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A slice of prairie life: Recently discovered pristine parcels give people a glimpse into Illinois’ past

LAKE CARROLL – Plants such as Illinois flowering spurge, whorled milkweed, and blue lobelia once covered 60 percent of the Prairie State.

Then came pastures, and invasive species, and now, more than a century later, less than 0.1 percent of that original prairie remains.

A remnant of natural prairie was discovered in May at Lake Carroll, and one that was planted in the '80s was rediscovered soon after. Both cover 5 to 10 acres, and both have been adopted by a trio of caring Lake Carroll residents.

Becky Janopolous was riding her ATV when she spotted some unusual plants on Lake Carroll's northeast side, and told fellow residents Jim and Pam Richards about her find.

Pam Richards knows about prairies – she's a University of Illinois Extension Service master naturalist.

She and her husband met Janopolous about 4 or 5 years ago, when they were working with Lake Carroll facilities manager Don Aleksy and AmeriCorps personnel to remove invasive plants.

When he investigated Janopolous's find, Richards found a plant he'd never seen before. He showed a photograph to Jim Rachuy, president of the Northwest Illinois chapter of Prairie Enthusiasts, which works with landowners, farmers and others to preserve prairie remnants.

"It was green milkweed, almost exclusively found in remnants," Richards said.

"The pristine prairie has unique plants, like Illinois flowering spurge, whorled milkweed and blue lobelia, which we don't have here, and cup plant, which isn't at the planted prairie."

The other plot was planted in 1989 by Lake Carroll, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Stephenson County Pheasants Forever.

"They forgot about it," he said.

Aleksy put up signs to alert groundskeepers and residents not to spray or mow the native plants, and the Richardses and Janopolous formed a club to help take care of the prairie sites.

"There's lots of woody invasives. Our task this fall and through the winter is to start removing those invasives," Richards said.

Lake Carroll residents are invited to join the club; call 815-931-2972.

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