Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
August 26, 2021
“Weekly Wildflower Reports Featuring
Chicago’s Best Outdoor Getaways & Nature Trips”
Chicago’s Best Weekend Walks & Outdoor Getaways!
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WILDFLOWER HIGHLIGHTS TO HELP YOU PLAN YOUR OUTDOOR ADVENTURES INTO CHICAGO’S WOODLANDS:
The late-summer blooms are have emerged with the pinks and purples of obedient plant, cylindrical blazing star and rough blazing star alongside the yellows of tall coreopsis, rosinweed, sunflowers, and goldenrods. And we can’t forget the many species of grasses from which the tallgrass prairie gets its name, including Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass, side-oats grama, and Canada wild rye (our photogenic Plant of the Week, especially when covered in dew).
Bluff Spring Fen is featuring at least three dramatic shows amidst a wide array of flowers in a serene and magical setting.
Spears Woods is looking great with new blooms of sunflowers and goldenrods. The walk through the prairies, woodlands, and wetlands is probably the best experience in the region. This preserve also provides great trails far away from traffic, varied habitats, and dramatic vistas. And while you’re there, catch a final glimpse of the aquatic American lotus in Hogwash Slough. The pale yellow blossoms resemble those of a water lily, but they’re much larger—up to eight inches wide atop stems that can reach six feet high. And that isn’t all. The circular leaf is gorgeous and enormous, up to two and a half feet in diameter! See the Photo Section below for images of American lotus (and where to find it) along with the many flowers featured in this report.
NOTE: It’s August. But I sometimes call it Foggust because August is the foggiest month of the year. So, if you visit a preserve in the morning, wear rain gear because you could end up soaked to the skin from the dew. A pioneer of the prairie once remarked, “Walking through a dewy stand of big bluestem is like jumpin’ in the creek.” And I can vouch for that.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie is bursting with obedient plant, rough blazing star, and many other flowers. Somme Prairie Grove is aflower in the woodland and the savanna. Illinois Beach Nature Preserve (and probably Pembroke Savanna) is starting to show the purple hues of rough blazing star, which is often a great show.
Here is my most profound recommendation for enjoying your time in nature. If the preserve allows, arrive before first light. A morning rendezvous with nature is a magical experience that vastly transcends what’s possible at other times of day. In the early bright, the world expands beyond the usual three dimensions, as the transformation from darkness into light excites more than just the visual sense. As night gives birth to dawn, and the landscape gently turns from azure to gold, the soft and changing light is a spectacle for the eyes. A moist fog or a splash of crisp dew against your skin affirms your existence. The still atmosphere concentrates the fragrances floating in the air and provides a tranquil stage for birds to project their crystal melodies. In the morning, you’ll find all of this, along with the promise of a new day.
WHERE TO GO THIS WEEKEND FOR A SPRING WILDFLOWER GETAWAY AROUND CHICAGO:
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 on the coming weekend: “+” is Probably Better; “-” is Probably Less Dramatic; “=” is Probably the Same. Notice the word “probably.”
THIS WEEK’S BEST (“GO!”):
The order of the preserves below is based on the quality of the wildflower experience, starting out with the best.
Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester (8/24+): Most of the action is taking place in the southern portion of the preserve, but the northern half is beginning to ramp up towards its spectacular annual show of sawtooth sunflower. The spectacular soaring jungles of golden prairie dock, again, steal the show. The oak savanna is alive with fading blooms of woodland sunflower alongside tawny fluffs of sweet Joe-Pye weed and bristly sprays of bottlebrush grass. The prairie is overflowing with all manner of flowers, including incredible forests of golden flowering prairie dock and compass plant, with tall coreopsis, rosinweed, sawtooth sunflower, and goldenrods, all contributing a matrix of yellow to the palette. The white bursts of flowering spurge add a beautiful lift of contrast to the prairie bouquet as playful scenes of rattlesnake master bring their usual delight. Royal puffs of ironweed, pink trumpets of obedient plant, and the occasional purple rough blazing star add beautifully to the mix of gold and silver, as the late-summer grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass soften the sharp textures. NOTE: Theodore Stone Preserve and Spears Woods are not too far away.
Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin (8/21=): There are many species in flowers across the preserve, which is why I say it ties for first place with Wolf Road Prairie. Depending on your perspective, it could be #1. Begin your hike at the main trailhead that winds you under the trees and along the kames of the oak savanna, around the sunny prairie, and through the main fen. Enter the oak savanna from the kiosk to find browning mauve plumes of sweet Joe-Pye weed along with pale Indian plantain, starry campion, brown-eyed Susan, and whimsical bottlebrush grass. At the troll bridge, where friendly trolls have helped to restore the adjacent wetland habitat, look to your right for a breathtaking expanse of purple spotted Joe-Pye weed with golden cutleaf coneflower and a sprinkling of tall ivory cowbane. Continuing under the protection of oaks, on your right at the base of the kame, you’ll see another wonderful show of golden cutleaf coneflower and wingstem. The two flowers can look the same, but the leaves are quite different. Like the name suggests, cutleaf coneflower has a deeply lobed or “clawed” shape, whereas wingstem features traditional foliage. I can usually tell from a distance just by spying the leaves. Wingstem, as you can imagine, has a winged stem, with a ridge that extends along its length. But it’s hard to see unless you’re up close. When you reach the big kame, take the narrow trail on your left to the top. On your way up, look for a display of sprawling and whimsical bottlebrush grass. Once at the gravelly peak, you’ll experience a unique view of the preserve. At your feet, there’s pink cylindrical blazing star at peak bloom, a few obedient plant, and many fading pink balls of nodding wild onion. Go back down from whence you “kame,” turn left on the main trail, and then make a right as you reach the end of the wooded savanna. Once under the sun, you’ll find fading wild bergamot, spindly tall coreopsis, creamy tuberous Indian plantain, pearly flowering spurge, golden rosinweed, the start of stiff goldenrod, the flowering tassels of big bluestem, beautiful flourishes of Canada wild rye, and a “forest” of compass plant in the southwest corner. To experience the best skin exfoliation service that Chicago nature has to offer, twist and turn through a tangle of delightfully bristly compass plant stalks. Talk about the best arm-scratcher ever! As the trail veers left to the east, you’ll again pass through sprawling stands of blooming big bluestem and into a gravelly area. (This is exactly the kind of place where you’ll get drenched to the skin in morning dew, so wear your rain gear.) Ahead to your right is the “transplant kame.” In 1990, Healy Road Prairie, located six miles away, was being mined for its gravel, and a community of hundreds of volunteers dug it up and transplanted it here. (Read more about it here and here.) Years before, the transplant kame was also mined to the ground, but it was reconstructed to become the new home of Healy Road Prairie. Make a left at the end of the kame to descend into the bowl of the fen where you’ll discover goldenrods, rosinweed, flat-topped aster, swamp thistle, and a few great blue lobelia. Move slowly and watch your step as you pass through dense willows (which desperately need trimming). Be careful not to trip on the narrow boardwalk that immediately awaits you by the willows! Cross the boardwalk to find some spotted Joe-Pye weed, and boneset. After you cross the second boardwalk, stay straight (don’t veer left), as the trail ducks under a low tree so that you can scale up the side of the switchback kame where a peak bloom cylindrical blazing star awaits alongside the start of purple rough blazing star. As the trails steers left and down, you’ll see some of the same species as before. Continue left across the creek and to the left of the big kame that winds right and takes you back to the trailhead.
NOTE: If you visit early in the morning, wear rain gear or you’ll end up soaked to the skin from dew. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook (8/24=): This preserve is looking great, right now. The woodland surrounding the savanna was making a statement with yellow-petaled sweet coneflower, woodland sunflower, sneezeweed, and large flowered false foxglove alongside alabaster boneset, starry campion, browning plumes of sweet Joe-Pye weed, purple buttons of ironweed, and the perfectly named bottlebrush grass. Under the open sky, golden rays of prairie dock, compass plant, tall coreopsis, and sawtooth sunflower reach for the clouds. Closer to the ground are scores of other flowers that might take your breath away with sparkling textures and colors that include: the elegant cream gentian and blue bottle gentian, white filigrees of flowering spurge, different goldenrods, pinks of obedient plant, and purples of pasture thistle and rough and savanna blazing star. If you run into the yellow-flowered rosinweed, run your fingers over the stiff foliage and you’ll instantly understand the name. You’ll fine waves of tall grasses that will douse you with early morning dew. Then there there’s prairie dropseed, with its floppy stringy hairdos and fragrant plumes that smell like slightly burnt buttered popcorn. But watch your step. They’re very easy to trip over. NOTE: If you visit in the morning, wear waterproof pants and shoes, otherwise you’ll probably get soaked from the dew.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/17.): This Illinois Nature Preserve is located inside the fence, where the color is dominated by large patches of pink with a mix of yellow and white. Last week, the star of the show was obedient plant with its pink hinged blooms that flourish in large colonies. But this week, its similarly colored costar of cylindrical blazing star is growing in large numbers and are more widely distributed. Still, don’t ignore the new purple blossoms of rough blazing star, which should also be putting on a big show. A smattering of fading nodding wild onion adds flashes of ivory and salmon, while flowering spurge provides a brilliant sparkle. As you pan across the landscape, the golden blooms of the Silphium genus dominate the yellows with prairie dock and compass plant towering overhead and rough-leaved rosinweed grounded below. A handful of tall coreopsis also contributes to the golden show alongside the goldenrods of stiff and field that are just showing their buttery buds. Western sunflower is starting, too. The woodland is flushed with the yellows of woodland sunflower, cup plant, tall coreopsis, and prairie dock. Outside the fence, you’ll also find an abundance of blooms and seas of late-summer-toned grasses. NOTE: Consider visiting Bluff Spring Fen while you’re here. It’s roughly in the neighborhood.
Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest (8/24+): This is a large preserve with wide trails made for hiking and biking. Many dramatic plants are blooming in large numbers, providing colorful vistas of yellow and gold from the goldenrods (grass-leaved, stiff, tall, etc.), rosinweed, and the towering composite blooms of cup plant, sawtooth sunflower, tall coreopsis, and prairie dock. Highlights of pearl can be seen in flowering spurge and tall boneset alongside the fading blooms of rattlesnake master and mountain mint. The dramatic purples of prairie blazing star are gone, but those of ironweed add visual excitement. And there’s much more to see: obedient plant, lots of wild bergamot, and the start of New England aster. In the wetter areas, you’ll find the deep-pink blooms of spotted Joe-Pye weed and the spectacular blossoms of halberd-leaved rose mallow.
Spears Woods in Willow Springs (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/18.): This preserve is just beautiful at this time of year, with various blooms and habitats that you can experience while you’re hiking about. Based on what I saw last week, here are my interpolations for this week:
In the prairie, the most conspicuous wildflowers come from rosinweed, tall coreopsis, grass-leaved and other goldenrods, and the start of sawtooth and long-bracted tickseed sunflower. These two sunflowers often provide dramatic shows in September. You’ll also find fading blooms of flowering spurge, woodland sunflower, compass plant, and prairie dock alongside the towering grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass. Occasional hints of purple come from pasture thistle and ironweed. The lush woodland features the looming brown tufts of sweet Joe-Pye weed. And the magnificent aquatic American lotus flower may have reached the end of its bloom at the north end of Hogwash Slough. Its cream-colored blossoms resemble those of a water lily, but they’re much larger—up to eight inches wide atop stems that can reach six feet high. NOTE: Theodore Stone Preserve and Wolf Road Prairie are not too far away.
GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion (8/17+): Often at the very end of August into the first week of September, the preserve puts on a beautiful show of the purple rough blazing star amidst sprays of western sunflower, flowering spurge, the glorious showy goldenrod, and the feathery Indian grass. However, as we wait for the big performance to begin, flowering spurge is already blooming beautifully across the preserve as it’s costars are still just entering the stage. You can now experience the the round trumpeted yellow blossom of large flowered false foxglove, the remaining blooms of purple prairie clover, some grass-leaved and tall goldenrod, and shrubby cinquefoil.
Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills (8/22+.): This preserve offers a dramatic panoramic view that is best enjoyed at edges of daylight, when it’s not hot and sunny. Enjoy an array of flowers that flow along the vast rolling landscape of the prairie and fen as the landscape is awash in the golden hues of late summer, mostly coming from the goldenrods with the help of tall coreopsis, rosinweed, and prairie dock. And oceans of tall grasses wave in the warm prairie winds. As you walk the high and low trails, you’ll find an abundance of blossoms, including the pinks of obedient plant, cylindrical blazing star, and spotted Joe-Pye weed along with the purples of pasture thistle and rough blazing star. Next to the the fens you may find grass-of-Parnassus, great blue lobelia, and swamp betony. White goldenrod is blooming on a gravelly kame near the entrance. However, it looks nothing like goldenrod and more like an aster. NOTE: If you visit in the morning, wear waterproof pants and shoes, otherwise you’ll probably get soaked from the dew.
Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/18.): I expect you’ll find rough blazing star blooming in the gravel on the eastern prairie. And I also expect the sea of grasses and the mix of yellow flowers to be prominent. Experience the beautiful flowing grassland that includes many species: Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass, Canada wild rye, and side-oats grama. The yellow hues are made up of the dainty blooms of tall coreopsis, prairie dock, along with compass plant, rosinweed, sweet coneflower, and a few different goldenrods. The occasional deep pinks of ironweed add a little extra sumpin’ sumpin’ to the panorama. And you’ll also find lots of rattlesnake master along with fading wild quinine and mountain mint. Look for the beautiful pink swamp milkweed in the low or wet areas. NOTE: Spears Woods and Wolf Road Prairie are not too far away.
Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham (Unscouted.) Though we didn’t scout it, you should definitely give it a try, if you’re in the area. NOTE: The preserve is NOT LOCKED. It only looks that way. The chain is just draped over the top of the gate. Just move the chain and enter. Once inside, I suggest walking all of the trails because of how the prairie and flowers vary along the way. NOTE: Under the summer sun, this prairie can feel hot and bright. For a more enjoyable time, visit in the morning or late-afternoon.
Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove (8/24-): Visit to experience the flavescent prairie with tall grasses, a sprinkling of gold from compass plant and rosinweed, and a smattering of purple from rough blazing star and pasture thistle. I was surprised to see that rough blazing star was already in the middle to the end of its bloom. That’s quite early based on my past observations. But nature is nature.
PLANT OF THE WEEK: CANADA WILD RYE
Wolf Road Prairie: A State of Glorious Chaos
Bluff Spring Fen is Teeming with Blooms
Shoe Factory Road Prairie
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve
Spotted Joe-Pye Weed
Cylindrical Blazing Star
Swamp & Halberd-Leaved Rose Mallow
Sweet Joe-Pye Weed
American Lotus at Tomahawk Slough & Hogwash Slough
Grasses of the Season
Prairie Root System
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