Resilience After Destruction

May 23, 2024, Department, by Jesse Hendrix-Inman

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For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

Upon entering Louisville, Kentucky’s Cherokee Park from Eastern Parkway, traffic flows in a circular motion through a famed roundabout. The circular aspect of the landscape architecture echoes a sinister memory: the rotating winds of the F4 tornado that devastated the park in 1974.

A few steps beyond the traffic circle is the Wildflower Woods trail. In this urban park frequently plagued by non-Indigenous plants like English ivy, bush honeysuckle and privet, Wildflower Woods offers a remarkable look at long-established plants that thrive when Olmsted Parks Conservancy’s Team for Healthy Parks removes non-Indigenous plants and restores biodiversity to natural areas. The experience of hiking the trail is like viewing a living museum, with ephemeral spring flowers like Dutchman’s breeches giving way to Jack-in-the-pulpit and other biodiverse flora throughout the seasons.

A Long-Standing Park

“In 1891 when Frederick Law Olmsted set eyes on what would become Cherokee Park, it was not a blank slate. The farmland included open pastures with large, majestic shade trees, as well as…densely forested creek bluffs and bottomland. To this pastoral topography, he then added many specimen trees set out in the open landscape, as well as many more species in the woodlands. These were thoughtful additions to the existing green space,” says Matt Spalding, Olmsted Parks Conservancy director of stewardship. “Part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s genius lies in seeing decades ahead, long after he would be gone. As time went on, Cherokee grew into his fully realized vision, with grand groves, tree-lined roads, clusters of flowering shrubs. By the 1970s, Cherokee Park was a far shadier and more heavily canopied space than it was 80 years before.”

The tornado of 1974 unraveled Olmsted’s living masterpiece, laying waste to 80 percent of the park’s tree canopy. Gary Rau, Louisville Parks Department forester, said: “I don’t believe anyone alive today will ever see Cherokee Park as it was before the storm.” The destruction changed the ecosystem of the park dramatically, with open sunny space fostering the growth of non-Indigenous plants that subsequently outcompeted not only Indigenous ephemerals like those in Wildflower Woods, but also tree seedlings. While the tornado initially took out a generation of trees, the subsequent ecological storm suppressed the next generation as well.


Non-Indigenous plants continued to spread throughout Cherokee Park for 30 years. Concerned community members formed the “Friends of Olmsted Parks,” and neighbors volunteered their time to remove honeysuckle and reclaim the park. In 1989, Mayor Jerry Abramson formalized the Olmsted Parks Conservancy as a nonprofit partner to the City of Louisville tasked with restoring, enhancing and protecting Cherokee Park and the entire Olmsted Park System.

During the early aughts, the conservancy intensified work in the woodlands. Non-Indigenous plants that had taken advantage of the tornado’s destruction were battled back one area at a time. As the Team for Healthy Parks cleared the understory, long-established trees began to rebound. From floor to canopy, the forest started to become more balanced and park users’ experiences were changed entirely as biodiversity bounced back. Suddenly, Indigenous wildflowers, birds and pollinators could be seen throughout the park — they had been waiting for the right conditions to reveal themselves.

To this day, the conservancy’s Team for Healthy Parks removes honeysuckle and continually monitors natural areas for new threats, like Japanese chaff flower and wintercreeper. It is constant, infinite work, but when we take in the sights in Wildflower Woods or discover a crested coral root orchid that has reemerged, we are reminded of how far we have come.

Jesse Hendrix-Inman is Director of Communications at Olmsted Parks Conservancy.