Chicago Nature Now! Alert
September 18, 2020
Weekly Wildflower Report
“Chicago’s Best Nature Outings, Outdoor Adventures,
Wildflower Walks, Nature Hikes, & Weekend Getaways!”
Don’t miss one beautiful moment.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic,
we’re working hard to bring you opportunities to find peace!
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PLEASE READ THIS BEFORE VISITING OUR SHOWCASE PRESERVES DURING THIS TIME OF INCREASED OUTDOOR ACTIVITY:
ChicagoNatureNOW! preserves are Sacred Cathedrals of Nature, NOT playgrounds or amusement parks. Please treat these sanctuaries with reverence. Behave as you would in any house of worship:
- No foraging. And don’t pick flowers or plants or remove anything from a preserve.
- Our preserves are small and rare. That’s why Chicago has grocery stores and flower shops.
- Share cherished moments through photography, drawing, painting, and writing.
- Stay on the trails.
- Walk, don’t run.
- If your kids need to run around, there are THOUSANDS of more appropriate places to play.
- Speak quietly as to not interfere with the spiritual experiences of others.
- Many of these preserves do NOT allow pets, even if they’re leashed.
- When in doubt, ask yourself, “Would I do this in a house of worship?”
IMPORTANT COVID-19 SITE ACCESS & SAFETY TIPS
Most sites and trails that are owned by Chicago-area counties and Indiana Dunes National Park are open, except for visitor centers, buildings, and bathrooms. Fermilab Prairie woodland (Fermilab Natural Areas) in Batavia is closed. Period. Check out these websites before you go:
- Forest Preserve District of Will County
- Forest Preserve District of Cook County
- Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
- Lake County Forest Preserves
- Indiana Dunes National Park
- McHenry County Conservation District
- WEAR A MASK to protect others. Act as if you are infected because you very well could be.
- Respect Science: Science doesn’t care what you think or do.
- Respect Nature: Nature does what it’s programmed to do. It responds to provocation and, like science, doesn’t care what you think or do.
- Respect Each Other: People DO care about what you do, especially when it affects them. If you don’t respect others, they won’t respect you.
- WATCH YOUR DISTANCE by giving each other at least TEN feet of space because a breeze can carry the virus.
- Don’t obstruct people’s progress by blocking trails or gathering around trailheads or intersections.
- When people are present, be conscious of the wind and its direction.
- When having a conversation, position yourselves so that the wind is blowing from the left or the right.
WILDFLOWER HIGHLIGHTS TO HELP YOU PLAN YOUR WEEKEND OUTDOOR GETAWAY:
September is “The Month of Gold,” when goldenrods and sunflowers radiate across Chicago’s prairies and savannas. So, I’m going to make this easy for you. Go to Wolf Road Prairie, Somme Prairie Grove, and Spears Woods for the spectacular shows of the towering sawtooth sunflower. As you hike the trails, they loom above and around you as if you’re passing through a tunnel. Bring along your tape measure to find the tallest one. I recently found some thirteen-footers on the north half of Wolf Road Prairie!
Of course, the goldenrods are blooming everywhere around Chicago. The best display is taking place at Lake in the Hills Fen, with its grand panoramic view. INTERESTING NOTE: Goldenrod does not provoke allergies. The pollen cannot be inhaled because it’s too heavy and simply drops to the ground. The real culprit is common ragweed, which blooms at the same time. Many of the asters are now flowering, marking the end of the blooming season. There are so many asters and goldenrods that it’s really hard to identify them all. Click here for a complete (pdf) list of local asters and goldenrods.
The large and conspicuous plants are stealing the show, right now, which is why you’ll have to look carefully to find the gems hidden at your feet. In particular, September is also the season of gentians: prairie, bottle, cream, and fringed (our Plant of the Week).
For a greater appreciation of our native habitats, don’t just look at the plants. Touch and smell the plants. (But don’t eat them unless you know what you’re doing.) Run your fingers across the soft tan tassels of Indian grass and atop the rough, sometimes smooth, leaves of our many sunflowers. Tickle your hand as you pass through a cloudy plume of prairie dropseed. And while you’re there, stop and pay attention to its rich fragrance of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. Receive the strong and refreshing fragrance of mint from the faded gray flowers of mountain mint and brown seeds wild bergamot. The black seeds of yellow coneflower smell like licorice, while the dark brown seeds of purple prairie clover give off my favorite good smell in Chicago nature—a transfusion of lemons and carrots. So, what is my favorite bad smell? That would be the brown, teardrop seed ball of foxglove beardtongue. When in bloom, the white snapdragon flowers have no appreciable smell. But beginning around the end of August, the seeds smell exactly like vomit. Some say, “moldy socks.” Either way, it’s fabulous!
