AUSTIN — Just beside the corner of Grand and Lockwood avenues sits a lush, green area dense with wildlife native to the Illinois prairie.
A monarch butterfly circles overhead while hundreds of honeybees poke in and out of pink-and-purple blossoms in search of nectar. Spotted beetles feed on the foliage while caterpillars and other larvae hang from the undersides of the rubbery milkweed leaves.
This thicket of shrubbery, flowers and prairie grass sits in the center of a largely industrial area in north Austin on the city’s West Side. It isn’t one of the city’s nature parks — this is the Chicago Fire Department’s Engine 68 firehouse.
“We always had flowers and everything out there,” said Steve Somogyi, an engineer at the firehouse who decided to let native plants take over the station’s garden. “And just out of the course of nature being nature, one or two milkweeds popped up, and we knew what they were and we left them alone.”
By deciding not to pull out the milkweeds, Somogyi allowed the garden to become a habitat for all kinds of insects. Most notably, the leaves of the milkweed are the only food source for the monarch caterpillar. “Over the course of two years, three years, you know, they’re weeds— they grow like weeds. And then we see the caterpillars and you see the butterflies,” Somogyi said.
Monarch butterfly populations have seen a sharp decline in recent years due to a decrease in the milkweed plants they rely on for reproduction in northern migratory zones. But monarchs aren’t the only species struggling with habitat loss.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the grasslands that once spanned across the Midwest have seen a steep decline. Of the 22 million acres of natural prairie that once covered 60 percent of the state, now only 2,500 acres remain. And as the prairie habitats have shrunk in the Chicago area and beyond, the familiar wildlife native to those ecosystems have become more scarce.
“It’s not like when we were kids anymore. I mean look, you used to go out when you were a kid and on hot summer night, and you’d see millions and millions of lightning bugs. Or you’d see grasshoppers all over the grass, and monarch butterflies,” Somogyi said. “Now you don’t see any of the three.”
Somogyi is glad the lot can be used not only to beautify the neighborhood, but also to help preserve the natural wildlife that once was ubiquitous in the region. He plans on spreading milkweed seeds behind the firehouse as well, and says that supporting native plant species is a much better use of space than maintaining the type of green, manicured lawn that would never be found in nature.
“There used to be, I think, two patches of grass out here you know,” he said. “What purpose does that serve?”
While Somogyi has largely taken the lead on propagating the milkweed plants at the firehouse, he says that others have followed suit and started to grow milkweed in their own gardens with hopes of welcoming the monarch butterflies to their homes.
An added benefit to growing a native plant like milkweed is that they are incredibly hardy and well-adapted to the climate and soil conditions. Unlike the delicate lawn grasses native to Europe, prairie species have evolved to thrive in the Midwest even without routine care.
“The flowers need the water and stuff. But like the milkweed could probably take a blowtorch to it when they would come back,” said Somogyi.
Even beyond the firehouse and people’s homes, the city’s urban ecosystem would benefit from restoring open spaces with native grasses, Somogyi said. In the open lots and vacant spaces that have become abundant in parts of the west side, he sees an opportunity to help the city coexist with nature. Native plants and animals to the Midwest might as well be allowed to flourish in the otherwise unused lots, he says.
“There’s this whole swath of grass. Why couldn’t it be prairie?”
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