Field Notes from Natural Land Institute’s Executive Director, Alan Branhagen, who visited Devil’s Backbone Preserve with other NLI staff on Dec. 19, 2023.

L: Ben Davies, Boone County Conservation District and R: Laura Helmich, Natural Land Institute stand next to the sandstone outcrop at Devil’s Backbone Preserve. Photo: Alan Branhagen

I arrived at Devil’s Backbone before 9am and met NLI’s stewardship team: Zach Grycan, Stewardship Director; Tyler Pellegrini, Restoration Ecologist; Laura Helmich, Field Biologist; and joined by Ben Davies, Resource Management Technician from Boone County Conservation District. Ben joined us to collect seed from a unique plant at this site, the large-flowered false foxglove (Aureolaria grandiflora). We discussed past management on the site and headed for the hill prairie remnant and sandstone outcrop feature the site is named after. In the open hill prairie we found the false foxglove and many other good indicator plants from rough blazing stars and alumroot to tall coreopsis.  Overall, it was clear the site was a much more open savanna than the woodland of today and we noted gnarly old oak trees who have lost their lower limbs to shade competition.

A hike out on the Devil’s Backbone sandstone feature revealed wonderful evergreen polypody ferns and spinulose woodferns (see picture of Laura and Ben on the rock outcrop). Ben pointed out Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) hanging off the rock outcrop (photo by Ben).  Black chokeberry is found only locally in similar sandstone outcrops or sandy areas and has become a popular ornamental shrub.  Its fruit are very high in anti-oxidants and added to many juice blends – they make very good preserves similar to sour cherries.  Deer are ravenous browsers of this shrub but it was safely out of reach on the cliff.

We walked up the top of the ridge to explore the boundaries of this 59.1-acre preserve that is recognized as an Illinois Natural Heritage Landmark. The forest has large northern red, white and bur oaks, black walnut and some significant old hackberries. On the ridgetop we found a very unique hawthorn (Crataegus species). (See image with Tyler and close ups of the fruit and leaves) This tree does not match any I am familiar with – it has small red persistent fruit so is dispersed by birds (most of our native hawthorns drop their fruit when ripe and are dispersed by mammals). Washington and green hawthorns have fruits like this but are not locally native and the leaves on this tree are not a match to those species.  Using the key in the new Flora of the Chicago Region it is closest to Crataegus cuneiformis. Hawthorns are in worrisome decline as our woodlands have become too closed and dense and other open and edge communities disappear.

Laura led us to a patch of blueberries she had discovered in bloom in spring – they were also a surprise species: velvet or “Canadian” blueberry (Vaccinium myrtlilloides)!  This shrub is rarely found this far south and demands acid, sandy soil. Its velvety “fuzzy” stems are distinctive.  Not far away on our return to the car we also found another very unique shrub new to the site: huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata).  Huckleberry also needs sandy acidic soil and is rare in Illinois. In between we found more of the beautiful large-flowered false foxglove so Ben was able to collect a good quantity of seed. The seed will be used for a sandy savanna restoration project in Boone County. NLI is glad to partner with other conservation organizations to enrich the natural areas of our entire region with locally sourced plants.

Devil’s Backbone is an NLI treasured preserve I had not visited since November of 1988 on a hike with former NLI employee Brian Pruka. I remember its beautiful stands of fall-blooming witchhazel (Hamamelis virgininana) which were done blooming on this visit. I am thankful for Harriet (Mrs. Albert F.) Lowden who donated the original 41 acres to the Natural Land Institute on October 7, 1970. 18 acres have since been acquired and added to the preserve. As we returned to our vehicles, our team discussed stewardship needs of this unique site and our new floral discoveries added to our thought that this should be added to the Illinois Nature Preserves system for highest legal protection. We soon will have a contractor working to clear much needed safe burn breaks and to open up some of the former hill prairies.  The site will require occasional fire and removal of some invasive shrubs (Amur honeysuckle, burning bush and Japanese barberry were noted). Some rare plants (pink corydalis, kittentails and prairie dandelion) found historically on the site will need more sun and we are hopeful they are still in the seedbank or relic. I can’t wait to see the site again, hopefully sooner than 35 years!


Ben Davies from Boone County Conservation District. Photo: Alan Branhagen


Laura Helmich hugs an old bur oak tree. Photo: Alan Branhagen


Tyler Pellegrini stands next to a hawthorn tree. Photo: Alan Branhagen.


Hawthorn fruit Photo: Alan Branhagen


Large-flowered foxglove seed pods. Photo: Alan Branhagen


The large-flowered foxglove flower in bloom.


The hairy stems of the blueberry shrub. Photo: Alan Branhagen




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