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Chicago Gave America the Prairie Style of Landscape

The English lawn came to Chicago in the 1850s.

The home landscape in the Victorian decades that followed resembled the home landscape design of the east coast at the same time.

By the end of the century the University of Illinois landscape instructor Wilhem Miller proposed that native plants, like grasses, be used in the landscape. He called it the ‘prairie style’ of landscape. He eventually wrote a book about it entitled The Prairie Spirit in Landscape Gardening, published in 1914. [below]

Miller loved the English garden with its natural style.  He considered the use of native plants perfectly suited in that kind of design.

Thus from the American midwest began this movement to use native plants in the landscape. By the early 1900s landscape architect and plantsman Jens Jenson (1860-1951) had already begun to design home landscapes in that kind of design, preferring native plants, in the more natural rather than geometric look.

Miller rightly recognized Jenson’s early contribution.  Miller called Jensen “probably the first designer who consciously took the prairie as a leading motive.”

On my recent trip to Chicago I stayed in Naperville, about an hour drive southwest of Chicago.

While driving around the streets of Naperville, I noticed along Book Road an area the size of a couple of city blocks, that  looked like prairie fields, where a pathway provided a walker a view of nothing but fields of native plants in various sizes. It was a beautiful sight.

Today Naperville continues that tradition of using prairie plants in the landacape, in this case, through its public park-like areas.

Miller 3In her book Chicago Gardens: The Early History Cathy Jean Maloney writes, “Chicago’s prairie-style landscape architects designed properties across the nation, but have been rediscovered only in the past few decades.”

That recognition of the prairie style reinforces the importance of native plants in the landscape.




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