Into the Wild
Cook County, IL
THE FOREST PRESERVES START HERE — literally. In 1916, a year and a half after its founding, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County purchased 500 acres of land in Palatine, Illinois, the first step toward fulfilling its charter “of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties” of our region. Since then, Deer Grove Forest Preserve has expanded to 1,800 acres. East of Quentin Road, the preserve is developed, with district-run Camp Reinberg and a model airplane lawn. Many users also know the popular preserve for the wide four-mile loop trail, which is maintained for bicyclists, equestrians, skiers, and hikers.
But it is the more natural character of Deer Grove that saved it, and the reason that parts of it are now being considered for Illinois Nature Preserve status. With notable exceptions, the west side is “where the wild things are.” Early purchase prevented farming and the use of pesticides from which so many other areas are still recovering. As a consequence, its wetlands and oak-hickory forests maintain much of their original flora and fauna. The preserve’s large, rolling landscape (which makes for great winter cross-country skiing) channels and holds water in such a way that many of its scattered creeks and pocket marshes are protected from road runoff. This has helped them remain free of invasive weeds and has made them good places for discovering native plants such as lobelias, cinnamon fern, and tufted loosestrife.
Autumn in Deer Grove yields golden leaves and great migratory birdwatching in the woods. In the grassland areas, look for purple, football-shaped bottle gentians, and wait to see a native bumblebee wrestle its way into the flower. Stewards Ron Vargason and Pete Jackson also recommend visiting the woods in the spring, when the spring ephemeral flowers bloom. In late summer, be sure to see the large stand of rough blazing star in the field near the corner of Dundee and Ela Roads, with its sparse and distinct purple flower heads, which inspired one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s windowpanes.
Also in summer, breeding grassland birds such as Henslow’s sparrows and sedge wrens hang out in the large field northwest of the model airplane field in Deer Grove East. Come winter, that same field also hosts northern shrikes and rough-legged hawks.
For 12 years, the Deer Grove Natural Areas Volunteers have been working with the Forest Preserve District to restore Deer Grove, starting to reintroduce fire into appropriate areas and preventing small prairie and savanna remnants along the west edge from being closed in by invasives such as Tartarian honeysuckle. Illegal use of foot trails in the woods by bicycles and other users have caused serious and expensive erosion problems, particularly along an important central ravine, forcing land managers to fence it off. Only trails marked with wooden posts or gray fiberglass pylons are legal for bicycles and equestrians (for the official FPD map, click here). To join a workday, click here or call (847) 577-4438.
— Joe Walsh