And, right now, you can see white snakeroot in the shade of our woodlands and savannas. It is a poisonous plant that’s responsible for “milk sickness” that killed thousands of people in the 1800’s, including Abe Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. You may smell it and touch it, BUT DON’T EAT IT! The poison was spread through the milk of cows that ingested the plant. On a more uplifting note, the active ingredient eupitorin in white snakeroot may have anticancer properties.
WHERE TO GO THIS WEEKEND FOR A SUMMER WILDFLOWER GETAWAY AROUND CHICAGO:
Before visiting a preserve, visit the website for the landholder first. Click here for some resources.
We’ve ranked the preserves on this week’s list based on the quality of the wildflower experience, starting out with the best or “Go!” The “Go, if You’re in the Neighborhood” section is for sites that are worth visiting if you can’t get out to our top-rated preserves. And our “Preserves for You to Scout” section for those preserves that we couldn’t get to this week, but that you can help us explore! The date within the parentheses tells you when we last scouted the preserve. After the date, you may see one of these three mathematical symbols: +, –, = (plus, minus, equal). They represent our prediction about how the flowers will look like on the coming weekend: “+” is Probably Better; “-” is Probably Less Dramatic; “=” is Probably the Same. Notice the word “probably.”
THIS WEEK’S BEST (“GO!”)
Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester (9/17-): Wow! And I mean, “Wow!” For an unforgettable experience that will have you remember the year 2020 for something good, get out to Wolf Road Prairie to dive into the deep sea of golden sawtooth sunflower. For the best diving experience, take the narrow southbound trail behind the prairie house that’s located on Constitution Avenue at the north end of the preserve. (Normally, our directions have you park at the kiosk along 31st Street on the south end.) Immediately, the trail immerses you in swaying waves of towering sunflowers and grasses. Take your tape measure to find the tallest sunflower. The literature states that they can grow as high as thirteen feet, but the tallest I’ve ever found was twelve feet tall. That is, until last weekend when I found a handful of thirteen-footers along the northern trail! That’s taller than two of me. (See picture below.)
Along your hike to the south end, you’ll experience the grasses of Indian grass and big bluestem plus several flower species that include the pearly tall boneset, which can be found in large patches, cream gentian, pasture thistle, rough blazing star, round-headed bush clover, and the goldenrods of stiff, tall, and grass-leaved.
Spears Woods in Willow Springs (9/17-): This is your last chance for the year to experience the sea of sawtooth sunflower in the prairie’s undulating terrain. Mixed within the golden floral panorama and the flavescent tones of autumn’s calling are several species of goldenrod and aster, tall boneset, and a nice expanse of false aster. This preserves offers several “rooms,” each with its own personality. At one moment you’re in a prairie. The next, you’re overlooking a serene wetland through an open woodland. There’s no place like Spears Woods.
Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake In The Hills (9/14-): Our scout Jim rated this preserve a “Wow!” for its expansive displays of tall boneset and goldenrod across the rolling panorama. One of the most alluring qualities of this preserve is it endlessness. Goldenrods (including tall grass-leaved, field, and white, which looks just like an aster) are exploding throughout the fen, frequently intermixed with the off-white blooms of tall boneset. In addition, the maroon waves of Indian grass serve as a dramatic backdrop. In the soggy sections to the west, you’ll find the fading blooms of fading spotted Joe-Pye weed. And to the south, don’t miss the towering yellow blossoms of sawtooth sunflower. When you enter the preserve through the maze-like fencing, I suggest first taking a left and hiking the short looping trail that ends right back at the entrance. If you’re adventurous, take the longer trail (making a right at the entrance) leading into the southern section of the fen, and walk all the way to “Barbara’s Bench,” a resting stop paying tribute to the late Barbara Wilson, who dedicated much of her life to the stewardship and protection of this preserve. On your journey, you’ll encounter multiple dense patches of tall goldenrod and boneset, sawtooth sunflower, and the occasional flowering stalks of rough blazing star. If you visit in the early morning, there’s a good chance you’ll experience rolling fog hovering over the bowl of the fen, and possibly other magic. On Jim Yassick’s recent visit, he experienced a discussion between two owls on the trail between the parking lot and the main entrance! Please let us know about your own personal miracles from here at “The Lake” or any other preserve on our list.
Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook (9/14+): Golden blooms of sawtooth sunflower and many species of goldenrod are exploding across the oak savanna in keeping with September’s theme. This preserve is known for its floral variety, which now includes several kinds of aster, rough blazing star, and the glorious fringed, cream, and bottle gentians that grow low in the sunny areas. In addition, red and brown hues from big bluestem and Indian grass help to augment the colors from the asters and gentians. Finally, don’t miss the dramatic rising of rattlesnake master “skeletons” in the open prairie. During the summer, it’s safe to touch their prickly flower heads. But right now, they’re extremely sharp and will probably leave one of its bony seeds in your finger.
NOTE: If you visit Somme in the early morning, we suggest donning rainwear to avoid getting drenched in morning dew.
Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin (9/14-): As the foliage of the summer prairie is transforming into the rusts, browns, reds, and golds of autumn, yellows of sunflower and goldenrods sparkle across the preserve. As you enter the fen from the kiosk and hike the short trail to the curving creek, take note of the captivating sea of spotted Joe-Pye weed. While fading, the purple blossoms still show a hint of their youthful selves. Under the trees, you’ll find asters, and goldenrods, and the poisonous white snakeroot. Under the sun, the grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass show off beautiful tones of reds, rusts, and browns. The seep in the bottom of the bowl is the most enchanting spot, right now, featuring a beautiful mixture of shrubby cinquefoil, grass-leaved goldenrod, assorted sunflowers, and gentians, including cream, bottle, and fringed. Finally, keep an eye out for the beautiful great blue lobelia, which is scattered across the preserve,
NOTE: If you visit early in the morning, wear rain gear or you’ll end up soaked to the skin from dew.
Chiwaukee Prairie in Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin (9/15=.): This pretty prairie-on-the-lake is a “Go!” for the fringed and prairie gentians amidst a scene with a smattering of golden sawtooth sunflower and several species of goldenrod. You’ll also find rough blazing star, swamp thistle, and a variety of asters. And seas of beautiful grasses are changing color into their autumn tones.
Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham (9/17-): The foliage of the prairie is beginning to don autumn’s warm tones of reds, rusts, and browns, acting as a canvas to vibrant yellow blooms of the goldenrod alongside the remaining rays of tall coreopsis, sawtooth sunflower, and sneezeweed. Copious amounts of the pearly tall boneset can be seen in many locations along with an occasional mix of asters.
We need scouts, especially Southsiders!
Click here to learn about how you can help us share the beauty.
GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove (9/17-): The golden hues of sunflowers and goldenrods beautifully combine with the reds and browns tones of the grasses. However, much of the floral color can only be seen from a distance where sawtooth sunflowers blanket the far western portion of the preserve. Along your hike, look carefully at your feet for cream and bottle gentian.
Hummingbirds, Hummingbirds, Hummingbirds!
The hummingbirds are here! You can find them buzzing about at many nature centers including: Sagawau Canyon, Pilcher Park (at the nature center and south of the greenhouse), and Little Red Schoolhouse.
Miller Woods is leaping with gymnastic ferns that are beginning to change into their autumn colors.
See a Summer Sunset
Saganashkee Slough in Palos Hills: Sensational for sunsets, as our celestial star—a bright, burning brass ball—slowly sinks in the sky to start a sultry summer eve.
PLANT OF THE WEEK: FRINGED GENTIAN
Rough Blazing Star
Asters, Asters, Asters!
Cardinal Flower and Great Blue Lobelia
Grasses of Big Bluestem & Indian Grass
Wolf Road Prairie
Lake in the Hills Fen
Prairie Root System
If you find this website of Chicago nature information useful, please consider donating or purchasing my nationally-acclaimed book that celebrates all of the preserves featured on this website.
© 2020, Mike MacDonald. All rights reserved.