MAHOMET – Tucked behind the Early American Museum at Lake of the Woods Preserve are 10 acres of beautiful gardens with hundreds of flowers, trees, shrubs and plants.
The Mabery Gelvin Botanical Gardens are full of walking paths, blooming flowers and gardening discoveries.
As I walked through this area of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, I wondered why I had never taken the time to visit here before or heard much about these well-kept gardens.
With my tour guides, Natural Resources Director Dan Olson and Garden Supervisor Larry Beckett, I visited each of the smaller, unique gardens. The first garden on our path was the Miriam H. Davies Enabling Garden, which is also a sensory garden. According to Beckett, this spot is especially for individuals with a mental or physical challenge.
"It was designed so that our larger planters, you can either walk up to them and easily work in them," Beckett said. "If you are in a wheelchair, the lower ones are at the correct height for pulling the wheelchair up next to them to experience or work in."
People can encounter nature with all senses – except taste. Guests are encouraged to feel the leaves and listen to the sounds from a fountain and the birds. Different types of flowers and plants, many that are found in tropical regions, fill the air with new scents. The display kiosk will soon host information about gardening tools, equipped for people with physical challenges.
"This is definitely a place that a lot of classes, a lot of groups of kids, even the teachers and parents of home-schooled kids come out and do use this part of the garden," Olson said. Patio furniture and a large trellis stand on the edge of the garden, inviting people to sit and picnic here.
Next, we followed the path to an oriental-style bridge spanning a pond filled with coy and goldfish. A waterfall feeds into the pond, which is one of the most popular features of the botanical gardens, according to my guides. Many weddings are held near this spot. Photographers often snap graduation pictures, wedding parties and family portraits with this background. WCIA TV's "Best of the Class," spotlighting the area's top graduating high school seniors, is also filmed here.
In the middle of the gardens, an American flag waves above the plants and a plaque, dedicating the botanical gardens to Mabery Gelvin, the wife of Champaign businessman H.I. Gelvin. According to Andee Chestnut, public information director, H.I. Gelvin "was really the driving force behind everything, from establishment to building of facilities to publicity to fundraising."
The Forest Preserve District was established in 1935 after a voter referendum. Gelvin didn't open Lake of the Woods until after World War II in 1948. At this time, a small garden existed, but the expanded area wasn't dedicated until 1974, where visitors have enjoyed it ever since.
For children, a one-room schoolhouse, originally the Hensley town hall built in 1895, and a discovery garden are available to explore. The discovery garden – filled with sunflowers, vegetables, annuals and gourds – is "the biggest endeavor this year," Olson said.
At a summer day camp, children mulch, weed, water and harvest plants in the discovery garden, according to horticultural educator Laura Witzling. Four hand-crafted scarecrows hang near the plants, thanks to the campers. The discovery garden also hosts a small area of medicinal prairie plants, cultivated by Master Gardener Maggie Dougherty-Roberts. These plants will be used to show students and other tour groups what pioneers and Native Americans used for medicine.
At the end of my tour, we looked at the All American Selections Display Garden. "We've probably got, this year, about 30 different annual plants on display," Beckett said. "Of past All American selections, and present, and some future, which they give us seed to grow 2 or 3 varieties that will be in the catalogs next year."
Future plans for the gardens are to plant more trees and shrubs and create better walking paths. Both Beckett and Olson stressed how they welcome all visitors to the botanical gardens to experience nature right here in East Central Illinois.
If you go
What: The Mabery Gelvin Botanical Gardens
Where: Lake of the Woods Preserve, near Mahomet
Hours: Dawn to Dusk
Directions from Champaign: Take Interstate 74 west to Exit 172 (Illinois 47). Go right on Illinois 47, enter Lake of the Woods Preserve at the Early American Museum entrance. Park in the museum lot and walk through the museum to the gardens, or park behind the building and walk directly to the gardens.
Phone: 217-586-4389 or 217-586-4630