The North Branch of the Chicago River
Our river is like an umbilical cord that ties together and nourishes the string of forest preserves lining its banks. From the Chicago Botanic Gardens south to LaBagh Woods, the river, as Henry Thoreau once put it, “silently traverses the scene, both creating and adorning it”. Many a pioneer settler swam in its clean waters and a Michael Lochner, who died in 1970 at the age of 101, had fond memories of catching a sturgeon in the river in Morton Grove early in the last century. Man has seriously changed the nature of the stream. A mill dam was built near Dempster Street and another dam below St. Paul picnic grove provided boating recreation for visitors. As our communities grew, many storm sewer outlets released torrents of flood waters into its channel after each rainfall, causing repeated flooding of the flood-plain woodlands drastically changing their ecology. In recent years, with the creation of the deep tunnel under the river from Beckwith Road to the junction with the North Shore Channel, most of these overflows have been greatly reduced. The river offers visitors a canoe trail from Skokie Lagoons near Glencoe all the way to downtown Chicago. Several small dams and occasional fallen trees and flood debris offer the paddlers a challenge not unlike what they would run into when negotiating a wilderness stream in remote country. The fact that such an opportunity exists in our urban midst with the chance to encounter deer and other animals, unusual birdlife, plant life and scenic vistas in all four seasons of the year, is due to the fact that most of its banks have been protected by our system of forest preserves. Bill Koenig, head of the forest preserve district’s volunteer program, is looking to establish a river keepers program for our river.
The Bluebell Project
With a growing deer problem in our local forest preserves, our woodlands have been barren of many of the spring flowers that used to decorate them. Battling the problem of their being shaded out by European buckthorn later in the Spring and crowded out by invasive garlic mustard in early summer, the woodland floor is lacking many of the native species that once adorned it. However, we have discovered several natives that deer evidently find distasteful and so leave them alone. One is ramp or wild leek. But the showiest and the most beautiful of the Spring flowers is the Virginia bluebell, martensia virginica, which colonizes wooded floodplains along our waterways and also creates stands in our woodlands. The striking blue flowers are a welcome sight after a long drab winter, blooming at the same time as many of our early blooming native trees such as wild plum and redbuds. The plants dissapear by June but by then our attention is diverted by many other of mother nature’s offerings.
The bluebell colonies in our woodlands were started about three years ago with a few plants transported from a large colony along our north branch and have made themselves at home as you can see from the following pictures. Contact us to see how you can help spread this beautiful native up and down our river.