History

According to William Whittaker, Research Director at the University of Iowa Office of the State Archeologist, “Johnson County was likely the territory of the Oneota-descended tribes until about 1800. These would include the Ioway, Otoe, Missouria, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago)… In the late 1700s the Sauk and Meskwaki largely took over this area, having been pushed into the Mississippi valley from the Great Lakes. In the 1830s, they had many camps and villages along the Iowa River in Johnson County. In 1843 they were pushed out of the area, and then out of the state.”

The land where our blueberry grove and house are located probably didn’t have any Native American settlements or villages, since it’s some distance from the Iowa River. Even so, Native Americans likely moved across the area. We haven’t found any artifacts, though (only a 1950s-era toaster oddly buried deep beneath the barn).

Ecology

The stars of this land are the enormous old bur oak trees, as you’ll see when you visit. The land is categorized as an oak savanna—that is, a lightly forested grassland, where oaks—in our area, bur oaks—are the dominant trees. These savannas were maintained historically through wildfires set by lightning or humans, grazing, low precipitation, and/or poor soil.

Map of pre-settlement oak savanna distribution in North America

Although there are pockets of oak savanna almost anywhere in North America where oaks are present, there are three major oak savanna areas: 1) California, Washington, and Oregon in the west; 2) Southwestern United States and Mexico; and 3) the prairie/forest border of the Midwest. Today, oak savannas are an endangered ecosystem, existing only in fragments, like ours. Thankfully, there are restoration efforts underway in most states where oak savannas are present.

We burn the savanna every spring to control invasive species, but we haven’t yet undertaken a full-scale restoration effort. To restore the savanna, we would need to kill off all the vegetation and seed it anew with native prairie seed. This is a long-term goal but would require the use of herbicides, which we’d prefer to avoid for the time being. So, while we have many native plants in the savanna, we also have lots of brome grass. The previous owner of the land planted several bur oaks in the savanna (which look like baby trees but are probably 40 years old!); we’re grateful, especially because two of the old trees have died in the past 6 years. (Old age? Climate change? Both?)

Learn more: https://oaksavannas.org/.