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Arboretum at Donovan Park showcases native trees to help Peorians plant their own on the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day

Donovan Park in Peoria as the sun sets
© Chris Khoury Productions
Donovan Park in Peoria as the sun sets.

The Peoria area is bustling with all sorts of companies, restaurants, performance spaces, universities, and other organizations. However, an often overlooked part of our urbanized community is the expansive greenery that surrounds us on a daily basis.

Mike Miller is supervisor of Environmental Services at the Peoria Park District (PPD). He said Peoria has more than 1,600 acres of dedicated nature preserves within the district, and 8,600 acres of park lands within the Peoria region.

“The foresight of people back in the early 1960s, like the Forest Park Foundation, helped acquire a lot of the green space that we have today,” explained Miller.

Miker Miller, supervisor of environmental services at the Peoria Park District
Jody Holtz
Miker Miller, supervisor of environmental services at the Peoria Park District

These green spaces include places like the Forest Park Nature Center, Camp Wokanda, Sommer Farm, Robinson Park, and several others. Also included on the extensive list is Giant Oak Park, which is one of the district’s smallest parks, but is home to one of the largest, oldest trees in Peoria.

The Burr Oak is believed to be about 300 years old, with branches stretching at least 100 feet above a trunk that has a 13- foot circumference. Miller said while trees like this may not be one in a million in Peoria, they are about one in 10,000.

“They’re very rare. Trees here in central Illinois, there’s always something that’s trying to knock them down…our climate is not real conducive for things surviving as long as some of these trees have,” he said.

Trees as old and burly as the giant oak are more important than just being a sight to see. Their genetic makeup proves their ability to withstand changing climate, from ice storms to heavy winds. This is why Miller said it’s crucial that they replicate.

“It’s really important for the integrity of the forest that trees that can survive that long replicate and produce offspring so that the forest can survive and the good genetic stock of those individual trees moves on,” he said.

In order to aid in this replication process, Miller said he and his team periodically take acorns from the Burr Oak and raise them. Once they’re strong enough, they will be planted with others in the forest.

Other than humans planting trees in certain areas, a lot of environmental factors contribute to why different types of trees thrive in different locations.

“The soil, what type of soil is it…the soils can kind of dictate how moisture interplays with the tree…the aspect, is it on a slope, is it on flat ground, where is the groundwater in comparison to the top of the soil layer where the trees are growing? Those all kind of dictate what type of trees will grow in an area,” noted Miller.

We see these factors play out locally in a variety of ways. Areas near the Illinois River flood frequently, leading to Cotton and Silver Maple trees. On the bluff top near Bradley University, trees such as Oak and Hickories are commonly found.

“Oaks and Hickories are the types of trees that can survive prairie fires fairly successfully, so the fact that we had prairie here and prairie fires did happen naturally, the types of trees that survive the long term here had to be able to deal not only with the soil and the water, but also with the other ecosystems that were growing near them,” Miller said.

While the nature preserves in Peoria are forever protected, Miller said there’s a lot of woodlands that aren’t protected. And with the growing threat of climate change, he said there are a number of threats facing our forests today.

“One is just the outright human threat of, 'OK, let's go and log it and cut everything out of it' … you’re taking away that forest's integrity by heavily logging an area,” he said.

While cutting down a bunch of trees seems like an obvious threat, Miller said there is another threat that is much more subtle: invasive species.

“There are some non-native species that can infest a forest and really change the soil conditions and change the forest dynamic because they have no natural predators or enemies or anything here that controls their population, where the native trees do. That’s what we term as a benign neglect threat,” said Miller.

Keeping up with invasive species can be incredibly difficult when looking at hundreds of acres of forestry. As far as solutions go, Miller said the first tool is getting to know the forest by taking an inventory of the trees, plants and species. In that process, Miller said you can typically spot infestations that are preventing the forest from reaching its full potential.

For the average person who doesn’t know much about trees or forests, there’s still ways to help the greenery around Peoria thrive, and even add to it. Today, April 29, is Arbor day, a day known for planting and celebrating the trees that greet us every morning. If you want to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor day this year by planting some trees, Miller offers a key consideration to make sure your tree contribution is helpful to the environment.

“There’s a lot of trees that know how to live here. By planting native trees…you’re doing a lot to protect not just the integrity of where we live, but you’re helping expand everything that’s good about places like Forest Park Nature Center and stuff in our parks into our neighborhoods.”

For those who need help determining which trees are native to central Illinois, Donovan Park has opened a new arboretum that showcases trees best suited to survive in the region. There also will be a planting day at the arboretum on at 1:30 p.m. May 6.

For more information on the Arbnet Arboretum Accreditation program, which provides the PPD with the resources needed to publicize the Donovan Park Arboretum as well as educational tools about the importance of woody plant appreciation, visit their website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.