting trees.

"It's particularly unique to America," he adds. "If people want to be patriotic--they usually put flags in front and all that--they should support and help restore prairies."

"Instead of putting red, white, and blue flowers in the front lawn," says Adelman.

"From China," adds Schwartz.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.

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