Thousands of acres of sand prairies still existed in Illinois before the mid-20th century, after which the invention of center-pivot irrigation made them profitable for agricultural use. Dedicated in 1970, the state’s Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve gives a sense of what those historic sand prairies were like on the east side of the Illinois River. Little bluestem, the visually dominant grass in this scene, shares space in the sand prairie with goat’s rue, eastern prickly pear cactus, sand love grass, and porcupine grass. Blackjack oak, one of which is the focal point of this painting, is co-dominant in the surrounding sand savanna and dry sand forests with black oak, mockernut hickory and black hickory. The scattering of fire intolerant eastern red cedars and the size and density of the oaks in the surrounding groves suggests this prairie receives a lot less fire than it would have before European settlement. Even so, the warm, fine-textured grasses where the cedars are invading beautifully captured the warmth of a fiery winter sunset on the day I visited. Despite all that warm light, icy patches hidden among the grasses hint at the real temperature of the season.
Sand prairies such as this one, and their associated ecosystems, developed in the post glacial era on wind deposited sand east (downwind) of major rivers.
- Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve
- Floristic Study of Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve, Mason County, Illinois (JSTOR)