Campus Ecosystems: Shooting Star Savanna
In the early 1990s, Associate Professor of Biology Ken Weik brought an idea to Associate Professor of Economics Jeff Sundberg to embark on an ambitious ecological restoration project on Lake Forest College middle campus. The idea was to restore a 2 hectare section of lawn and degraded woodland just north of Johnson Hall and bordering Witchhazel Ravine, to its most likely pre-settlement condition: a deep-soil oak savanna.
The College liked the idea, and agreed to stop mowing the lawn in this area, and to transfer stewardship to a group of faculty, staff, and students who were interested in the restoration project. Inspired by this vision, a small core of volunteers led by Sundberg, Weik, Associate Professor of English Ben Goluboff, and college trustee and alumnus, Dennis Nyren ’72 spent two years cutting buckthorn and removing garbage, including a 1950s-era Pepsi machine. By 1993, the area was ready for the first burn. Cliff Miller, a local landscaper, then hopped on board, bringing his extensive knowledge of native plant landscaping with him.
Over the years, the core group of faculty and staff volunteers expanded, and numerous student groups, Greek organizations, and students in the environmental studies program joined in the effort, volunteering their time to participate in work days to conduct burns, plant and seed more than 50 species of native plants, remove exotic plants, and maintain trails. Student help was particularly vital during the early phase when a great deal of hard labor was required. As interest in the area grew, the College provided tools and a storage closet. As if mother nature, herself, intended to match the efforts of the restoration team, some signature savanna species including the Savanna’s namesake, the Shooting Star, have come back by themselves from small remnants that lived on at the margins of, or even underneath the lawn.
In 2005, to help boost efforts, Ben and Carol Zlateff made a substantial donation in honor of Bennie Zlateff ’40 and his wife, Dorothy, both who had a life-long love for both Lake Forest College and the natural environment around them. Their generous donation paid for a number of improvements to the area including interpretive signage and two benches. These improvements brought increased attention to the area, resulting in its naming and inclusion on the official campus map. The area’s namesake, the Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia L.), a member of the primrose family, is one of the rarer and more spectacular of the region’s native wildflowers. Each flower has five petals that sweep back, giving it the appearance of the tail of a shooting star. The flower can range in color from light pink to magenta, and has a fragrance similar to grape juice. It blooms each year in mid-May, right around the time of Lake Forest College’s commencement ceremony, as if to signal the graduation of another cohort of Foresters. Since the beginning of the Savanna restoration project, the Shooting Star patch at the eastern end of the area has exploded from an initial remnant hanging on at the bluff edge and possibly in and under the lawn, into one of the biggest and most spectacular patches of this plant in the region, inspiring the awe of the Chicagoland botanical cognoscenti.
Thanks to the past and continuing efforts of many members of the Lake Forest College community, the Shooting Star Savanna has blossomed into a haven for plants and wildlife. In spring through fall it is ablaze with color, proceeding through an annual flowering succession of native prairie and savanna plants. Its lush vegetation hosts a dazzling array of insects and spiders, and a wide variety of birds passing through during migration. In large measure, it has achieved the characteristic vegetation structure and floristic composition of a deep-soil savanna, one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystem types in the midwestern United States. The Shooting Star Savanna stands as a living testament to the power of human beings to learn about, redefine, and improve their own role in the ecosystems that they call home.