Wingra Oak Savanna – rich in history and beauty


Picking a favorite part of the Arboretum is nearly impossible. Every section has its own geological treasures, fascinating history, and biological gems. But the Wingra Oak Savanna vies for the top of my list.
Native Americans used the area for thousands of years before settlement. The region has attractions that are both practical and of spiritual importance (e.g. freshwater springs). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tracts of land in the area—still the outskirts of town—were on the market. The Wisconsin State Journal advertised the lots as “CHEAP HOMES! Low Prices and on Easy Terms.” Another Wisconsin State Journal advertised lots in the developing Dudgeon-Monroe area, noting the presence of cement walks, sewerage, electric lights, and shade trees but “No Saloons – JUST THINK OF IT!” And for $450-$650 a 50 ft x120 ft plot of land was yours.
The natural beauty of the Wingra Oak Savanna area was also recognized by the landscape architect, Jens Jensen, who designed a council ring for placement on this land. The council ring, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and completed in the late 1930s, commemorates the death of Jen Jensen’s grandson, Kenneth Jensen Wheeler. Wheeler suffered an aneurism just before graduating from the UW’s landscape architecture department.
To Jens Jensen, the council ring was a “symbol of the spirit of America.” Seated in a circle, all present could look each other in the eye; no one sat at the head of the table. Jensen is responsible for two other council rings in Madison, one in the nearby Glenway Children’s Park and another on the UW campus.
Walking down from the council ring, the trail passes two springs. The first rushes out of a small stone outcrop and the second bubbles up from a sandy bottom. Although I have visited these springs hundreds of times, each time I am taken over by the feeling that I have discovered a secret and magical place. It never gets old!
Early into the walk, we were stumped by a five-petaled purple flower. Ancient springs met 21st century technology and I snapped a photo with my phone. Susan Carpenter then cyber-identified the flower as American bellflower (also often called tall bellflower) Campanula americana. Susan said that this plant was included in the native gardens near the Visitor Center but that she is not aware of its occurrence elsewhere in the Arboretum. This bellflower is particularly tricky because unlike other members of the genus it does not actually have bell-shaped flowers (hence the genus name Campanula). Thrown off by this tricky plant, we later were confused by another purple flower, great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). I chuckle, in retrospect, because when we first encountered the bellflower, we talked about how it was not lobelia, and many of us described the shape of the lobelia flower and noted the differences. But just a hundred yards (or so) later, faced with a lobelia, we somehow forgot about lobelia? Perhaps it was those magical springs. Or that garter snake? We saw some thready orange-yellow plants that we considered for a while and decided (and I can now confirm) were dodder (Cuscuta spp.). Dodder is a parasitic plant that is not very widespread in the Arb, although Susan Carpenter reported seeing it in a couple of other places. UW-Extension notes that dodder appears as a “spaghetti-like mass” and indeed it does. On the topic of interesting plants: we took a small side trip to visit a large American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) that was planted in the late 1930s/early 1940s along Arbor Drive, just down from the Arb parking lot at Monroe Street and Arbor Drive. Sycamore trees are native to a large area of the U.S. but mostly south of Wisconsin. I cannot think of another sycamore in Madison. Susan Carpenter couldn’t either. Has anyone else seen one? This specimen is beautiful. Sycamores have a very peculiar smell. I’m not sure where exactly the smell comes from, but it is very distinctive and characteristic.
On our walk, we talked about the changing challenges of water management in the Madison area. As the city was being built, flooding and marshy land were key challenges to development. Today, with extensive and ongoing development, pollution and run-off compromise the health of our lakes. Constructed in the early 1980s, the holding pond across from Parman’s and Mallatt’s is designed to capture runoff and allow solids to settle before the water reaches lake Wingra.
On our way back from the holding pond, we noticed some of the late summer bounty: blackberries, elderberries, and mulberries, dark and ripe.
Back at the parking lot, we again admired (as we did at the start) a gigantic pile of burdock that a 15-strong volunteer crew (2 of whom attended the walk!) pulled the day before. Great work!!!
-Sara Cohen Christopherson, Arboretum Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.