In this story, Natural Land Institute’s Executive Director, Alan Branhagen, talks about the organization’s headquarters located in the Historic Haight Village residential neighborhood, the Conservation@Work designation, and the neighborhood’s historic legacy of trees.

A pagoda dogwood tree sits at the right corner of the Natural Land Institute office.

The Natural Land Institute is located in the Haight Village National Register Historic District just south of downtown Rockford.  The office is in a home built in 1902, originally the home of Frank Brown, President of Nelson Knitting Co. (home of the Sock Monkey), eventually becoming home to the President of Rockford College (University) and then its Reading Clinic. The neighborhood includes Rockford’s first mayor’s home too, built in 1846. The neighborhood has a diversity of homes and churches with an accompanying diversity of trees in its landscape.

I always liked the shady feel of much of the neighborhood and now that I work here daily, I have come to appreciate the urban forest of this inner-city community. The trees create a cooling shade buffering the urban heat island, restore our wellbeing and welcome other creatures.  As a birder, I am thrilled to report that birds I never thought I would find in the inner-city live here too.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, Black-capped Chickadees, Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flickers – not just the usual House Sparrow, European Starling and Rock Dove (pigeons) I would expect.  Why is that?

Haight Village’s trees are just as historic as its homes: ancient white oaks that predate the homes still stand along with a nice list of other native trees from black and bur oak to American elm, sycamore, black cherry, eastern white pine and eastern redcedar; and trees from other parts of the Midwest that function as native like northern catalpa, Ohio buckeye, eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, and American arborvitae (white cedar). Altogether, a large percentage of the forest is functionally native and supports the insects that are the building blocks of the food chain.  The birds I listed above raise their young on insects, while the three non-native birds will feed their young dropped French fries (not directly as in the case of the dove).  Research by renowned author, Douglas Tallamy has shown that a landscape that is 70% native in biomass (volume) supports the diversity of native birds.  Haight Village has accomplished this and is why NLI has its landscape certification called Conservation@Work. (Read about NLI’s Conservation@ Programs here.)

I plan to give a neighborhood tree tour sometime in the future and talk about the rich layers of trees from pre-settlement to modern plantings found here. Rockford is known as the forest city and I have noticed how there are fewer trees than when I lived here 27 years ago (drought, derecho, disease…). I hope the tour inspires a better understanding of the importance of our native trees in the landscape for the positive force of nature that they support.  I also will show the non-natives and how they can be integrated into the landscape: there are some especially good “edible” landscapes in the neighborhood with fruit trees including peaches, cherries and apples  The other 30% is just fine to be part of a rich and varied landscape that will be resilient and sustain us and all of nature into the future. Be inspired to plant a tree in your own neighborhood, community or yard – let’s bring back the forest city!

Haight Village Tree List

Mature Large Shade Trees (native and regionally native)

  • White Oak

    Black Maple Acer nigrum

  • Red Maple Acer rubrum
  • Silver Maple Acer saccharinum
  • Sugar Maple Acer saccharum
  • Ohio Buckeye Aesculus glabara (huge)
  • River Birch Betula nigra
  • Northern Catalpa Catalpa speciosa
  • Hackberry Celtis occidentalis
  • White Ash Fraxinus americana
  • Honeylocust Gleditsia triacanthos
  • Kentucky Coffeetree Gymnocladus dioicus
  • Black Walnut Juglans nigra
  • Sycamore Platanus occidentalis
  • Black Cherry Prunus serotina
  • White Oak Quercus alba
  • Bur Oak Quercus macrocarpa
  • Black Oak Quercus velutina
  • Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia

Young Shade Trees (Native and Regionally native)

  • Chinkapin Oak Quercus muhlenbergii
  • Baldcypress Taxodium distichum
  • American Elm Ulmus americana

Mature Large Evergreen Trees (native & regionally native)

  • Balsam Fir Abies balsamea
  • Eastern Redcedar Juniperus virginiana
  • Eastern White Pine Pinus strobus
  • American Arborvitae / Northern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis
  • Eastern Hemlock Tsuga canadensis

Small Trees (native & regionally native)

  • Eastern Redbud Cercis canadensis

    Small tree on the left: Eastern redbud, right tree: black cherry

  • Pagoda Dogwood Cornus alternifolia
  • Flowering Dogwood Cornus florida
  • Common Witchhazel Hamamelis virginiana

Non-Native Mature Shade Trees

  • Norway Maple Acer platanoides
  • Tree-of-Heaven Ailanthus altissima
  • White Mulberry Morus alba
  • Little-leaf Linden Tilia cordata
  • Father David Elm Ulmus davidiana
  • Siberian Elm Ulmus pumila

Young Non-Native Shade Trees

  • European Beech Fagus sylvatica (several cultivars including Tricolor)

Non-Native Evergreen Trees

  • Serbian Spruce Picea omorika
  • Chinese Arborvitae Platycladus orientalis
  • Japanese Yew Taxus cuspidata Capitata

Non-Native small trees

  • Paperbark Maple Acer griseum
  • Japanese Maple Acer palmatum cultivars
  • European Hornbeam Carpinus betulus
  • Weeping Katsura Tree Cercidiphyllum japonicum Pendula
  • Saucer Magnolia Magnolia x soulangiana
  • Flowering Crabapple Malus hybrids, numerous cultivars (these actually function as native)
  • Apple Malus pumila (functions as native)
  • Sweet Cherry Prunus avium
  • Sour Cherry Prunus cerasus
  • Peach Prunus persica
  • Weeping Higan Cherry Prunus subhirtella pendula
  • Callery Pear Pyrus calleryana


Middle: black oak


Northern catalpa


Left: white ash, right: bur oak, middle: home of the first mayor of Rockford.


Left: white pine, right: red maple


All photos: Alan Branhagen




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