Above / Welcoming and free open spaces for recreation and reflection are essential to the quality of life everywhere. In this Midwestern community, the Naperville Park District manages 2,400-plus acres of land with 136 parks of varying sizes and types under its watch. May Watts Park with its .89-mile trail around its retention pond is among its natural treasures, accessible from Whispering Hills Drive, Sequoia Road and Oakton Road.
With news that the Naperville Park District was one of three park districts to receive the Best Green Practices Award from the Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) as part of the 2021 “Best of the Best” statewide awards competition, we headed over to May Watts Park, our favorite neighborhood park and a growing example of natural progress in the great outdoors.
“One of our core values is Environmental Stewardship,” stated Executive Director Ray McGury in a news release. “This award speaks well of our community and the progress we have made as a District and in partnership with others to preserve a healthy environment for everyone.”
The Best Green Practices Award recognizes Naperville Park District for a number of green initiatives. Over the past few years, the District added 20-plus acres of natural areas, restoring shorelines, converting turf to meadow and increasing native vegetation where possible.
The District’s annual Sustainability Report tracks the progress made each year in energy efficiency, green purchasing practices, recycling, water quality and stormwater management—all of which help protect the environment for future generations.
Find seasonal changes during every visit to May Watts Park
Known for her dedication to the idea of the Illinois Prairie Path in 1963, naturalist May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975) is remembered locally at a park, trail and District 204 elementary school named in her honor, located in the Countryside and West Wind subdivisions in Naperville.
Above / Born in Chicago, May Watts and her family lived in this historic house at 227 E. Jefferson Avenue, near the campus of North Central College. Watts worked as a naturalist at the Morton Arboretum.
Oh! So many connections!
This time of year, the hedge apple trees at the entrance to May Watts Park from Oakton Road barely have begun to lose their leaves. Dozens of the bright yellowish-green fruit also known as Osage orange have fallen to the ground, soon to darken in color for local squirrels that have a heyday climbing to the treetops with the fruit. As the squirrels get to the meat of the Osage orange, we’ve observed that they spit out what they don’t like. Watch out for falling fruit when enjoying the trail in May Watts Park.
Above / Discover a striking abundance of Osage oranges at the entrance to the trail around the retention pond in May Watts Park. (PN Photo Oct. 19, 2021)
More than once as autumn days grow shorter, we’ve repeated the seasonal quote by writer Elizabeth Lawrence, a garden designer known for creating living laboratories for plants and birds.
“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn.”
In this case, it’s walk and watch out overhead as the Osage oranges, aka hedge apples, fall along the trail.
Naperville is blessed with natural park settings throughout the city where that message can be applied to all the changes of the season during quiet walks through neighborhoods or along the Riverwalk where the fruits of the established trees, including walnuts and acorns, are dropping in record numbers, sometimes faster than the leaves.
Seize the moments to see nature run its course. Just watch out when the wind blows! Osage oranges have fallen in striking abundance in May Watts Park and along Aurora Avenue, just west of Ogden.
A little more about Osage oranges
Back in elementary school in Muncie, Ind., our first introduction to the “Osage orange” was during show-and-tell in third grade. A fellow classmate brought a sample of the yellowish-green fruit to school to share, informing the class that the inedible, but not poisonous, fruit was named after the Osage Indians who lived in a large region in Oklahoma where the small deciduous trees were abundant.
The orange reference was attached to Osage because its textured warty-looking skin resembles an orange. The Osage orange tree was not as common in Indiana or Midwestern states as it was in Oklahoma and other Great Plains states.
To check our memory, we consulted our trusted World Book Encyclopedia where we learned the fruit also is called a “hedge apple.”
The tree that bears the fruit has a short trunk and crooked branches. Leaves are long, pointed and dark green and unlike other species changing colors and falling more and more by the day, much like the mighty oaks, leaves are still clinging to the Osage orange tree we discovered in May Watts Park, though fruit by the dozens have fallen at the entrance to the trail.
Early American Indians used the yellow, hard, durable wood for bows and arrows, wooden implements, fence posts and wagon wheels. As pioneers moved West, they also planted Osage orange trees to create a hedge or “living fence” around their farms in the early days of America prior to the use of barbed wire.
Today, the colorful fruit is sometimes used for autumn decorations in large bowls along with gourds and small pumpkins. The dense hardwood is often used for artistic carving and building hand-crafted wooden boxes.
If you enter the May Watts Trail from Oakton, look for the Osage orange tree on your right.
Otherwise, enter along Whispering Hills Drive and take in the ever-changing view from atop the May Watts Sled Hill. —PN
RELATED POSTS / Use the “Search” tool on this website to discover photos and more about May Watts featured here.
The Best Green Practices Award also was awarded to Northbrook Park District and the Park District of Oak Park.