Inspiring People: Horticulturalist Henry Eilers

From the (home office) desk of Layne Knoche, landscape designer:

I first met Henry Eilers at an Extension Master Gardener event in Montgomery County, Illinois in spring 2019. I’d been asked to give a talk about the integration of natives in the home landscape and in rain gardens and I was elated to see such a large gathering of like-minded people, just a county over from where I grew up in rural south-central Illinois. Being a Master Gardener myself, I knew a decent amount of people in attendance, especially those from Macoupin County, where I live. However, there were plenty of others that I’d never met before, including Henry.

After the presentation, one of my Master Gardener friends informed me that a prominent botanist and horticulturalist was in attendance and that I should introduce myself. This, of course, was Henry himself and we instantly connected. His passion for the natural world and all things plants was so clear, so electrifying that I knew I’d have a friend in him, even though we are generations apart.

A few weeks after that event, he asked me to join him for a tour of a cemetery savanna nature preserve. There he showed me a variety of uncommon, rare, and even endangered plant species that I’d never heard of, many of which are declining rapidly in large numbers. That day helped open my mind to the possibilities in the bridging of design and nature – especially when it comes to planting design.

This spring, I went to the nature reserve that bears his name: The Henry Eilers Shoal Creek Conservation Area. It was a warm, cloudy day towards the end of March that happened to be my birthday. More than anything, I needed to get outside into nature during this time of social distancing. While walking down steep ravines and through creeks and brush, Henry’s words resonated with me:

“It’s incredible to me that we value so little the things that surround us.”

Henry Eilers

Of course, my educational background is in landscape architecture and while I have little formal training or education specific to the native flora of Illinois, I’m driven to understand as much as possible about these natural systems. I believe they have a direct tie to what I, as a landscape designer, should strive to accomplish – that is, the integration of natural systems into synthetic, man-made systems – down to the smallest of details. Knowing the site conditions necessary to sustain a healthy plant is one thing, but understanding the complex relationships between one plant and another in native communities is an entire separate, yet equally important, ballgame.

For example, we can look at spring ephemerals. These are plants that show up for a month or two in spring, taking advantage of the sunlight streaming through the leafless tree branches of forest canopies. Some, like Spring Beauty, bloom long before plants we’ve become accustomed to seeing bloom. Those tiny white flowers dotting the forest floor provide pollen and nectar for early rising pollinators. Those pollinators are part of an entire system worth explanation, but that needs to be left for an expert. We just need to understand and value those kinds of relationships.

We’ve surrounded ourselves for far too long with traditional turfgrass lawns. We use exotic invasive plants far too often. It’s time to replace Burning Bush in the landscape trades with Aronia, Bradford Pear trees with Serviceberry, Miscanthus with Prairie Dropseed, and Vinca with Wild Ginger. I’m proud of the fact that the Red Oak Rain Garden stands as an example of this transition to natives. Our team converted thousands of square feet of wet lawn into an area of eco-valuable native grasses, sedges and forbs. This not only provides habitat and food sources for native fauna, but also provides stormwater benefits for the University of Illinois campus. The rain garden helps to kindle some small form of mutual system-building to repair a portion of the environmental loss incurred so long ago.

This brings me to my final point for this post: there is still hope. Environmentalists, horticulturalists, botanists, ecologists, designers, and self-proclaimed plant nerds may find it easy to look at the landscape of Illinois and be overwhelmed with the loss our environment has endured. Illinois has one-tenth of one percent of original prairie remaining and what’s left of our forests face the ever-increasing threat of invasive species, not to mention the wetlands, marshes, savannas and other ecosystems that we’ve lost. We must do what we can to protect, preserve and expand natural systems through policy, education, outreach and implementation.

Our native landscape is resilient. Henry once described a species of clover long-thought to be extirpated from the area. It was never one he had documented or observed in his many decades of stewarding the Conservation Area. That is until a recent prescribed burn led to the germination of seed that had likely been dormant for more than 50 years! After all that time, those tiny seeds remained viable. They found a way, but only after one amazing human being intervened and gave value to the little things that surrounded him. Let’s be like Henry. The world needs us.

For more about Henry Eilers’ life, work, and achievements:

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