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Native plants support wildlife and add beauty that is representative of Illinois’ former most-dominant native ecosystem, the prairie.

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In last week’s column, I covered a fascinating publication from 1915 titled “The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening” that provides an interesting view of landscape design from the past.

The booklet was written by Wilhelm Miller from the Department of Horticulture at University of Illinois and was provided “free to anyone in Illinois who will sign a promise to do some permanent ornamental planting within one year.”

The back cover contains the “short ballot” that recipients must sign to receive the free publication. It begins by stating, “I believe that one of the greatest races of men in the world will be developed in the region of prairies. I will help to prove the vast plains need not level down humanity to a dead monotony in appearance, conduct and ideals. I feel the uplifting influence of the rich, rolling prairie and will bring its spirit into my daily life.”

This statement is meant to reflect the “Prairie Style of landscape gardening” that Miller details earlier in the booklet.

He explains that it’s “an American mode of design based upon the practical needs of the Middle-Western people and characterized by preservation of typical western scenery, by restoration of local color and by repetition of the horizontal line of the land or sky, which is the strongest feature of prairie scenery.”

Continuing his explanation, Miller explains that the “Prairie Style” contains three basic principles: “conservation of native scenery, restoration of local vegetation and repetition of a dominant line.” He explains how landscapes should reflect the infinite horizon of the prairie by maintaining a dominant line, or at times, a long length of view that emulates prairie.

The horizontal plain becomes the central focus of this concept, in which Miller selects woody plants with strong horizontal branching as opposed to overly vertical habitats. When adding a vertical element with larger, woody plants, Miller recommends “stratified” trees and shrubs, such as hawthorn or crabapple, which don’t get as tall and have a more spreading and horizontal habit.

It is intriguing to consider Miller’s “Prairie Style” in the context of design across other disciplines of the early 1900s. A parallel frame of thinking had already emerged in the world of architecture and interior design from Frank Lloyd Wright and his contemporaries. Miller’s booklet actually include examples from Wright and his early mentor, Louis Sullivan, in several figures.

Throughout this booklet, Miller is working to dispel the myth that landscaping is only for the wealthy. It is interesting to think about a time when the average homeowner needed to be convinced that perennial landscape plants were a practical addition to their properties. This is much different than today, when even large retail outlets have an extensive stock of plant material that is readily accessible to most folks despite economic status.

In more recent years, the message to “go native” has centered on either the fact that native plants are more suited and will do better in their native climate (when compared to non-natives) or the ecological benefits. Today, we spend more time discussing the role of native plants in support of wildlife and local biodiversity than their ornamental aspects.

Miller’s message centered on the need to add elements of our native ecosystem to the built environment so plantings in our cities and towns truly represent Illinois’ dominant native community, the prairie. I think this is a really compelling message even today. Shouldn’t all Illinois communities embody and preserve our prairie heritage?

In researching this article, I ran across several additional publications by Miller released in the early 1900s. I look forward to exploring more of his work to better understand horticulture in Illinois over the past century.

If you are interested in reading the complete booklet, it is available at go.Illinois.edu/PrairieSpirit1915. Additional works by Miller are available through the Funk ACES Library in Urbana and online at ideals.illinois.edu.

Special thanks to Anne Silvis for introducing me to this intriguing collection of literature.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.