Cemetery Prairies Preserve the State’s Horticultural History
Pioneers who first traveled west, across the land we now call Illinois, found acre after acre of prairie. Plants that are now very rare blanketed nearly 22 million acres of the landscape, providing habitat for a diverse collection of animals. Early accounts by those traveling across Illinois indicate white flowers stretching as far as the eye could see. Those flowers would have been the now federally threatened Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid, according to Chris Benda, botanist and past president of the Illinois Native Plant Society. Benda says very few areas exist where true virgin, undisturbed prairie habitats remain.
“When Illinois was being settled, people would bury their loved ones out in the prairie. So, they would section off a little bit and that was where they would have gravestones,” Benda explains. “As more and more land was converted to agriculture, these little cemetery prairies were left intact. Often these areas were mowed, but they were never plowed.”
He says pioneer cemetery prairies are the best examples of black soil prairie remnants remaining in a pristine, natural condition. As prairie enthusiasts began to discover these areas in the 1960s and 1970s, they asked cemetery associations to stop mowing them, and many complied. Several of the 1- to 5-acre plots are now protected as Illinois nature preserves. A very small percentage of the original high-quality tallgrass prairie now remains in Illinois – just 2,200 acres out of the original 22 million. Benda believes nearly 30 cemetery prairies exist across the state, and says the finest examples are in the east-central part of Illinois.
“The trifecta of pioneer cemetery prairies, in my opinion, are the nature preserves Loda Cemetery and Prospect Cemetery,” Benda says, referring to sites in Iroquois and Ford counties. “Then there is another site nearby called Pellsville Cemetery that is not a nature preserve, but is very high quality.”
Munson Township Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Henry County and Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in McLean County are others that represent true prairie habitat. Benda says indicators include the presence of specific plants like the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid or White Lady’s Slipper Orchid, or animals such as the prairie cicada. He says other areas also offer a glimpse into the former landscape of Illinois.
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“There are also prairies that are on slopes called hill prairies,” Benda says. “Our hill prairies are along our major river corridors, like the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. Places like Fults Hill Prairie in Monroe County are truly priceless areas with incredible diversity of plants and animals.”
Fults Hill Prairie contains scorpions – not common in Illinois – as well as plants like Missouri coneflower and wooly buckthorn that are much more prevalent in Missouri. Cave Creek Glade Nature Preserve in Johnson County is also full of prairie plants, and likely one of the finest nature preserves in Illinois, according to Benda.
7 Preserved Prairies
Benda cautions that while nature preserves are open to the public, visitors must be vigilant in protecting the animal and plant life there. Everything within a dedicated Illinois nature preserve is protected by law and nothing is allowed to be removed.
While pioneer cemetery prairies exist to remember and honor those who faced the challenges of settling the untamed prairies, these tallgrass prairie remnants now also represent an important part of our biological heritage, and they merit continued support and protection.
While nature preserves are open to the public, visitors must be vigilant in protecting the animal and plant life there. Everything within a dedicated Illinois nature preserve is protected by law, and nothing is allowed to be removed.