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Chicago Region Tops U.S. National Parks in Native Plant Biodiversity!
Part 1
(Originally published on 1-11-2018 and updated on 1-14-2022)



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 Beach Dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline in downtown Chicago, Illinois.

A local bookstore stopped carrying my book and work-of-art celebrating Chicago’s natural wonders just because it wasn’t selling as well as the newer, cheaper, and highly advertised National Geographic book that commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the national parks. I got mad. Then I got even, a lot better than even, but in my own way: I did some research and uncovered two remarkable facts about the natural splendor of the Chicago region.

The national parks are famous and revered around the world. Most people have either visited one on their vacation or have virtually experienced every one of them through their television screens. Then, when the bookstore bumped a book that’s playing a part in promoting Chicago nature and then jumped on the national parks bandwagon, it made me wonder, “How does Chicago nature compare the national parks?” Specifically, how does the Chicago region stack up to the national parks in terms of land area and biodiversity? And what kind of hoopla does Chicago nature deserve? I started my research.

Chicago Wilderness graciously compiled acreage data for our region, and Wikipedia had a page of acreage numbers for the national parks. I got access to the U.S. National Park Service database for the counts of native vascular plant species in each park. (These are plants like flowers, grasses, and trees, not mosses or liverworts.) And I compared those national park plant counts to those of the Chicago area, thanks to the comprehensive ,scientific volume entitled Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm, Laura Rericha, and Indiana Academy of Science. The comparison revealed these two inspiring and mind-blowing results:

Compared to the 63 U.S. national parks, as of Jan. 14. 2022:

1) the combined acreage of protected natural area within a narrow 50-mile radius of downtown Chicago ranks 25th—greater than 38 national parks, including Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, Badlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Acadia.

2) the Chicago region (defined by a 75-mile radius of downtown) ranks 1st in the number of native vascular plant species with a total of 1,867. That’s 323 more than the most prolific national park, Grand Canyon, which comes in with a total of 1,544. (For the local species count within a 50-mile radius of downtown, which most Chicago-area residents would agree could still be called “the Chicago area,” click here for Part 2 of this story.)

Wow! These exciting results mean that every single day, from mid-April through mid-September, there’s a national-park quality wildflower blooming event happening somewhere in the Chicago area. And, each week during this period, we report on those events right here at ChicagoNatureNOW!. Subscribe for our free alerts so you that don’t miss a single glorious moment.

“No other great metropolitan region of the earth has such a diversity of natural beauty within an easy drive of its citizens.”—Gerould Wilhelm.

Mark your calendar to listen to a radio interview about this topic on WBEZ’s Worldview show (91.5 FM) on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 at 12:25 pm. The esteemed Gerould Wilhelm and I will appear live in studio.

Click here to continue to Part 2 of this story.


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