Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
May 20, 2023
“Weekly Wildflower Forecasts Featuring
Chicago’s Best Weekend Getaways & Nature Trips”
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This is the time to be on the lookout for spectacular shows
taking place in our showcase prairies, savannas, and woodlands.
WILDFLOWER FORECAST & HIGHLIGHTS to help you plan your outdoor adventures into Chicago’s Woodlands:
Beautiful blooms of woodland phlox, mayapple, and wild geranium are the last big flower shows in our woodlands. And time may have already run out. However, this is also the moment to begin searching for the magnificent world-class shows of wild lupine and shooting star. These are must-see events! But nature isn’t just about flowers. It’s about the experience. Explore and discover a preserve from the list below. Be open to nature’s unexpected gifts, whether it be a colorful, awe-inspiring bloom, the mysterious squeak of two rubbing trees mimicking the cry of a baby animal, or the life-affirming odor of skunk cabbage. All of these things will open up your life to a world of wonder and intrigue.
The curtain has gone down on the performances of Virginia Bluebell. And you may still catch the last act of large-flowered trillium as they take their final bow with flushed faces. This magnificent blossom puts on the best shows at Heron Rookery Trail (at Indiana Dunes National Park) and at the nearby J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve that’s owned by Shirley Hines Land Trust. These alabaster beauties also grow at Messenger Woods in Homer Glen, Meacham Grove in DuPage County, Harms Woods in Glenview, and Captain Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa. And speaking of trillium, the elegant and ethereal prairie trillium also flowers in most of our woodlands.
It’s possible that you may still discover woodland shows of woodland phlox and wild geranium alongside hidden blossoms of mayapple and wild ginger. Take a closer look underneath the leaves of wild ginger to find their fuzzy burgundy flowers. And the large waxy white blossoms of mayapple should be flowering by now. To find them, look beneath the umbrellas of two-leafed plants.
Shooting star and wild lupine are featured as our Plants of the Week because they put on breathtaking end-of-May performances. The former is found in overwhelming numbers at Chiwaukee Prairie. It’s absolutely spectacular. You can also experience their celestial beauty at Fermilab Prairie, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, and Somme Prairie Grove. At Miller Woods at Indiana Dunes National Park, the show of wild lupine is unbelievably beautiful, as the blues and purples drape across the rolling dunes sprinkled with golden hoary puccoon. Wow! Within the national park, they also bloom at Tolleston Dunes, and West Beach, but the blue-and-white blossom also shows up at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve and Chiwaukee Prairie.
Closer to the city, you may find a dramatic show of wild hyacinth at Wolf Road Prairie, where a savanna of feathery plumes greets you as you hop out of your car (along 31st Street). You can also catch these flowers at sites like Somme Prairie Grove, Oldfield Oaks, and Black Partridge Woods, but the flowers aren’t nearly as abundant. The month of May is also the time to find the spiraling flowerheads of wood betony at Black Partridge Woods. Somme Prairie Grove, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Fermilab Prairie, and later in the month at Chiwaukee Prairie when the shooting stars cover the grassland pink with touches of yellow star grass, birdfoot violet, and golden Alexander. And the golden blossoms of hoary puccoon may be found in our prairies and oak savannas, including Somme Prairie Grove, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Pembroke Savanna, Belmont Prairie, Miller Woods, and usually a little later at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve and Chiwaukee Prairie.
As the trees are leafing out in an emerald filigree, let’s appreciate the textured lushness and shapely foliage that typify vernal season: wild leek, mayapple, skunk cabbage, and wild ginger. Wild leek is the one of the first plants to sprout, with a spray of swordlike leaves that make up a large percentage of the woodland greenery. You should now find mayapple with leaves that resemble an open umbrella, or a closed umbrella when they first sprout. Seek out the the sprawling leaves of skunk cabbage in the wet and muddy areas. Great displays can be found at Pilcher Park, Trout Park, Black Partridge Woods, and Bluff Spring Fen. And notice the heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger and its fuzzy burgundy flower hiding underneath. As an interesting history lesson, wild leek is the plant that gives Chicago its name. In the late 1600s, Potawatomi Indians who paddled the area rivers were commonly heard yelling “Chicagoua!” after catching a strong whiff of chicagoua, or wild leek, growing prolifically along the wooded banks. Wild leek is part of the onion family, hence the Chicago nickname, “The Big Onion.” NOTE: It is illegal to remove this plant, or any other plant from any preserve in the Chicago region.
