L: Laura Helmich, R: Tyler Pellegrini stand next to the big bur oak tree at Keefer. Photo: Alan Branhagen

Natural Land Institute’s Executive Director, Alan Branhagen visited our William & Gayle Keefer Nature Reserve with staff on Fri., Nov. 10, 2023. Here are his field notes from that visit. We hope you enjoy learning about this preserve. It is currently private and will be opened to the public in the near future.

Tyler Pellegrini and Laura Helmich met me at Keefer Nature Reserve on Friday afternoon, November 10 to continue my NLI site visits. The preserve is on the west slope of the Rock River valley just downstream from Rockton and lies within the Village’s limits. It has 3 quarries and limestone is near the surface of much of the 36.52-acre property.

Laura announced to me right away that this preserve has more invasive species than any of our preserves – and she was right, but she also spoke about the trees that are there that were also in the 1939 aerial images they refer to, guiding restoration activities. She said the rich, east-facing slope also has an amazing display of spring ephemeral wildflowers with a sea of cut-leaved toothwort blanketing the ground with its white flowers in early spring. I definitely look forward to seeing that next spring.


Cut-leaved toothwort on a slope at Keefer Nature Reserve, spring 2020. Photo: Laura Helmich

Tyler drove the Kubota and we drove up to the top of the preserve and got out to look at the neat native plants that showed this was once prairie on top: the ’39 aerial images showed no trees. I loved the carpets of grayish leaved pussytoes and the evergreen ebony spleenwort ferns in these now young successional woods with meadowy openings. There were lots of invasive brush (honeysuckle, buckthorn and more) to keep at bay and I also saw another new invader that needs to be on people’s radar: blackberry-lily (Belamcanda chinensis now Iris belamcanda). Not a lily but an iris with weird fruits that look just like blackberries. Birds are beginning to spread this plant far and wide where it competes with native plants, especially in prairie remnants.  If you have it in your garden, I recommend removing it.

Tyler pointed out a redbud they had flagged. We are just north of its presettlement range but it is expanding northward and part of our central hardwood forest so we will keep it. Locally native bees and butterflies are pollinators, and several moths are host to redbuds so it is functionally native and we must remember our native plants were still expanding since the last ice age.  This clump of 3 small trees had fruits on it. Did you know redbud flowers are also edible?  Add some to your salad next spring.

Tyler Pellegrini (L), and Laura Helmich (R) stand atop the quarry next to redcedar trees. Photo: Alan Branhagen

We then spent time looking around the main limestone quarry. We plan to put in some rope fencing to improve safety as we open the trails here to the public.  The quarry has some redcedars around its rim, which reminded me of how they grow wild to our west on the cliffs of the driftless area. We will cut redcedars where we are restoring prairie but this is a great place to leave this native evergreen.  I spied a small tree with my binoculars unreachable on the cliff and was shocked it was a mountain-ash – we tried to see if it was a native species. North of us in Wisconsin both the showy (Sorbus decora) and American mountain-ash (S. americana) are found but not south of the Baraboo Range.  European mountain-ash (S. aucuparia) also escapes a bit which has woolly leaf undersides (see our photo of a fallen leaf). (I keyed the leaf out as a European mountain-ash when I got home to my library.)  Tyler mentioned this quarry pit is a cold air sink, being a cooler micro-environment. When we walked down into the quarry you can see it has spongy carpets of mosses and the shaded walls are also covered in moss. Restoration plans would be to re-create a glade and cliff community of plants.  How cool will that be?!

We then walked to the high ridge saddled between the quarries where the few chinkapin oaks grow. WOW, the first one was the biggest one I’ve ever seen locally (see image with Tyler).  We saw just 3 mature trees and Tyler and Laura thought there might be just one more – it is our county’s rarest oak growing locally in areas like this.  Next year we will make an effort to collect some acorns and hopefully grow up some young trees to repopulate the site – and hopefully even have some to sell to our membership. Chinkapin oak is a great urban and garden tree too – its acorns have the least amount of tannin so take the least amount of effort to prepare as a carbohydrate staple the indigenous peoples ate.

Alan Branhagen stands in front of a white oak.

We then went to the south edge of the preserve which is clearly remnant savanna with some wonderful old white, bur, and black oaks. The stewardship team is opening this up for more light to reach the ground and so that the old trees get their space back.  We commented that this preserve has no shagbark hickories but does have some bitternut “yellow bud” hickories.  Bitternut hickories have unpalatable nuts.

So, Keefer is a very unique preserve we hope to restore back to its woodland, savanna and prairie roots but also make the most of its limestone quarry cliff faces. It has a few magnificent trees (see the chinkapin, white and bur oak images). It may be a who’s who of invasive plants but also has an amazing richness of native species and I can’t wait to visit its mesic wildflower slope next spring.  We did see stalks of drifts of yellow giant hyssop, horse gentian, low carrionflower and carrionvine, tall bellflower, false gromwell and others.  We are thankful Gayle Keefer donated this treasure to the Natural Land Institute to protect it in perpetuity for all to enjoy.


The evergreen (yes, this fern species is green all year) ebony spleenwort.


Grayish leaves on the ground are pussytoes.



Leaf from a mountain ash.


Tyler Pellegrini stands next to the chinkapin oak.


Laura Helmich stands next to the chinkapin oak.

Tyler Pellegrini next to redbud trees.


Tyler Pellegrini stands next to the quarry cliff at Keefer Nature Reserve.




Tyler Pellegrini stands next to a black cherry tree, known for its bark that looks like potato chips.


Missouri gooseberry leaves. Alan loves this native shrub. It’s the first to leaf out in the spring. It’s shooting-star shaped flowers are buzz pollinated by bumblebees. It produces delicious gooseberries and it is the last to have fall color!


Chinkapin oak leaves.


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