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Chicago Nature Now! Alert
September 11, 2020

Weekly Wildflower Report

“Chicago’s Best Nature Outings, Outdoor Adventures,
Wildflower Walks, Nature Hikes, & Weekend Getaways!”

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THANK YOU TO ZEKE WEI AND JIM YASSICK FOR KEEPING THIS ENTERPRISE RUNNING AND COMPOSING THESE REPORTS WHILE I’VE BEEN RECOVERING FROM HEART SURGERY!

 


During the COVID-19 pandemic,
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WE NEED MORE SCOUTS!
CLICK HERE TO LEARN ABOUT VOLUNTEERING.


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

SITE ACCESS:

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:

BE SAFE:

  • 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.

WE NEED SCOUTS, ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIVE SOUTH.
CLICK HERE TO LEARN ABOUT VOLUNTEERING!

 

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 and Spears Woods for the spectacular shows of 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!

Now is also your last chance to experience stunning shows of rough blazing star at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, Pembroke Savanna, Bluff Spring Fen, and Theodore Stone Preserve. And of course, goldenrods are blooming everywhere around Chicago. 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, fringed, cream, and bottle (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 fading flowers of mountain mint and wild bergamot. The seeds of yellow coneflower smell like licorice, while the 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 (9/2=): 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.)

Mike MacDonald and a 13-foot sawtooth sunflower at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois.*

Mike MacDonald and a 13-foot sawtooth sunflower at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois.*

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, obedient plant, pasture thistle, rough blazing star, round-headed bush clover, and the goldenrods of stiff, tall, and grass-leaved.

Spears Woods in Willow Springs (9/10=): Wow! Spears Woods is exploding with yellow as seas of sunflowers (sawtooth and long-bracted tickseed) flow across the undulating prairie terrain. There’s also a beautiful alabaster expanse of false aster in the western prairie. Yes, there are other flowers, as well, like tall coreopsis, grass-leaved goldenrod, ironweed, slender false foxglove, and pasture thistle, but their occasional appearances are overpowered by the golden floral panorama and the flavescent tones of autumn’s calling. 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 (9/7=): After nearly 6 months of wildflower blooms throughout the region, “The Lake” is finally elevated to “GO” status. One of the most alluring qualities of this preserve is it endlessness. And right now, the wildflower blooms are on par with the grandeur. 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 fragrant 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.

Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion (9/5=): This preserve is the richest and most biologically diverse preserve in the state, but we love it because it fills our hearts with joy. Be on the lookout for omnipresent displays of western sunflower, rough blazing star, white goldenrod, the butter-colored blooms of large flowered false foxglove, and the aging but still beautiful flowering spurge. Our intrepid scout Charlie recommends casually walking the trails during the cool morning hours to avoid the rowdy beachgoers and COVID-19 spreaders without masks.

Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook (9/5+): Somme Prairie Grove is known for the simultaneous blooms of many species, and that’s what you’ll find right now, including many golden blooms consistent with September’s theme. Sawtooth sunflower will blow your mind. Other notable golden bloomers are  stiff and grass-leaved goldenrod, and tall coreopsis. Look for the glorious fringed, cream,and bottle gentians hiding at ground level 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. On occasion, you’ll run into purple stalks of rough blazing star and the much rarer savanna blazing star. The stalks between flower head and stem are longer on the savanna version. You’ll also find the hinged pink blooms of obedient plant, the buttery trumpet-shaped blooms of large flowered false foxglove, and the bushy green flower heads of round-headed bush clover. Under the trees, there are pleasing numbers of the anise-scented sweet coneflower. 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 (9/5-): There’s a lot to see across the preserve, from savanna and kames to prairie and seep. GO for the rich yellows of sunflowers and goldenrods along with the autumn tones and splashes of pink. 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 no longer in peak condition, the fragrant purple blossoms are still gorgeous. Also in this area are touches of gold from assorted sunflowers. Under the trees of the oak savanna, you’ll find fading, but still dramatic, displays of cutleaf coneflower and wingstem, cup plant, and good numbers of brown-eyed Susan. Atop the big kame, you’ll find rough blazing star. As you emerge from the savanna, you’ll have a great view of the bowl that contains the prairie, the seep of the fen, and distant kames. Stop here, and soak up the purple hues of the grasses and golden sparkles of flowers. The grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass provide beautiful tones of reds, rusts, and browns. The seep in the bottom of the bowl is also a glorious place, and features beautiful displays of shrubby cinquefoil, grass-leaved goldenrod, assorted sunflowers, and gentians, including cream, bottle, and fringed. As you emerge north from the bowl, you’ll climb up the “switchback” kame. Once there, you’ll see a few new blooms of rough blazing star contrasted with the aging remains of cylindrical blazing star. Following the trail to the east a few hundred feet will lead to a nice patch of western sunflower, but if you descend westward instead and turn left towards the flowing stream, you’ll find a nice patch of goldenrods overlooking the curvy creek. 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.

Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park (9/5+): Go for the fine displays of field goldenrod and sweet everlasting. Rough blazing star is also blooming, though much subdued this year.

Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham (9/6=): The foliage of the prairie is beginning to don autumn’s warm tones of reds, rusts, and browns as a backdrop to the vibrant yellow blooms of the many goldenrods alongside rays of tall coreopsis, long-bracted tickseed sunflower sawtooth sunflower, and sneezeweed. Copious amounts of the pearly tall boneset can be seen in many locations, while slender false foxglove, pasture thistle, ironweed, rough blazing star, big bluestem, and blue vervain add splashes of white, pink, purple and blue to the prairie canvas.

 

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:

Chiwaukee Prairie in Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/29.): This gorgeous preserve-by-the-lake is predicted to be “Go, if in the neighborhood,” right now. We predict that you’ll see the golden Kalm’s St. John’s wort alongside the purples of prairie and fringed gentian. In addition, goldenrods, western sunflower, sawtooth sunflower, a smattering of rough blazing star should still be blooming.

Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest (Unscouted. Last scouted on 9/2 with the following report.): Middlefork Savanna is named after the rare tallgrass savanna along the middle fork of the Chicago River, but the prairie is the reason to go this weekend.  Our dedicated scout Zeke reported that, while there are abundant blooms of sawtooth sunflower and black-eyed Susan growing in the prairie at the moment, it was the tubular, crimson blooms of cardinal flower, the deep purple blossoms of ironweed, and the delicate pink petals of obedient plant that stole his heart.

Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove (9/7+): 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.

 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

Hummingbirds, Hummingbirds, Hummingbirds!
The hummingbirds are here! You can find them buzzing about at many nature centers including: Sagawau CanyonPilcher Park (at the nature center and south of the greenhouse), and Little Red Schoolhouse.

Ferns
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: BOTTLE GENTIAN

Bottle gentian (or closed gentian) is fully dependent on bumblebees for its survival. The petals of this unusual flower are effectively closed to other insects, but the strong bumblebee is able to muscle its way in through the tip. Late in the season, when fewer plants are blooming, bottle gentian relies on the slim pickings for pollination, hoping bumblebees won’t mind the extra effort.*

Bottle gentian (or closed gentian) is fully dependent on bumblebees for its survival. The petals of this unusual flower are effectively closed to other insects, but the strong bumblebee is able to muscle its way in through the tip. Late in the season, when fewer plants are blooming, bottle gentian relies on the slim pickings for pollination, hoping bumblebees won’t mind the extra effort.*

When I first set eyes upon these fading blooms of bottle gentian, I was taken aback, struck by an arrow through my heart. Instantly, I fell in love with the prettiest flowers I had ever seen. Maybe I was just having one of those days, but I was close to tears.*

When I first set eyes upon these fading blooms of bottle gentian, I was taken aback, struck by an arrow through my heart. Instantly, I fell in love with the prettiest flowers I had ever seen. Maybe I was just having one of those days, but I was close to tears.*

Blue bottle gentians survive under the shadow of the dense September prairie, where plants, like this sawtooth sunflower, can tower twelve feet into the air.*

Here at Powderhorn Prairie in Chicago, bottle gentian survive under the shadow of the dense late-summer prairie, where plants, like this sawtooth sunflower, can tower twelve feet into the air.*

 

 

PHOTO SECTION

 

Sawtooth Sunflower

Sawtooth sunflowers bloom in fields of towering, endless gold in one of the last dramatic displays of the summer season at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois.*

Sawtooth sunflower blooms in fields of towering, endless gold in one of the last dramatic displays of the summer season at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester.*

Obedient Plant

Obedient plant can be found at many local preserves, like here at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, and Wolf Road Prairie. Use your finger to pivot the flower on the stem and it will obediently remain in place, hence the name. Though, grow it in your garden, and it has a habit of spreading and not staying put.*

