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August 2019: The Schulenberg Prairie

The Schulenberg Prairie 

The Schulenberg prairie and savanna is one of the nation’s oldest tallgrass prairie restorations.

A digital color photograph showing a Juglans nigra (Black Walnut), habitat in the Schulenberg Prairie

The history of The Morton Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie goes back to 1962 when under former director, Clarence E. Godshalk, the Arboretum purchased 55 acres of land on what is now the Arboretum’s West Side (Egan & Schulenberg, 1997). Formerly owned and farmed by the Tom Slusser family, the acreage was originally purchased to sustain a retirement home site for the Godshalks and a getaway home site for Suzette Morton Davidson. After some consideration, Godshalk decided that they would attempt to restore the previously farmed portion of the land to native prairie (Egan & Schulenberg, 1997).

A black and white photographic image of the Clarence Godshalk residence, construction, front exterior


Ray Schulenberg, then the Assistant Propagator, was put in charge of the initiative and given the title, Curator of Native Plants (The Morton Arboretum, 1999).

In the fall of 1962, seeds were collected and ground was broken to prepare for planting in the spring of 1963 (Armstrong, 1982). For the first year, and annually until 1972, two planting methods were used: greenhouse propagation and broadcast sowing (The Morton Arboretum, 1999).

A digitized color photograph showing Ray Schulenberg watering plants in a greenhouse.             A digitized color photograph showing Ray Schulenberg weeding plants in the prairie.

In greenhouse propagation, seeds were planted in flats in April. After the seedlings were developed, they were individually transplanted into a 2x2 inch wood veneer band. By late May, once the frost danger had passed, the seedlings were planted in the prairie-to-be (The Morton Arboretum, 1999).

In broadcast sowing, seeds would be mixed with sand and often vermiculite before being scattered directly onto the prepared area. The planted area would then be raked and the seed pressed into the ground with a roller (The Morton Arboretum, 1999).

Ray worked with salaried and seasonal employees, as well as volunteers to help manage the prairie. During his final year managing the project in 1979, Ray trained Pat Armstrong, Helen Pierce, and Barbara Rutherford to work and look after the prairie. In 1980, Pat Armstrong established the prairie volunteers as a structured volunteer corps. Today there are 35 volunteers active in the Natural Resources Volunteer roster for the Schulenberg Prairie.

A black and white photograph depicting four Arboretum volunteers working in the prairie.

The Schulenberg Prairie has now been cared for and studied for over 50 years. Lessons learned from the prairie have assisted restoration ecologists understand what is required when attempting to restore or recreate a prairie. Today, the Schulenberg Prairie has grown to about 100 acres, incorporating several types of prairie ecosystems and savannas with scattered oaks. It still remains an important model for restoration projects in the region (The Morton Arboretum, 2013).


To learn more on Ray Schulenberg and the development of the Schulenberg Prairie, checkout the resources made available by the Sterling Morton Library!


On ACORN, you can find an assortment of resources digitally available through the library’s archive. Some of these resources include:
Ray Schulenberg’s Plant Propagation Notes
A lecture by Ray Schulenberg on The Story of The Morton Arboretum Prairie Restoration
Various articles, including, The Schulenberg Prairie: A Benchmark in Ecological Restoration
An assortment of photographs, including, Ray Schulenberg with students in the prairie

The library also contains resources that can assist you in learning more about prairies!
The prairie of the Illinois country by Robert F. Betz
From prairie to corn belt; farming on the Illinois and Iowa prairies in the nineteenth century by Allan G. Bogue
Prairie plants of Illinois : a field guide to the prairie grasses and wildflowers of Illinois and the Midwest by Steven Chadde
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction by Cindy Crosby
The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Grasslands by Marcy Cottrell Houle
Prairie Birds: Fragile Splendor in the Great Plains by Paul A. Johnsgard
Saving Peacock Prairie : the grassroots campaign to protect a wild urban prairie : the story of Chicago's James Woodworth Prairie by Bernice Benedict Popelka
The tallgrass prairie reader by John Price
Prairie propagation handbook : a list of prairie plants of Wisconsin and suggested techniques for growing them as part of a prairie or of a wild garden to preserve them for our joy and for future generations by Harold W. Rock
Prairie plants and their environment; a fifty-year study in the Midwest by John E. Weaver 
The Prairie in Seed: Identifying Seed-Bearing Prairie Plants by Dave Williams

The Tallgrass Prairie Center guide to prairie restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith
Tallgrass prairie restoration in the midwestern and eastern United States : a hands-on guide by Harold W. Gardner
Restoring the tallgrass prairie : an illustrated manual for Iowa and the upper Midwest by Shirley Shirley

The Prairie Gardener by H.F. Harp
Gardening with native plants in the Upper Midwest : bringing the tallgrass prairie home by Judy Nauseef 
Prairie Style Gardens: Capturing the Essence of the American Prairie Wherever You Live by Lynn M. Steiner

Arboretum Event!

Cindy crosby is a writer and naturalist and she is standing outside.

Summer Literary Series: On the Prairie with Author Cindy Crosby
Enjoy a summer evening on the prairie with author and steward Cindy Crosby. Meet at Thornhill Education Center for a cool beverage and a chance to purchase a copy of Cindy’s new book, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Ice Cube Press, co-authored with Thomas Dean, released in April 2019).

Then all aboard the tram! Next stop, Schulenberg Prairie. Gaze out over the tallgrass as the sun sets and Cindy shares reflections and insights about Illinois’ most precious native habitat. Return to Thornhill with the spirit of the prairie close at hand.



Armstrong, P. (1982). Brief History of The Morton Arboretum Prairie Restoration Project. The Morton Arboretum Records (Box 32, Folder 14). Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Egan, D. & Schulenberg, R. (1997). Old man of the prairie: an interview with Ray Schulenberg. Restoration and Managment Notes, 15:1, 38-44.

The Morton Arboretum. (1999). Planting a prairie at the arboretum. SeasonsJuly/August 1999. Retreived from: https://acorn.mortonarb.org/Detail/objects/63759

The Morton Arboretum. (2013). Perfect Prairie? No, but a pioneer. Retrieved from: https://www.mortonarb.org/news/perfect-prairie-no-pioneer