East Woods

Landmarks, 2.59490

Who could deny the beauty of the East Woods of the Morton Arboretum, particularly in spring, when the spring flowers have flushed into full bloom; or in fall when the deep oranges and yellows of the sugar maple trees cast their glow onto the forest floor?
--Marion T. Hall, Director of The Morton Arboretum, 1988

Spread over approximately 400 acres, The Morton Arboretum's East Woods is the largest natural feature on the Arboretum's East Side, though its landscape has been heavily affected by human activity. This region is part of the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples such as the Potawatomi. However, they were forcibly displaced after the Black Hawk War of 1832, and the number of European settlers in the area rapidly increased.

Around the time of European settlement, the area now known as the East Woods was a timber grove of about 600 acres surrounded by prairie. In 1840, public land surveyors noted a variation in tree density, ranging from open savanna to closed woodland communities. They observed red, white, and bur oak trees, "rich, first rate" soils, and an undergrowth of hazel, oak, and hickory. The grove was called "King's Grove" for one of the area's early settlers, Sherman King, a second lieutenant in the Black Hawk War. In a region that was mostly prairie, timber was difficult to acquire, so the grove was quickly settled and divided into timber lots. Many settlers developed farms along the grove's perimeter, but their timber lots provided them with lumber and maple sugar. Some parcels were cleared to produce crops or graze livestock.

Since settlers used their timber lots in different ways, the vegetation throughout the East Woods is varied. As settlers cut down oaks and fought natural fires, sugar maples replaced oaks as the dominant species. In areas used to grow crops, native species were eliminated, and some areas that were cleared of timber remain open today. After Joy Morton began purchasing land in the East Woods area, he had trees planted in many of these parcels, several of which were converted to forestry plots, such as the Spruce Plot.

Today The Morton Arboretum is working to restore a balance of diverse, indigenous species in the East Woods, largely through controlled burns as well as invasive species control, hydrological restoration, and canopy thinning activities. The natural beauty of the East Woods has made it a destination for viewing brilliant spring wildflowers and fall color.