History of Madison County
Darby Township Physical Features
From History of Madison County, W. H. Beers & Co, Chicago, 1883
All that portion lying east of Big Darby was heavy timber lands, made tip of walnut, ash, beech, white and black oaks, hickory, basswood and white elm on the swampy lands. There were some extensive sugar groves along Sugar Run and near Big Darby. The principal underbrush was spice-bush, that grew extensively, especially on the flat land. All that portion lying west of Big and east of Little Darby, except a narrow strip near these streams, was known as the Darby Plains; and yet this prairie was dotted here and there with small oak openings, or a narrow, long line of scrubby burr-oak timber, whose growth had been, and still was, very much impeded by the prairie fires that burned over this country every returning autumn. The larger portion of all the timber at the present time has come up and grown to its mammoth proportions since the arrest of these fires. It was a grand sight to see those prairies on fire, especially at night, when hundreds of acres were surrounded by the destroying element, whose forked tongs shot upward above the interspersed oak openings, and its light almost equal to that of a mid-day sun, revealing the rapid retreat of the deer and other wild animals to some secluded place of safety. The very nature of the vegetation that grew upon these prairies made the fires formidable and to be dreaded by the first settlers, whose homes and property were endangered thereby. This whole country was a sea of wild grass and flowering herbs Upon the lower portions of the prairies grew a kind of grass that came up in single stalks, very thick at the ground, with a large round straw, very tough, long, broad blades, and on top a head, somewhat resembling barley. This species grew from six to eight feet in height. but was of no value for grazing purposes, except when it first came up in the spring. There were two other varieties that grew upon the more elevated portions of the prairie – the "limber-will" and "ledge-grass." The former of these came up in single stalks, very thick on the ground, with long, drooping blades and slightly sickle-edged. The latter variety grew in bunches, or tufts, very compact, with fine blades and center stalks very tall, smooth and round, like rye. These latter varieties were very nutritious, not only in a green state, but equally so when cut and made into hay. There were some other varieties, but not of sufficient importance to attract attention.
It would be almost impossible to give a full and accurate description of the flowering portion of its vegetation, but I will allude to a few, among which was the "prairie dock," with large, brittle roots, long, broad leaves, and, every alternate year, large center stalks. It grew to a height of six or eight feet and very branching near the top, upon each of which was a beautiful yellow blossom. When the stalks were cut near the ground, or the leaves punctured, a thick, gummy exudation took place, which soon became semi-solid. and was gathered by the young people for " chewing gum," it being far superior to the manufactured article of the present day. The "wild sunflower" was a kind of weed that grew with a large, strong stalk, very high, with numerous branches, having a yellow blossom on each, about three inches in diameter and
drooping like the cultivated species.
All of the ponds were surrounded by the wild "blue-flag," and on the top of each center stalk was a large, blue blossom, very pretty in appearance, but its fragrance was of an offensive and sickening character. There were many other varieties that grew upon the prairies besides those that were found skirting and in the oak openings, such as the daisies, buttercups, wild pink, coxcombs, lilies and many others equally beautiful. It was indeed a grand sight to a nature-loving mind to look over these extensive prairie fields and behold them mantled with so luxuriant a growth of vegetation, and decorated so lavishly with an almost endless variety of flowers, variegated with all the colors of the rainbow and so blended in beauty that the inmost soul would almost involuntarily praise God for the grandeur of His omnipotent wisdom and power; but, to that class of persons who cannot appreciate any loveliness or beauty in the works of nature, it might appear as a God-forsaken wilderness, and not intended as a home for civilized humanity. It was true that a large portion of these prairie lands were covered with water a greater part of the year, for what little outlet there was for the surface water, was filtered, as it were, through this wonderful growth of vegetation. The height and density of the wild grasses that grew upon these prairies was that which was calculated to produce a feeling of despondency and desolation to the beholder.
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