Drive or bike along Bloomingbank, Fairbank or Riverside roads during the summer in the village of Riverside and you’ll see plenty of greenery. The one thing you’re unlikely to see is the village’s namesake, the Des Plaines River, which is hidden behind a solid wall of buckthorn, the invasive shrub that grows abundantly along the river bank.
The river is close to invisible, that is, until you get to about Olmsted Road as you meander along Riverside Road. There, for about the length of a city block, the buckthorn disappears and – framed through oak, pecan and hickory trees – the Des Plaines flows lazily to the east. You might see a heron skim past and land on the shore below the steep bank.
It didn’t happen by accident. The river views are the result of a joint effort, now in its second year, between the Frederick Law Olmsted Society’s landscape committee and the Riverside Department of Public Works.
In 2011, the landscape committee, assisted by Village Forester Michael Collins and other public works employees, cleared buckthorn from a section of riverbank near Olmsted Road.
This year, volunteers were back at it, planting the grasses and sedges that will one day make it possible – through controlled burns – to keep the buckthorn from making a comeback.
“The only way to get rid of it is to burn,” said Holly Machina, co-chairwoman of the Olmsted Society’s landscape committee. “The grasses fuel the fire, but they come back. You need the grasses to kill the buckthorn.”
According to Collins, buckthorn “chokes out all of the natives, the grasses and perennials. It makes a solid net where not a lot of sunlight gets through.”
The Olmsted Society’s landscape committee will hold another work day at the Riverside Road site near Olmsted on Saturday, Sept. 8. The group is working with Collins to plan what work will be done on that date. It could entail clearing out more buckthorn or planting more plants.
Either way, both the landscape committee and Collins say they will keep at this stretch of Riverside Road in coming years and perhaps start slowly expanding it, volunteer labor permitting.
“We would like to do more, but you can only do so much with the number of volunteers you have,” said Machina.
After four work days at the site in 2011, a group of eight volunteers, along with Collins, in June of this year, planted the plugs of grasses and sedges on the steep bank leading down from Riverside Road to the river. The plant list was drawn up by Riverside resident John Kolar, said Machina.
Bob Finn, a member of the village’s Landscape Advisory Committee volunteered to water the newly planted plugs through July’s searing heat. Other key members of the effort include landscape committee co-chairwoman Cindy Kellogg and Olmsted Society board members Tom Guardi, Dorie Skiest and Shawn Sinn.
According to Machina, the buckthorn clearing project emerged from a May 2011 roundtable event involving the village, the landscape committee of the Olmsted Society and Chicago Wilderness, a regional conservation coalition of which the Olmsted Society is a member.
While the Olmsted Society has long sponsored work days on the village’s public lands, Machina said the landscape committee wanted a project with long-lasting impact.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re spinning our wheels,” said Machina. “We’ll go to a place, clean it up and go back a year later, and it looks like we didn’t do anything.”
In 2013, the group will again plant more native grasses and sedges along the bank, probably in the fall to take advantage of better weather for the young plants. And by 2014, the area initially planted could be ready for its first controlled burn. That could pave the way for the buckthorn to be eradicated, at least in this corner of the village.
“It’s beautiful,” said Collins. “I enjoy being able to see the river, and it’s a great location because the river comes right up to the roadside.”
Those views of the river are what Frederick Law Olmsted, Riverside’s designer, had in mind, said Collins.
“He wanted the river visible in a wide open landscape,” said Collins. “From an ecological standpoint, it’s returning a once-barren landscape of invasive plants to its native habitat. There are a lot of positives about it.”