NORMAL — Tucked in the northeast corner of One Normal Plaza is a forest unlike any you’ll find in Central Illinois.
The Refuge Food Forest is like a healthy version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where just about everything is edible — except it’s filled with fruits, nuts and berries.
That didn’t bother 4½-year-old Xander Green or his 2½-year-old sister Delilah Green, children of Kayla Kreppner of Bloomington.
“Over here, guys! Over here,” Xander shouted excitedly. “Look at these apples.”
Delilah was more interested in looking for ripe berries, but she will have to wait a bit longer. The blackberries were still bright red and a few had some green.
Tera Arendell’s 1½-year-old son, Archer Arendell, eagerly followed Xander and Delilah as they ran around the forest, looking at the berries, fruit and flowers.
“Anything you find out here you can definitely take bites off of,” said Nick Frillman, a food systems and small farm educator with the University of Illinois Extension. “It’s a question of whether or not you like sour things.”
This oasis is at 701 E. Lincoln St., Normal, east of Beech Street. Even if you are not interested in the food, it’s a nice place to relax, enjoy the shade of a cypress tree and watch birds and butterflies.
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The food forest is a collaborative project of the U of I Extension and Town of Normal. Developed in 2015 and covering about an acre, the forest includes fruit trees, grape vines, herbs, berry bushes and nut-bearing trees and shrubs.
“You name it, it’s here,” said Frillman.
Grapes line the arbor at the entrance. There are apples, pears and paw paws, which Frillman described as having the flavor and consistency of a mango and a banana when ripe. Finding some ripe currants, Frillman popped a few in his mouth and provided a detailed outline of their taste, somewhere between a blueberry and a blackberry.
A squirrel scurried up a tree with a pear in its mouth, showing that humans aren’t the only ones benefiting from the food forest.
The forest is maintained by mostly volunteer labor. The next group work day and harvest day is 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 26.
In addition to being a place of relaxation and recreation, the forest is also a place of education.
Frillman said it serves as a model for value-added commodity agriculture for those with small farms.
The forest also is home to wildflowers. The bright yellow blooms of the cup plants towered above me as I walked along the path. They were the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that arced across the sky one of our recent rainy days.
“The food forest is open to all, year-round, all four seasons,” said Frillman. “Come out here. Walk your dog. Hang out with your kids.”
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota