One hundred years ago, a naturalist named Jens Jensen took regular weekend trips with his family to the ends of Chicago’s streetcar lines, seeking meadows and open spaces where he could practice botany and find native plants to bring home with him.
The idea of setting aside places where people could make connections with nature that they could take back to their own homes was important to Jensen, a landscape architect who helped found the Illinois system of state parks.
That mission is alive today at Plum Creek Nature Center, part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County, Ill.
The center is located 45 minutes south of Chicago, and its staff seek to reach out to the public in any way they can to inspire an interest in the natural world.
“We just try to build a connection with people,” said Suzy Lyttle, an educator at the center.
Kids, meet nature
Those connections can start young. Plum Creek hosts nature play days for visitors as young as 3 years old.
“We try to teach them the stories behind the plants, or fun facts that go along with them,” Lyttle said. “One child in that group can recite them all to you.”
The center also adapts its field trips to fit the curriculum of area schools. With a mix of children coming from urban and suburban neighborhoods, Lyttle said the range of discoveries kids can make in nature is huge.
“The first time they touch an insect or a spider, you’ll get screams at first, and then they start to get more comfortable,” she said.
In an era where many kids spend hours each day looking at screens, it’s interesting to see the version of nature their digital worlds have taught them.
For example, Plum Creek staff regularly teach tree identification, and Lyttle said she has started to notice many kids have seen oaks and other tree species in the video game Minecraft, and they’re astounded to learn to identify a towering oak in real life.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh! That’s on Minecraft!’” Lyttle said.
Linking past and present
Making beautiful natural areas available to the public was a central goal of Jensen and many others in the early 20th century, when the act allowing Illinois’ forest preserve districts was passed into law.
Jensen wrote that untouched native landscapes were fast-disappearing, and that preserving them “will tie the present and future generations of Americans to the past, serve as playgrounds for people and as sanctuaries for wild plant and animal life.”
This was noteworthy, because up until this point, much of the state’s land preservation had focused on historical sites. Here, Jensen and others were arguing that nature was also worthy of public preservation, and had value as a link to both the past and the future.
Focus on natives
The staff at Plum Creek recently revamped the nature center’s main garden, creating a Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, planted entirely with plants that are native to Illinois.
Lyttle said the entire goal is to educate visitors on the value of native plants, and to get them to think of natives when choosing plants for their home landscapes.
The garden emphasizes native plants as pollinator magnets. Hummingbirds, bees and other creatures bring life to the landscape.
“We hope we are the stepping stone in getting people interested in helping the pollinators,” Lyttle said.
The garden also shows how natives can be a year-round source of color and texture in the garden, often with far less work involved than non-native plants.
“We promote the pollinators, and we also talk about how it’s kind of easier,” Lyttle said. “You have color all year round, and these plants come back every year.”
To make sure visitors can always understand the full range of color these plants produce over the course of a year, Plum Creek Nature Center hired an artist to paint a mural on a garden-facing wall inside the nature center that shows each plant in bloom, with pollinators and other creatures hidden to create a fun scavenger hunt for kids.
“It’s just another educational point to get people interested in the plants we have,” Lyttle said.
Spreading knowledge with Plants Map
To help provide visitors with more information, Lyttle and the Plum Creek staff are using Plants Map interactive plant signs and tags to label many of the plants on the property.
Lyttle heads out into the garden with her smartphone to document the plants on Plum Creek Nature Center’s profile. She’s found the process can be slightly addictive.
She started out labeling plants in the Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary, but “I got the bug and got going for it,” and now has labeled plants in the center’s front and back yards, and hopes to add more when spring flowers come up.
She orders tags with each plant’s common name, botanical name and bloom date, a detail that can be helpful to visitors who may be interested in adding a plant to their home landscape.
The availability of all of this information online with the scan of a smartphone on the tags’ QR codes creates new entry points for visitors to make a connection with nature.
“The more you know, the more excited you get about something,” Lyttle said.
To learn more, follow Plum Creek Nature Center on Plants Map.
Featured in the cover photos is Purple Coneflower.