Prairie in the City: West Ridge Nature Preserve

On Sunday, Judy and I met our son Daniel for lunch. Afterwards, we crossed the street to visit the 24-acre West Ridge Nature Preserve. Judy and I had been here in February last year, but there wasn’t much plant life to observe at the time. This was a chance to see what was going on mid-summer.

Entrance to the West Ridge Nature Preserve on Western Avenue

West Ridge is on Chicago’s distinctly unfashionable North Western Avenue. This is a commercial stretch known as the site of numerous defunct auto dealerships. The land for the nature preserve was recently an unused corner of Rosehill Cemetery. Restoration work began in 2011.


A large pond provides the heart of the preserve. There are a mix of habitats: woods, wetlands, savanna, and prairie.


There’s a nice deck with benches for sitting by the water. We saw a Blue Heron but didn’t get a photo. You can fish here as well, should you want to.


Many flowers and grasses enjoy the moist soil on the low lying west side of the pond.




Swamp Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutus) and Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) were just starting to bloom.


There was Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) wherever the soil was nice and moist, growing like the proverbial weeds. I admire this plant a good deal, but I was dismayed to see it thriving here when I have twice tried unsuccessfully to get it started in our garden.


Paved paths were lined with tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata). You can see a hospital building from beyond the northern border. I was really struck by how few exotic plants were noticeable throughout the preserve – not even Queen Anne’s Lace. How did they manage this?


Here’s Daniel and I on the waterside path. I’m practicing my quizzical look.


There were abundant native grasses along with the flowers. Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus) was especially profuse, along with a couple other species of this genus. There was  a lot of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) as well.



I don’t recognize this handsome grass, does anybody have an ID?

There was also this Wild Rye species that had an unusual blue cast to its leaves and seedheads.



Here’s a bit of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). I only just realized that this grass is now classified as a Wild Rye, whereas it used to be in the genus Hystrix.


More Yellow Coneflowers. We noted numerous butterflies as we walked.


Really not sure what this plant is, but I like the red centers. Some kind of perennial sunflower or Rudbeckia?


Some Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) blooming in the woodland. Rain has been scarce for some time (though we are not officially in drought). You can see that some of the plants growing beyond the ponds edge are starting to look rather stressed and droopy.


Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana).


Early Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), with Wild Rye and Bottlebrush Grass. The red stems are very handsome.


The last stretch of our walk led through a small wood. Here we came upon a White-Tail faun, munching away contentedly. She saw us, but showed no fear.


She nonchalantly crossed the path in front of us, then disappeared into the woods. It was a pleasure to come across this animal, but  it also gave me cause to worry. Without any predators to speak of, there are far too many deer in some parts of the Chicago area.

As a result, deer have done great damage to natural areas in this region. For example, staff at the North Park Nature Center have given up on encouraging native plants because they are virtually all eaten by deer. At the same time, there is oftenY intense resistance to steps that limit the deer population. So I hope this isn’t a sign of future problems at the West Ridge Nature Preserve.

While challenges may lie ahead, it is clear that this is a thriving outpost of nature in the heart of the city. Judy and I will have to make a point of visiting in each season.

36 Comments on “Prairie in the City: West Ridge Nature Preserve”

  1. Sounds like a beautiful place for a walk! That’s crazy that the deer didn’t even show fear or run away. I love all the perennial sunflowers. Blue vervain grows in my detention pond and has started showing up in my garden. It actually often looks rather weedy where it’s popped up, so I have to pull some of it out. Wish I could will them over to your garden!

  2. Did not know that preserve was there. Amazing how the land can change in 7 years. Just saw a segment on tv about zoos giving “the pill ” to the animals they don’t want to breed. Perhaps there’s a way to do this with the deer to avoid culling. Or maybe we should encourage more coyotes.

  3. Thanks for this look at the nature preserve. I enjoyed it a lot. What a bummer about the deer, we have quite a few here too, although so far I haven’t seen much damage to my garden. I hope you try the hairy vervain again. Maybe it needed more water? I love the shot of you and Daniel. He’s practicing his “I got my genetic material from this guy” look.

  4. Thank you so much for a great Field Trip idea! The Rudbeckia might be R. subtomentosa??? I would look at Bouteloua on the unammed grass. You might try Verbena stricta instead of V. hastata. Same flower – lovely!- but likes try, gravelly locations, taller with coarse leaves. It has seeded into the edge of my driveway where is quite profuse. Unfortunately it is also quite tall!

  5. Such a lovely spot. I was lucky enough to recently see a deer on a prairie I visit. I actually heard it snorting before I saw it. Then, I got to watch a nice, long bounding run.

    The flowers are gorgeous. I know we have Joe Pye weed, but I’ve never seen it. I do like that mysterious, red-centered whatever. I glanced through my books to see if I found anything similar, but of course we’re a long way from West Ridge, and there’s no telling if it grows anywhere in Texas. We do have the swamp rose mallow and blue vervain. It’s nice to see them looking so healthy and happy there.

  6. How nice to have this preserve near enough you can visit as often as you wish. Deer are eating machines. I cringe when I see one anywhere near my house. We have a fenced garden but a deer could leap the fence as easily as the fox so my garden isn’t exactly safe. I think Annie (our dog) is more of a deterrent. If only she could catch the darned rabbits.

    • Yes, it’s good for cutting and also for drying. It is appreciated as a plant that grows wild but also grown in gardens. The E. maculatum varieties prefer moist soils, but they have done well for me in medium soil. E. purpureum doesn’t like so much moisture and tolerates shade.

  7. Some beautiful plants here, I do hope you get more rain. The unknown plant has leaves just like our perennial cornflower but different flowers. Shame that the deer population is exploding, people do have to stop feeding them, it’s not good to see them so tame either. xxx

  8. We have a large nature preserve in our township. It used to be full of trillium grandiflorum among other native species. Then the deer population got out of hand and now there is virtually none to be seen. The deer here have no fear at all. When Ted Nugent lived here in the 90’s, he encouraged out leaders to start killing them or removing them. How I wish we had listened.

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