Another wonderful show happens sometime between late April and mid-May at Pembroke Savanna, when birdfoot violet and sand phlox carpet the sandy floor of this black oak savanna. And, if you’re lucky, the breathtaking stout blue-eye grass might be aflower.
SPRING WILDFLOWER GETAWAYS AROUND CHICAGO:
I’ve ranked the preserves on this week’s list based on the information predicted by my one-of-a-kind propriety database of wildflowers blooming events, 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 make it to the top-rated preserves.
LIKELY, THIS WEEK’S BEST CHOICES (“GO!”):
Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park: Sometime during late April to mid-May, the preserve puts on a beautiful show of blue and white, as carpets of sapphire birdfoot violet and sparkling sand phlox flow across the savanna. Don’t leave without bending down to enjoy the fragrance of these two jewels. You may also see the white of sand cress and starry false Solomon’s seal, and the golds of two-flowered Cynthia and buds of hoary puccoon. On your visit, you’ll notice mysterious sand mounds throughout the preserves. They are the handiwork of the plains pocket gopher. This rarely seen underground gopher excavates tunnels, and the extra sand has to go somewhere.
Miller Woods in Indiana Dunes National Park: The spectacular show of wild lupine can reach peak bloom somewhere from mid to late May. It’s a must-see event. Adding the to the blue hues are the sublime blue-eyed grass and birdfoot violet. The vibrant yellow blooms of hoary puccoon add a golden sparkle to the savanna as the buttery blooms of wood betony end their run. The red-and-yellow blossoms of wild columbine float above the understory of the savanna. And flashes of white come from wild strawberry and bastard toadflax. Keep your eyes open, and you may even find the gorgeous red Indian paintbrush. While you’re here, take the trail to the lakeshore. Along the way, the path crosses a wide gravel path that goes straight east-west. Head west, and you’ll find beaver lodges and activity. If you arrive early or remain late in the day, chances are you’ll be greeted by a beaver slapping its flat tail against the water to alert others of its kind about that human lurking about. This abandoned railroad right-of-way isn’t as intimate as the official narrow trail, but I like the views better. After your hike, consider checking out the lupines at Tolleston Dunes and West Beach. NOTE: The trail can be covered in water in some area. We recommend high boots. Or just slosh on through!
Chiwaukee Prairie in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin: The preserve is putting on its finest show of the year: the performance by the spectacular shooting star. It is joined by a colorful cast: hoary puccoon, wood betony, yellow star grass, blue-eyed grass, birdfoot violet, and wild strawberry. Golden Alexander is just beginning to expose its bright yellow blossoms. And check along the edges for soon-to-bloom wild lupine. While you’re here, you should definitely visit Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, which is easily provides the best nature experience in the region.
Black Partridge Woods in Lemont: The spring wildflower season ends in May with shows of woodland phlox, mayapple, wild hyacinth, and wild geranium. The greatest densities of the latter two plants can be found atop the bluffs. It’s also a dreamy time to experience the lushness of the woodland. It’s so green—from the new leaves of the tiered tree canopy to the dense carpet of foliage on the woodland floor. Thanks to wild ginger that has fully leafed out, you can hardly see the ground beneath. I love the miniature forests of mayapple with their parasol-shaped leaves where you may still be able to find a lonesome waxy white blossom hiding under the plants with two umbrellas. Exciting patches of acrobatic skunk cabbage leaves add to the whimsy. Wild leek‘s emerald swords put up a defense, along with the star-like leaves of wild geranium. And look for the floating filigreed foliage of early meadow rue. A smattering of white and pink shooting star may also be found on the bluffs above. And if woodland phlox is still aflower, note its gorgeous fragrance. If you find a larger patch of phlox, you may not even have to put nose to petal to detect its fabulous scent. The combination of woodland phlox, wild geranium, and shooting star is wonderful sight.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates: Though not officially a hill prairie, this gravelly prairie on a hill gets a lot of sun and also a lot of wildflowers. This is usually a good time to see hoary puccoon, wood betony, shooting star, birdfoot violet, and blue-eyed grass.
Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester: In the oak savanna, the often-dramatic show of wild hyacinth is usually the big attraction around this time, alongside the pink blooms of wild geranium and white starry false Solomon’s seal. In the savanna, you’ll probably find more starry false Solomon’s seal, buttery wood betony, golden hoary puccoon and golden Alexander, and white blossoms of wild senna
“GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”:
Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve in Monee: I love this place for its springtime lushness. In early to mid May, you can find beautiful displays of pink wild geranium and blue woodland phlox. And as May progresses, dramatic plumes of false Solomon’s seal scatter across the rolling verdant landscape. The foliage on the woodland floor has fully matured as the trees are pushing out fresh delicate leaves in the canopy overhead. Spread across the woodland floor are the jade hues and lush patterns of wild leek, mayapple, and the omnipresent wild ginger. The latter two might still be blooming! A rich variety of flowers can be found at this preserve. Upon entering, you’re immediately greeted by a nice display of woodland phlox, which is the most prominent flower after the Virginia bluebells have faded away. Like the bluebell, phlox has a wonderful fragrance that you should be able to smell as you stroll by. At the same time, the pink blossoms of wild geranium rival phlox as the star of the show. You may still find some sparkle from rue anemone, false rue anemone, common blue violet, common yellow violet, and bristly buttercup. And look for Jack-in-the-pulpit and the gorgeous and shy drooping trillium. The strange and wonderful prairie trillium may be blooming in very large numbers, and you may find some that look yellow. And finally, If you take it slow and remain very quiet as you approach the bridge, you may see frogs resting along the muddy banks.
Fermilab Natural Areas in Batavia: In mid May, the prairie blooms with wood betony shooting star, and golden Alexander. The adjacent woodland may still have some grand alabaster blossoms of large-flowered trillium, floating pink blooms of wild geranium, and prominent displays of woodland phlox and golden colonies of bristly buttercup. And you may still find prairie trillium alongside the hiding blooms of mayapple and wild ginger.
Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook: Note that springtime starts a little later in the northern suburbs. Remain under the tree canopy to see the most spring ephemerals. You may now find the beautiful hemi-parasitic wood betony scattered in patches across the preserve, often in the sunnier spots, along with shooting star, prairie trillium, and golden Alexander in early bloom. Look for yellow water buttercup and miniature forests of mayapple that add to the whimsy. Park at the main parking lot for this preserve, located at Somme Woods, then follow the narrow trail and cross the street to Somme Prairie Grove.
Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn: This intimate preserve is known for its ravines and the flowers that cross the braes. During early to mid May, the preserve is richly green from your ankles to the fresh tree canopy above. During this time, it often offers some nice displays of pink wild geranium and blue woodland phlox amidst the white blooms of mayapple.
Heron Rookery Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park: The peak bloom of large-flowered trillium is usually done by this time, but it may be worth a shot if you’re already in the area for the wild lupines at Miller Woods. The display of trillium is even better at the nearby J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve, which is owned by Shirley Hines Land Trust. Begin your stroll at the west parking lot. This woodland usually blooms earlier than most of our other preserves, but it can also be flooded by waters of the adjacent Little Calumet River. As we reach the middle of May, you might find wild geranium and woodland phlox blooming amidst a sea of green wild leek, mayapple, and wild ginger. And look for the bright-yellow bristly buttercup that love the muddy areas.
Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin: Under the trees, check under the parasols of mayapple for its poisonous waxy white flower. Yet, the most prolific blooms may be happening under the sun with shining displays of wood betony and golden Alexander. Then add to that the brilliant yellow blossoms of hairy puccoon. You’ll also find ivory tones from bastard toadflax in the prairie and fluffy plumes of common cottongrass in the soggy areas. Under the protection of the savanna’s canopy, look for woodland phlox, wild geranium, shooting star, and the sublime stout blue-eyed grass.
Messenger Woods in Homer Glen The shows of Virginia bluebells and large-flowered trillium should be gone by now. Yet, you may still find a beautiful show of wild geranium and possibly some woodland phlox. The maroon flowers of prairie trillium may still be hanging on, and so might the large waxy white flowers of mayapple. Once spring takes hold, you’ll see a variety of blooming ephemerals amidst an emerald carpet often rich in a lacy false mermaid, mayapple, wild leek, and wild ginger.
NOTE: If you can’t make it to our showcase preserves, try McKinley Woods/Fredericks Grove in Channahon, Daniel Wright Woods in Mettawa, and Harms Woods in Glenview, and Oldfield Oaks in Darien, and J. Timothy Ritchie Preserve in Chesterton, Indiana. You’re bound to find some good stuff.
PLANTS OF THE WEEK (Shooting Star & Wild Lupine):
Starry False Solomon’s Seal:
Stout Blue-Eyed Grass
Shoe Factory Road Prairie:
Chiwaukee Prairie’s May Show of Shooting Star:
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.