By Brett Stolpestad
Nestled between the Mississippi River and Pickerel Lake, just southwest of Harriet Island in St. Paul, lies Lilydale Regional Park. Named for the town that once stood in the low-lying floodplain, Lilydale is a well of natural and cultural history in Minnesota.
Originally established as “Lilly Dale” in 1886, the town was supposedly named after the abundant water lilies that covered the surface of nearby Pickerel Lake, according to a book published by the Minnesota Historical Society, written by geologist Warren Upham.
In 1965, massive floods transformed the Mississippi River valley, effectively forcing the town of Lilydale to relocate to the top of the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Pickerel Lake, as described by Friends of the Mississippi River. In 1971 Lilydale was designated as a regional park.
Since 1971, Lilydale has undergone significant changes. The formerly urban landscape has slowly transitioned back into a natural floodplain forest. A number of devoted efforts have contributed to this transformation. Recently, Maria DeLaundreau partnered with the Mississippi River Fund and Conservation Corps to study the conditions under which cottonwood trees are able to regenerate in their natural floodplain environment.
St. Paul Parks and Recreation has also done an extensive amount of work to restore Lilydale to a healthy floodplain forest, including invasive species removal and planting of native species. This year, Conservation Corps has been involved in many of these projects, working to remove buckthorn and other invasive species in the northern section of the park. The Corps has also assisted in planting native species such as black willow and red osier dogwood throughout the park.
Lilydale Regional Park continues to change today, but evidence of Lilydale’s intriguing history still remains. Pre-historical fossils can still be found along the riverbank and remnants of old St. Paul brickyards can still be seen.
Walking through the densely wooded forest of Lilydale, it may be difficult to grasp the richness of the park’s urban history, but as the National Park Service notes, “A careful observer…will spot urban tree and shrub species, such as spruces and lilacs, mixed in with typical floodplain forest trees. These seemingly out-of-place species hint at the area’s urban history.”