When a call went out for “All Hands on Deck!” to save declining monarch butterflies, Bruce Blake was prepared to answer it. He had planted native gardens for years and knew what needed to be done.

Bruce’s introduction to gardening began as a kid. He spent his early years following his Aunt Tracey around the yard as she tended flowers and a vegetable garden at a home shared with his extended family. Bruce acquired a love of planting and nurturing flowers that led him to a conservation movement dedicated to protecting natural areas.

Prairie restoration and wildflower preservation has a long history in the Chicago Region dating back to the nineteenth century. Jens Jensen, a Danish landscape designer, fell in love with the midwest prairie landscape when he moved to Chicago in 1885. He selected only native wildflowers for a garden in a Chicago park, which came to be known as the American Garden. The garden thrived as the plants were well suited to the local growing conditions. As a result of the garden’s success, Jensen was hired as a park foreman. His wildflower gardens made native plants available for public viewing and the plants, often thought of as “weeds,” became respectable. Landscape designs with native flowers and grasses have continued to the present, appearing in high profile locations such as Lurie Gardens in Millennium Park.

Bruce first encountered native plants in the late 1990’s when he met Denise Sandoval at a Morton Arboretum event. At that time Sandoval was an employee with Natural Garden and a member of Wild Ones Greater DuPage, both of which have deep connections with prairie plants. The Natural Garden nursery was established in 1953 with a variety of native plants rescued from areas being developed in Kane County. By the 1990’s, it was the first local nursery to containerize natives and was considered an expert in growing prairie plants. Wild Ones Greater DuPage was the first Illinois chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization advocating for native plants and promoting the benefits of eco-gardening.

The chance meeting with Sandoval opened the door for Bruce to become involved with recreating prairies and protecting natural areas. He began by joining Wild Ones where he continued to learn about native plants from their members. He planted a small patch of prairie in his front yard, his first hands-on experience of growing a native plant garden.

With an expanding knowledge of native plants, Bruce was ready to take on a larger project. He became a steward for the Churchill Woods Glacial Ridge Forest Preserve in Glen Ellyn. Stewards are volunteers who help staff in the care and maintenance of the district’s prairies and woodlands. Bruce leads two monthly work days where volunteers remove invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle which threaten the health of the ecosystem. Volunteers also collect seeds from the native plants and spread them throughout the preserve.

Bruce talking with volunteers at a Glacial Ridge Work Day

Like a modern day Johnny Appleseed, Bruce went on a mission to promote habitat style gardens throughout the county. He was quick to see the potential for projects in his other volunteer activities. Over 1,500 of his homegrown plants were sold at a local Sierra Club fund raiser. As a scoutmaster for Troop 202, he oversaw an Eagle Scout project that established native grasses and flowers along the Illinois Prairie Path in Lombard.

Bruce leading volunteers planting
at the 83rd St Park in Woodridge

Eventually Bruce’s enthusiasm for native plants led him to the DuPage Monarch Project. He was already volunteering with two of DMP’s collaborators, the DuPage Forest Preserve District and River Prairie Group of the Illinois Sierra Club and was a member of Wild Ones. As DMP’s Habitat Specialist, he has worked with Immigrant Solidarity DuPage on two pollinator plantings in Glendale Heights and one in West Chicago.

Volunteers installing a walkway at the St Andrew Lutheran Church Pollinator Garden in West Chicago, a joint DuPage Monarch and Immigrant Solidarity project

There are many different stories of how farmers, gardeners, land owners and managers came to embrace native plants but they all share common themes. A love of the natural world and a recognition of the valuable eco-services native plants provide – storm water management. erosion control, carbon sequestration, pollination and habitat for wildlife. Most importantly, natural areas in backyards, parks and along roadsides improve our quality of life now and leave a healthier planet for future generations.

Meet Bruce at these upcoming events:

Earth Day Celebration – April 19, 10:30aa – 2:00pm – Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital – Downers Grove

SCARCE Growin’ Green Garden Market – May 6, 9am – 1:00pm – Look for Prairie Wind Native Plants

Volunteer Work Days at Glacial Ridge Preserve April 15 & 22, May 13& 27, June 10 & 24 Contact Bruce at Rllnstns1@aol.com