In The Spotlight:

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, a colorful and diverse habitat

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |

7/29/2021

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve is a pocket of woodland in eastern Will County that serves as a reminder of the rich cultural and natural history of our area.

The vast majority of Raccoon Grove — 211 acres of the 213-acre preserve — is protected as a state nature preserve, a designation bestowed in 1989. The nature preserve status recognizes the unique and significant history of the property and its habitats and offers permanent protection for the land’s natural resources.

The cultural resources protected at Raccoon Grove include part of a reservation granted to the daughters of a Potawatomi woman named Marie Bailly in 1832. The land also preserves natural resources included in the Rock Creek preservation system, which preserves more than 460 acres in all.  

Today, one of the most popular activities at Raccoon Grove is viewing spring ephemeral wildflowers, which flourish there. 

“If you want to see Raccoon Grove in color, spring is the time,” said Kate Caldwell, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. “All the diversity just lights up the forest floor.”

But the spring bounty is just part of the natural seasonal cycle of flora at the preserve, she said.

Wild geranium (Photo courtesy of Byron Morgan)

As winter gives way to spring, the wildflowers begin to wake up for the season, creating a blanket of color on the forest floor. When the trees begin to leaf out, these spring ephemerals then begin to die back. Once summer takes hold, the tree canopy is full, allowing just dappled sunlight to reach the forest floor until fall. 

“In the summer and fall, colors take you by surprise in the woodland,” Caldwell said, adding that you’ll catch glimpses of yellow and red among the green during summer at Raccoon Grove.

When the leaves begin to fall in late autumn, they are helping create ideal conditions for the cycle to begin anew the next year.

“In the winter, the leaves fall and create a protective blanket for all the plant life,” she said.

While spring is the season most often associated with Raccoon Grove because of its abundance of wildflowers, Caldwell said her most treasured moment there occurred in summer. While walking in the preserve’s woodlands scouting plants one day, Caldwell stopped dead in her tracks because she was so awed by the beauty of the moment.

“It looked otherworldly,” she said. “The sun was overhead, and it was shining through on the forest floor.”

 

The soft glow of the sunlight highlighted the lushness of the woodlands. “I just had a moment,” she said. “It was just beautiful.”

Caldwell said that moment made her think of all the habitat that has been lost to development and agriculture in our area through the years.

“I was standing on hallowed ground,” Caldwell said, adding that the experience was a great example of how habitat restoration can return our local lands to what they looked like at presettlement times. 

Moss on a log. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Wildlife and habitats

Raccoon Grove has an incredible diversity of plant species, with more than 250 forbs — herbaceous flowering plants — documented in the preserve, Caldwell said. This diversity is due to our area’s unique geology and climate, among other factors.

The landforms in Will County and the Chicago area were formed by glaciers more than 15,000 years ago, Caldwell said. The land around us today has largely been altered by human development, but pockets of land like those at Raccoon Grove are remnants of what our area once looked like.

The eastern half of Will County was once largely forested, while prairie habitat dominated the western part of the county. Raccoon Grove is good example of the woodlands that existed in eastern Will County hundreds and even thousands of years ago. 

Because the Chicago region is situated between the deciduous forests of the eastern United States and prairie land to the west, we have unique plant life that is more diverse than in many other areas, Caldwell said. The spring ephemerals that Raccoon Grove is known for are a part of that.

“The spring ephemerals evolved with our climate,” she said, adding the cycle of seasons is an important part of our plant diversity. 

The tree species at Raccoon Grove are also diverse and include shagbark hickories, black and sugar maples, and black, bur and white oaks. The woodland habitat is also home to more than 80 bird species, including the eastern wood pee-wee and scarlet tanager. Other animals that call Raccoon Grove home include a variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, including the tiger salamander.

“Raccoon Grove is one of those special gems that is left,” Caldwell said, adding that it is one of the few relatively untouched parcels of land in our area.

Chicken of the woods mushroom. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Recreation opportunities

Because it is a state nature preserve, some popular recreational activities like biking are not allowed. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to visit. Because it’s such a high-quality habitat area, it’s a great place for wildlife viewing.

We think of wildlife viewing as related strictly to animals, but one of the big draws at Raccoon Grove is the here-today-gone-tomorrow spring ephemeral wildflowers. Some of the main attractions are blue-eyed Mary and Virginia bluebells, but there are many more to see, including hepatica, trillium, harbinger of spring, toothwort and trout lily, Caldwell said.

Trillium. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

And those spring wildflowers give way to a lush forest landscape come summer and fall, making it a cool, shady place for a nature walk, whether for fitness, to take in the sights and sounds of nature or for a birding adventure. To that end, Raccoon Grove has a short, 0.27-mile natural surface trail that’s ideal for hiking or running as well as checking out the preserve’s flora and fauna.

One important note: Dogs are not allowed at Raccoon Grove or other state nature preserves because of the sensitivity of the site’s natural resources.

(Lead image by Glenn P. Knoblock) 

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