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Outdoors | Rob and Rhonda Rothrock create 15-acres of prairie
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Outdoors | Rob and Rhonda Rothrock create 15-acres of prairie

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POMONA — Rob Rothrock settled into a chair overlooking the 15-acres of prairie he and his wife Rhonda have created.

The prairie has been a labor of love. It was hard to miss the pride on Rothrock’s face as looked over the field of purple and yellow flowers outlined against the line of rapidly turning hardwoods. That pride was reflected in his statement that the fields had been much more colorful a few weeks ago before autumn took its toll.

And, after a morning of collecting and sorting seeds, Rothrock admitted he was a bit spent.

“I would say it’s been a lot of work.” he said through a wry smile. “I’ve had various people that have wanted to start some little project. You want to give them some help. They have the idea they are going to throw some seed out and this beautiful thing is going to happen."

If you put your mind and will to it, as the Rothrocks have done for the past 20 years, something beautiful will happen. Although the view overlooking their prairie is magical, creating the prairie required more than a snap of the fingers.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some magic involved. Rothrock said he had no master plan in mind when he first started working the ground nearly 40 years ago. Their land has been transformed through trial, error and a bit of evolution.

“It’s evolved.” he said. “I bought the place in 1977 and worked construction all my life. Rhonda and I got together in 2001. The fields here were old pasture. I kept them mowed and stuff like that. I had prairie plants planted in the yard from the beginning. Then in 2003, Rhonda and I were planting different things close to the house in the field, I plowed up about a 10-foot wide strip all around the property. We decided we were going to buy a bunch of prairie seed.

“We did that and it was kind of a joke. All the cheap seed, they’re all annuals and all yellow. They all bloomed the first year. We called it the ‘Yellow Brick Road’. All the rare stuff we planted; we never did see that. I freaked out that it was going to spread. Before it went to seed, I mowed that down. Then we thought, ‘We’ll go collecting.’”

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So, they scoured the Southern Illinois countryside, searching for remnants of prairie. They collected some seed here, some other there. Over time, their personal natural wonderland began taking shape.

“This is all perennials, at least most of them are,” Rothrock said. “We have between native forbs, which are flowering plants, grasses and sedges, we have around 150 species. Which is a very high density. It’s artificially managed so certain species that are getting very aggressive, I will go out and spray them back to keep things in balance.”

There are about 16 state-listed threatened or endangered species on the property. And, there are some plants the Rothrocks didn’t know they had until they started managing the property intensely.

As can be expected, wildlife, ranging from insects to amphibians have been drawn to the property.

“We have loads of reptiles and amphibians here,” Rhonda said. “Both grey and green tree frogs, spadefoot toads, peepers, chorus frogs, leopard frogs and several more I cannot remember. We have skinks, some fence lizards, newts and salamanders. I used to have a complete list of snakes on the property, but the list currently includes a least one beautiful milk snake, common kingsnakes, racers, garter snakes, Dikay’s brown snakes, ringneck snakes, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and at least one type of water snake.”

The prairie also attracts birds such as prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, blue grosbeaks and field sparrows.

And, the prairie serves a quite practical purpose.

“We’ve gotten to where we sell seeds to nurseries wholesale, we don’t do any kind of retail,” Rob said. “We have way more excess seed than they can sell. Sometimes the forest service has bought some. Sometimes we give them seed, and we’ve given seed to Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and Green Earth and things like that.”

Looking ahead, the Rothrocks are trying to find someone to maintain the prairie, and its invaluable seedbank, once they are unable to maintain it.

“I wish we had someplace for it to go to be honest,” Rob said.

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