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Plant Lovers Beget Plant Lovers

by Dave Sollenberger

It is difficult for me to pinpoint where my love of plants comes from but if we abide by the often-quoted words of Senegalese poet and conservationist Baba Dioum, early teaching moments are a good starting point. “In the end, we will conserve what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

My parents indirectly taught me to see and appreciate plants and nature. When I was in grade school our family moved from a small city lot in Lombard, IL to a country subdivision north of St. Charles, IL. My mom grew up on a farm near Chicago and my dad in a Chicago suburb that was much more rural than it is now. Their dream was to live in the country, and throughout their life they continued to move further away from city life.

The move to St. Charles was the first step in my parents’ journey. They found a one acre lot full of mature white oaks, bur oaks, shagbark hickories and downy hawthorns. They purchased the lot, built a house and mowed down all of the vegetation (mostly nonnative pasture grasses) except for a strip of land where our lot bordered a farm field. My parents left that single strip of land unmowed because of the woodland wildflowers that existed there – may apple, trout lily, trillium. They weren’t botanists, but my parents had a deep appreciation for the natural environment and saw the value in protecting that little strip of botanical diversity.

My parents also had a large vegetable garden. I remember that we had no rototiller to start the garden so my parents had a farmer come in with a disc to break the ground for us. Our vegetable garden was a good size, but the farmer was obligated to disc in a tight circle to stay within the rectangular borders we proposed. As a result, our garden had an unconventional circular shape. Something about that shape appealed to me. My vegetable garden at home these days has a circular shape even though I did not need to rely on a farmer with a field disc to create it.

Another influence on my development as a botanist was my high school biology teacher, Bob Horlock. He started a prairie club for students like me interested in learning about the natural environment of this region (and for others interested in getting extra credit). We collected seeds and grew plants to restore a patch of prairie within the County Forest Preserve. Mr. Horlock’s prairie club was the clincher, the spark, the turning point, that led me (and others) to pursue a degree in Botany.

I had a second influential biology teacher, Robert Steinbach, during my first two years at Elgin Community College. At SIU – Carbondale I majored in Botany and minored in Art. I combined my love of art and plants and started to do botanical illustration in my spare time, which at times is profitable. I eventually was hired at the Chicago Botanic Garden to develop the Dixon Prairie and later became the manager of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank. Below is one of the illustrations I did for a publication at the Botanic Garden years ago. I have always liked this one because of the subject matter and composition.

Prairie illustration by Dave Sollenberger

In between semesters at SIU I was hired for the summer to work in the Schulenberg prairie at the Morton Arboretum. Ray Schulenberg, at that time, had changed jobs from prairie restoration innovator to the curator of woody plant collections, but he still set aside two weeks with me and another hire to train us in the flora of the prairie so that we would not weed out important species. Ray was quite a character and anyone who knew him would never forget him. He would organize outings after work to go ‘botanizing” where he would drill students on plant names. When you correctly identified a species it was often followed with a “That’s right you smart rascal.” Another endearing term, which I will occasionally use today, was when he described a plant with a smooth, hairless features as “glaaaaaaaabrous as a billiard ball.” You had to be there. Ray’s love for prairies was contagious and I learned more about the local flora from him than anyone else.

My parents moved again when their kids all left the house in St. Charles. Their new place – they called it Savanna Ridge – was situated on four acres of oak savanna atop a sandy, glacial esker in DeKalb County, IL. The previous owners had an appreciation for the wildflowers on the property and would only mow the yard after the spring flora was finished blooming. I convinced my parents to stop mowing the botanically rich areas of the property all together, and then I began managing it with periodic burns.

If I had to choose a favorite plant, it would be difficult task. First I love a habitat – the tallgrass prairie. There is something sacred about seeing a high quality prairie remnant. Its historical significance and rarity leaves me in awe and then sadness. My struggles in attempting to re-build the prairie leaves me in awe and frustration. Prairie remnants are very special places.

Dixon Prairie at Chicago Botanic Garden (photo by Becky Barak)

That said, I think my favorite plant is not one of the prairie but of a community that often borders it – the oak savanna. A species that often defines this community is Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak, mossy cup oak) and I think I would have to choose that species as my favorite. There is something rugged and enduring about bur oaks. A classic denizen of the Midwest landscape. Unlike tallgrass prairies which one rarely sees anymore, bur oaks are still part of the local landscape. It wouldn’t feel like home if there were no bur oaks.

Today my family and I live on two acres in unincorporated Wauconda, IL with one of the acres planted to prairie. There you can also find a semi-circular vegetable garden, a few chickens and some bur oaks.

Burr oak at Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest (photo by Cindy Crosby)

Dave Sollenberger has devoted his life to plant conservation and has spent nearly his entire career at the Chicago Botanic Garden, first as a naturalist and ecologist and later as the the manager of the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.


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