By Rachel Duckett
Wildflowers peek their heads through the grass. An eastern tailed-blue butterfly flits among the tall, swaying blades as a red-winged blackbird flies overhead.
When Fred Delcomyn looks outside, this is what he might see.
In 2001, when he and his wife, Nancy, moved to their home outside of Urbana, Illinois, it looked a lot different.
“We found this place, and it was about half wooded and half agricultural land,” he said. “You walked out the front door, there was a bit of a garden and then you saw a field of corn or soybeans, depending upon what they were growing at the time.”
The couple were looking for a home surrounded by nature, a quest that resonated with how they met at the University of Oregon.
“She used to hang around the lab, and we had a group that went out into natural areas around Eugene, and she kind of joined that group,” he said about his wife. “And that’s how we got to know one another.”
In 2003, Delcomyn, a retired professor of entomology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, decided to turn two-and-a-half acres of his backyard into prairie.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources provided equipment to plow the land.
“Any size prairie planting or garden can be beneficial by providing habitat for pollinators,” said Chris Young, the director of the agency’s Office of Resource Conservation.
Delcomyn enlisted the help of botanist James L. Ellis to assist with controlled burns.
They had met through Grand Prairie Friends, a prairie conservation organization in Illinois. Both remain members and serve on the group’s board of directors.
They’re also co-authors of the new book, “A Backyard Prairie. The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers.”
“It’s just been a joy and a great interest to see it grow up over the years,” said Delcomyn. “We thought a book would be a good idea, and I thought, well, I could do this by myself.
“But Jamie’s been sort of a partner in this, and he’s really the botanical expert.”
“A Backyard Prairie. The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers” features Delcomyn’s photography and aims to broaden appreciation for prairie ecosystems, no matter how small.
Small scraps of prairie ecosystems are important, Ellis said. The book was written to show, “Yes, it can be done, it can bring joy, it can bring pollinators, it can bring wildlife.”
But Delcomyn called promoting conservation an “ancillary benefit.” It wasn’t their main goal in writing the book.
“The trend towards using native plants in your garden, of even having a wild or semi-wild stretch of our little plot on your grounds instead of a manicured lawn, is all a step in the right direction,” he said, “It raises public consciousness, it raises public awareness, it raises appreciation for these natural areas.”
While prairie once covered 60% of Illinois, amounting to about 22 million acres, now just around 2,500 acres remain, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
“It is a labor of love for those who care for our native prairies and keep them healthy,” said Young. “Without active management, including prescribed fire, trees and shrubs will invade and compete with prairie plants.”
Young advises anyone considering planting native prairie plants in their backyard to make sure to choose the right ones.
“Some prairie plants can grow to be very tall and might seem out of place in a small backyard setting,” he said.
Now, Delcomyn and his wife enjoy their wild backyard prairie, revived from its one-time neat, plowed rows of corn and soybeans.
“It requires a couple hours a month out there, but I just walk around and enjoy it,” Delcomyn said. “It’s not a replacement for the prairie, but it’s kind of an example of what you can do.”