Many residents of the Rockford area are familiar with Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden (and if you are not yet, I hope you are soon), but I would like to highlight the arboretum and botanic garden from a different perspective. In holding a degree in environmental science with an emphasis in biological conservation, much of my life is dedicated to the preservation and education of the natural world. When I started at Klehm I saw it for what the name suggests: an arboretum & botanic garden. A wonderful place to see unique tree species and flower gardens.

But as I have started teaching programs and become more familiar with Klehm, I now see it as more. The arboretum is a special place in an urban area of Rockford that provides a habitat oasis for many native plant and animal species. It is a refreshing splash in a splash pad and an ecological landscape full of biological diversity. For this year's summer exhibition, Klehm is hosting the Smithsonian traveling exhibit Habitat: Protecting Habitats Protects Life. Habitat features components made by local and regional artists, volunteers, and our own skilled staff, as well as top-notch educational content for all. But it is more than an exhibit. Habitat highlights the many habitats Klehm is dedicating to preserving in a world of daily habitat degradation. Please join me for this verbal tour of the many habitats of Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

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Contemporary Perennial Garden

I am fortunate to have an excellent view of the Contemporary Perennial Garden at Klehm from my office window. I gaze out at the bright orange monarch structures swaying in the breeze as part of the Habitat exhibit in anticipation for the monarchs soon to be visiting this prairie area. The monarch population has decreased extensively over time, but I am confident I will see one this summer because this garden has Common Milkweed growing in it. Without this milkweed, there would be no monarchs anywhere, so I am grateful Klehm provides this essential resource for them. I have already seen an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and an American Lady visiting the garden, so a monarch is something to look forward to.

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The gorgeous umbels of bright pink flowers adorning the Common milkweed are not the only eye-catching plants in this meadow habitat. The vibrant yellows of Prairie Dock and Compass Plant, striking purples of the Coneflower and Purple Poppy Mallow, and flashy orange Butterfly Milkweed all poke through the tall grasses as well. Pollinator habitats are increasingly essential in urban environments of pavement and turf grass, so it is wonderful that Klehm offers a habitat for species in need.


There are plenty of trees here – it is an arboretum, of course! But the trees represent more than Klehm’s history as a nursery. They provide a habitat for continuously displaced members of our ecosystem. Another exhibit feature of Habitat is an array of mammal structures hidden along the trails of our West Loop woodland. The artwork by our lead seasonal gardener Donna Kuntzleman represents the biodiversity found here at Klehm. The woodland of this arboretum is a refuge for these creatures. The oak trees sustain hundreds of organisms, the looming pines offer safety, and the towering maples provide shade and shelter. These qualities in the trees provide space for mammals like foxes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, and more to roam in peace.

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The woodlands of Klehm are also a bird haven for our winged friends seeking comfort away from the city. On my hikes at Klehm, I always stop for a bird assessment using one of my favorite bird apps. I have seen and heard so many amazing species, and the app has helped me identify some new ones as well. Here is my list of birds I have encountered at Klehm so far: Indigo Bunting, Northern Cardinal, Red-eyed Vireo, Downy Woodpecker, American Redstart, Yellow-throated Warbler, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Grey Catbird, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cedar Waxwing, Red-winged Blackbird, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. As you can see, the habitats of Klehm are essential for offering a safe place for wildlife and engaging with the environment around you.


We have many water features at Klehm such as our Kid’s Creek Water Feature and Splash Pad in the Nancy Olson Children’s Garden, along with our majestic and long-standing Fountain Garden, but I would like to point out our perhaps less visited waterways like our ponds and our bioretention area. Although the Bradley and Georgann Gummow Family Foundation Entry Water feature that now greets guests when they first visit is a human-made structure consisting of a pond, waterfall, and beautiful landscaping it still offers a habitat for critters in need. If you have visited the arboretum this year you may have noticed the whimsical artwork hovering over and around the pond itself. This is another one of our Habitat exhibit features called Pollywog Pond. The artwork by artist Lynda Wallis shows off the pond creatures living here at Klehm.

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The number of tadpoles and frogs I have witnessed so far is countless, but I have also seen tinier creatures such as the water striders as shown in the feature as well. Water Striders are important to the ecosystem because they eat up pesky mosquitos and function as indicator species for overall pond health and function. I also want to mention our new bioretention area at Klehm, given that bioswales and storm water management were the topic of my capstone studies at college.

A bioretention habitat, like the one now present at Klehm, is functional for managing storm water runoff and essential for wildlife preservation. This habitat hosts a variety of deep-rooted plants that help filter pollutants while working hard to prevent flooding. Cleaning stormwater runoff is essential, especially given our location within the City of Rockford so that our ecosystem can continue to thrive around us. Maintaining habitats is just as important as creating them! The bioretention area at Klehm is still in its infancy, but I look forward to studying the biodiversity that continues to develop there.

Wildflower Garden

I have now come to my favorite habitat at Klehm – the wildflower garden. We do not have an exhibit feature at this location, but I assure you, it is still well worth a visit! The wildflower garden at Klehm is most beautiful in early spring and it offers a unique habitat year-round. This type of habitat is also becoming more difficult to find in today’s world of asphalt and lawns. Illinois native spring ephemerals require just the right conditions regarding sunlight and temperature. Even then, they only show their brilliance for a couple of weeks, so I once again consider myself lucky to experience such amazing flora and fauna at my job.

The plant species that I particularly enjoy in the wildflower garden are Wild Ginger with its funky and secretive flower, Jack-in-the-pulpit with its fascinating structure and shape, and the three varieties of Trillium I have never seen together in one place. Providing a habitat for these essential spring bloomers also means providing a resource for important early pollinators. These native species are often desperately in need of food and can lack options early in the season so this habitat at Klehm is a treasure for them and for us as well!

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Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden is a special place to witness such a diversity of habitats with an overall urban setting. However, it is not the only place in Rockford to find such amazing habitats! Rockford is truly fortunate to have so many amazing gardens, parks, and forest preserves that protect ecosystems and provide opportunities for nature engagement. I am happy to be a part of so much conservation and environmental awareness. If you have not had a chance to check out the Habitat exhibit at Klehm and the many habitats we have here I highly encourage you to do so. It is inspiring to experience the biodiversity at Klehm, and I am excited to engage those who would like to learn more and experience it firsthand themselves!

Author Bio:

Elly Salazar
Elly Salazar is the new Education & Programming Coordinator at Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden. She has a background in environmental education and native plant management. Elly is new to the Rockford area but so far, she loves the sense of community and endless opportunities Rockford has to offer.