Obedient plant can be found at many local preserves, like here at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, and Wolf Road Prairie. Use your finger to pivot the flower on the stem and it will obediently remain in place, hence the name. Though, grow it in your garden, and it has a habit of spreading and not staying put.*

Rough Blazing Star

Rough blazing star glows in the morning light at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

Rough blazing star glows in the morning light at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

Fringed Gentian

Gorgeous fringed gentians bloom in September. However, the flowers are diurnal, meaning that the the blooms only open up with the sun and are closed at night and, sometimes, on cloudy days.*

Gorgeous fringed gentians bloom in September. However, the flowers are diurnal, meaning that the the blooms only open up with the sun and are closed at night and, sometimes, on cloudy days. You can find them at preserves like Bluff Spring Fen, Chiwaukee Prairie, and Lake in the Hills Fen.*

Asters, Asters, Asters!

New England asters

Asters come in a variety of colors: white, pink, purple, and blue. The name comes from an Ancient Greek word for “star.” You can find them in most prairies and savannas, and in some wetlands around the region. This is an image of New England aster, which is just one of the many species of aster that bloom at this time of year. Click here for a complete (pdf) list of local asters and goldenrods.

Cardinal Flower and Great Blue Lobelia

Great blue lobelia and cardinal flower in the panne at Montrose Beach Dunes in Chicago, Illinois.*

Great blue lobelia and cardinal flower in the panne at Montrose Harbor in downtown Chicago.

Western Sunflower

Early late-summer light strikes the tops of indian grass, western sunflower, and rough blazing star at the sand prairie along the Lake Michigan shoreline at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, Illinois.*

Early late-summer light strikes the tops of Indian grass, western sunflower, and rough blazing star at the sand prairie along the Lake Michigan shoreline at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion.

The Grasses of Big Bluestem & Indian Grass

Big bluestem grass gives the true meaning to the term "tallgrass prairie."*

The towering height of big bluestem gives true meaning to the term “tallgrass prairie.”*

Miniature flowers delicately hang from the tassel of big bluestem grass.*

Miniature flowers delicately hang from the tassel of big bluestem grass.*

In the dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, Illinois, feathery plumes of dew-drenched Indian grass steal the show from rough blazing star and goldenrod.*

In the dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, Illinois, feathery plumes of dew-drenched Indian grass steal the show from rough blazing star and field goldenrod.*

Rough blazing star and Indiana grass dominate the top of this kame at Lake in the Hill Fen.

Feathery plumes of Indian grass and rough blazing star festoon the top of this kame at Lake in the Hill Fen.

Wolf Road Prairie

September at Wolf Road Prairie gives proof of nature’s comfort, as sawtooth sunflower and obedient plant tangle in a glorious embrace.*

In one of the last dramatic displays of the summer season at Wolf Road Prairie, towering sawtooth sunflower blooms in endless fields of gold and alongside pink obedient plant and alabaster blossoms of tall boneset .*

Illinois Beach Nature Preserve

Rough blazing star and western sunflower find protection from the elements inside the swale of the sand prairie at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, Illinois.*

Rough blazing star and western sunflower find protection from the elements inside the swale of the sand prairie at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, Illinois.*

Pembroke Savanna

Field goldenrod and rough blazing star bring an air of autumn to the sand savanna at Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park, Illinois.*

Field goldenrod and rough blazing star bring an air of autumn to the sand savanna at Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park, Illinois.*

Lake in the Hills Fen

In late August, tall goldenrod and purple rough blazing star contribute to an explosion of color at Lake in the Hills Fen.

At this time of year, tall goldenrod and purple rough blazing star contribute to an explosion of color at Lake in the Hill Fen.

The golden blooms of stiff goldenrod and shrubby cinquefoil turn the seep of this fen aglow at Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills, Illinois.*

The golden blooms of stiff goldenrod and shrubby cinquefoil turn the seep of this fen aglow at Lake in the Hills Fen.*

Prairie Root System

The root system of some common prairie plants.

The root system of some common prairie plants. Note that cylindrical blazing star has the deepest root that reaches over fifteen feet! Click the image for a bigger view.

* Photo is representational and was not recorded this year. Bloom times vary from year to year.

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.

—Mike

© 2020, Mike MacDonald. All rights reserved.

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