Named one of the top ten best U.S. Nature Conservancy preserves close to urban areas
5 prairies totaling 427 acres, 1-mile mowed trail at Gensburg, 2 shorter trails at Dropseed
Behind the Scenes
Look for the Franklin’s ground squirrel, a reintroduced prairie dweller
All directions from
Into the Wild
Indian Boundary Prairies
Cook County, IL
Photo: Ron Panzer
On the sandy bed of glacial Lake Chicago in the southern suburb of Markham, the Indian Boundary Prairies (IBPs) comprise the largest remaining examples of high-quality prairie remnants in Illinois. They are a source of such pride for the community of Markham that the city adopted the phrase “Prairie Capital of the Prairie State.”
There are five sites that together constitute the Indian Boundary Prairies, named for an old Indian/pioneer boundary (now I-57): Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Paintbrush Prairie, Dropseed Prairie, Sundrop Prairie, and the 45-acre site unofficially named “Markham East.” Together they total 427 acres and include black soil prairie, sand prairie, and sedge meadow.
Photo: Ron Panzer
Of highest quality and most popular with visitors is the Gensburg-Markham site. It doesn’t take more than a step or two along the mile-long mowed trail around Gensburg to realize its biological significance. If not for the backdrop of diesels crawling down I-294, it would be hard to imagine you’re still in an urban area. “This prairie is richer than prairies ten times its size,” explains Dr. Ron Panzer, IBP steward and conservation biologist at Northeastern Illinois University. Some of its accolades include being deemed an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1980 and dedicated as a National Natural Landmark in 1988.
The prairies were nearly lost to development in the 1920s, but when the Great Depression hit, the project was abandoned. Decades later, Robert Betz, also of Northeastern Illinois University, discovered the prairies during a stroll with his cousin and began efforts to protect them. In 1971, the Gensburg brothers donated the original 50 critical, high-quality acres of the Gensburg Prairie tract to The Nature Conservancy, and money was raised to purchase the remaining 50. “It was quite a formidable project, and the theme has always been persistence,” explains Panzer, adding that in an attempt to acquire additional acres, The Nature Conservancy has entered into numerous deals with dozens of landowners.
With more butterflies and plant diversity than nearly any other prairie in the state, the IBP is rightfully considered a “biological ark” for the future. Included in this “ark” are the rare Aphrodite and regal fritillaries, as well as a number of unusual plants such as small sundrops, narrow-leaved sundew, and yellow-eyed grass. Six species of gentians, the litmus of high-quality prairies and a beautiful fall feature at IBP, are found at the preserve. These are the prairie, closed, stiff, fringed, soapwort, and cream gentians. Other species of note at IBP are the smooth green snake, gray fox, Franklin’s ground squirrel, state-threatened Henslow’s sparrow, savanna sparrow, bobolink, and eastern meadowlark.
Hiking and birdwatching are welcome at the prairies, and the Friends
of the Indian Boundary Prairies occasionally host workdays and events (see
their event calendar for dates
and times). For more information, call (815) 469-3937.
— Jennifer Tang