Native Grassland Reconstruction Case Study

Possible Reconstruction of a Bur Oak Opening or Oak Savannah at the Whitehouse Nature Center Research Area: An Interdisciplinary Case Study

by Tamara Crupi, Director of Whitehouse Nature Center,

Albion College, Albion, Michigan

People restore all kinds of things - furniture, paintings, boats, cars, houses, churches, neighborhoods - why not native plant communities?


Before European settlement of the Midwest and Great Lakes region, there were native grasslands in southern Michigan. Some of these prairies were of the type known as oak openings, generally located within forested areas and usually on the glacial outwash plains in areas of the eastern Great Lakes. Several maps of pre-settlement vegetation in Michigan indicate the research area at Whitehouse Nature Center was some type of grassland, either bur oak opening or oak savanna. Prairies and oak openings occupied an important place in our history, both for the pioneers who cleared them to farm and for the Native Americans who hunted and lived on them. However, today only a few patches of original prairie remain intact in Michigan, many of these along railroads; in southern Michigan there remain no original prairies of the type known as bur oak opening.

Description of oak opening (oak savanna) and bur oak opening (bur oak plain)

An oak opening is a prairie or grassland surrounded by forest. Within the grassland there are intermittent oaks spaced singly or in clumps (1-15 per acre). (Occasionally the term oak savanna is used in the literature.) This plant community is characterized by the presence of prairie grasses and other, often colorful, flowering plants, as well as sporadic trees - white, yellow, or black oak. When a pure strain of bur oak is present, then the grassland is called a bur oak opening (or bur oak plain). Various shrubs such as hazelnut are also typical, as are many vertebrate and invertebrate species, e.g., badgers, American Bison, Karner Blue butterflies. Visualizing an oak opening can be difficult. There is a nice description of one toward the beginning of James Fenimore Cooper's Oak Openings, published in 1848.

Purpose of the case study

Though formerly widespread, oak openings are known to us now only in literature. These areas that were at one time attractive parts of the southern Michigan landscape no longer exist, and in their place we often find unused, scrubby, and unattractive farmland, such as the research area at the Nature Center.

Part of the mission of Whitehouse Nature Center is to provide examples of various plants, animals, and communities for students of ecology or local history. The area currently designated for biology research in the Nature Center is not committed to a use that would exclude habitat restoration. Would it then be desirable to reconstruct the area in order to provide an example of one of the world's rarest ecosystems? Could such a reconstruction be undertaken on the eastern twenty acres of the Whitehouse Nature Center research area? (See Nature Center map on website )

Elements of the case study

In examining this possibility the following should be considered:

  1. Which type of oak opening, bur oak or oak savanna, would best be located in the research area?
  2. Which species should be included in the reconstruction?
    1. Where and how can they be obtained?
    2. Are there important factors in their arboriculture to consider?
  3. Is the soil suitable for such a project?
  4. What techniques should be used in the reconstruction?
  5. How should the area be managed after reconstruction?
  6. What effects would there be on existing wildlife? For example, can the existing Bluebird next boxes remain?
  7. What are the problems such a reconstruction would represent to the
  8. What would be the cost of such a project?
  9. What are some suggestions for funding and staffing the project?
    1. Should volunteers be recruited?

Community. For example, are area residents fearful of wildfire that might result from prescribed burns?
a. What sort of community education about historical lands and habitat management is necessary?

Any recommendations that are made should consider the pre- and post- settlement history of the land, the past and present-day soil conditions, and the ecology of the area, including past and present wildlife and plant surveys. It is suggested that those involved in the study be representative of various disciplines - biology, geology, history, and economics - and that there be some representation from the Albion community.


Whitehouse Nature Center

Whitehouse Nature Center is a 135-acre environmental education center developed by Albion College in 1972 for use by Albion College faculty and students and by community groups and public schools. Activities are limited to those that encourage observation, study, and enjoyment of the several natural areas in the Center and its flora and fauna. The Center employs one full-time Director and five part-time student assistants, with College and community groups serving as a volunteer base. The responsibilities of the Director include management of the property as well as direction of the Center's program at the College and in the community. The budget of the Center is small, though there exists additional outside funding from alumni and other donors.

Biology Research Area

In 1981 the College purchased the 80-acre farm of John Passmore located on 29 ½ Mile Road in Albion Township, Calhoun County, Michigan (R. 4 W., T. 3 W., section 1), granting him a lifetime lease to live in his house on the property. The farm was annexed to the Nature Center and used as a biology research area.

John Passmore, who had farmed the land for 40 years, mowed the area late in the summer each year until his death in 1993, and yearly mowing has continued, which discourages woody plant growth and encourages American woodcock display and nesting. (The original woodcock display area is designated as an area in succession, unsuitable for woodcock display.)

A. Early use of the Research Area

One early project in the Biology Research Area was the mid-1980's planting of 400 Carolina Hybrid Poplars at the west end of the property, intended as a demonstration wood crop. Those in the wood-burning community for whom this demonstration was intended, however, had little or no interest in learning about wood-crop practices from Albion College, and so the project was abandoned. Another project was the attempt, also during the mid-80's, to develop a nursery for various species of nut-producing trees. Foraging by deer and rabbits made this project unsuccessful, and it too was abandoned after several years.

B. Current use of the Research Area

The on-going bluebird nest-box research of Dr. Dale Kennedy and Dr. Douglas White, has involved the placement of 30 nest-boxes on the site which are monitored daily during breeding season.

Another project, which used an area 20'x 20' for a zucchini plot, was Dr. Gwen Pearson's study of Squash Vine Borers (1997-1998).

Pre-settlement Vegetation

Maps outlining pre-settlement vegetation indicate that previously the biology research area was a bur oak opening and that the area was surrounded by the Kalamazoo River on the north and a small tributary of the River now called the Murdock Drain to the south. To the north and south of these boundary waters were expanses of another plant community - oak savanna.


Barnes, B.V. and Wagner, W.H. 1981. Michigan Trees. The Press. Ann Arbor. University of Michigan.

Brewer, L.G., Hodler, T.W., and Raup, H.A. 1984. Presettlement Vegetation of Southwestern Michigan. Western Michigan University.

Crupi, T. D. 1999. History of the Land at Whitehouse Nature Center, unpublished document available upon request from Whitehouse Nature Center.

Drobney, P. M. 1994. Rebuilding a Pre-Pioneer Prairie. Garbage Magazine Fall issue. Adapted from Restoration and Management Notes, summer, 1994.

Kenoyer, L. A. 1934. Forest Distribution in Southwestern Michigan as Interpreted from the Original Land Survey (1826-32). Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, 19:107-111.

Kenoyer, L. A. 1940. Plant Associations in Barry, Calhoun, and Branch Counties, Michigan, as Interpreted from the Original Survery. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, 25:75-77.

Society for Ecological Restoration. 1997. The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook. Island Press. Washington, D.C.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Agricultural Handbook No. 450. Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States. Washington, D.C.

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 1997. Soil Survey of Calhoun County, Michigan.