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Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
September 2, 2021
Labor Day Edition

“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:

September is The Month of Gold. And it’s living up to its moniker at the many prairies and savannas that are ablaze with various goldenrods and sunflowers, including the understated western sunflower (our Plant of the Week). The biggest show across the region is being staged by skyward stands of sawtooth sunflower. And when I say “biggest,” I mean, both abundant and very tall. Last year, I found a thirteen-footer at Wolf Road Prairie. So bring your tape measure!

The grasses are beautiful, too, right now, including the tall grasses of Indian and big bluestem, chest-high Canada wild rye, waste-high little bluestem, and knee-high prairie dropseed with plumes that smell like slightly burnt buttered popcorn. While we’re on the topic of smelling things, this is when the rich, brown teardrop seeds of foxglove beardtongue are at their finest. They smell exactly like barf! But do not fear, not far along the trail you can chase it down with a wonderful life-affirming whiff of mountain mint or wild bergamot.

IMPORTANT NOTE: When visiting a preserve before ten o’clock in the morning, wear rain gear or 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.

This is also the time when purple torches of rough blazing star set the prairie aflame, but this is an unusual year for the plant. Based on my proprietary phenological database, without which ChicagoNatureNOW! could not exist, the numbers of this blazing star species are way down. This means that the big shows at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, Pembroke Savanna, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, and Bluff Spring Fen will have to wait until next year (or the year after that).

Wolf Road Prairie is putting on its spectacular annual show of sawtooth sunflower. And on Saturday, September 11, the Save the Prairie Society is holding its Annual Old Fashioned Prairie Fest. Bring the kids! And if I’m lucky (and you are not), I may see you there.

Spears Woods is providing fantastic experiences with lots of sawtooth sunflower, long-bracted tickseed sunflower, and goldenrod. The walk through the prairies, woodlands, and wetlands is probably the finest in the region.

Somme Prairie Grove is aflower in gold and in the gentians of cream, stiff, prairie, and bottle.

Bluff Spring Fen is featuring a vast array of wildflowers in a serene and magical setting.

Shoe Factory Road Prairie is bursting with showy goldenrod and flavescent tall dropseed grass.

Middlefork Savanna is blooming in colorful abundance with over twenty native species.

And if you’re up in McHenry County, consider experiencing the golden panoramic vistas at Lake in the Hills Fen.

If you’re looking for longer walks, try our larger preserves: Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, Spears Woods, Somme Prairie Grove, Middlefork Savanna, and Lake in the Hills Fen.

 

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.

Spears Woods in Willow Springs (9/1): An adventure! I love this preserve for its varied habitats, topography, and personalities. And it’s big enough to fill a good part of your day with hiking. The golds of September are now on display in the prairies as sawtooth sunflower and its shorter counterpart, long-bracted tickseed sunflower, are joined by tall coreopsis, grass-leaved goldenrod and others of that ilk. There’s a beautiful display of ivory long-bracted tickseed sunflower and false aster along the trail in a low section of the westmost prairie. The latter likes its roots a little wet. There are some other flowers that should catch your eye along the way, including the ivories of tall boneset, the pinks of obedient plant, and the purplish hues of pasture thistle, ironweed, New England aster, and slender false foxglove. The most prominent grasses are big bluestem and Indian grass. They sway in the prairie winds amongst a subtle color palette of plants that have exited the main stage. But soon, when the cool autumn air fully ignites their foliage, they will return for an encore performance. NOTE: Theodore Stone Preserve and Wolf Road Prairie are not far away.

Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester (8/30+): Golden! The prairie is aflame with gold thanks to a sparkling show of sawtooth sunflower and goldenrods, like tall and stiff goldenrod. You’ll find a variety of silvery bonesets, yellow tall coreopsis and rosinweed, pink obedient plant, and the purples of ironweed and rough blazing star. The late-summer grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass soften the sharp textures and add to the mix of gold and silver. NOTE: Theodore Stone Preserve and Spears Woods are not far away.

Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook (9/1=): Resplendent! The woodland surrounding the savanna is alive with yellow-petaled sweet coneflower, sneezeweed, and large flowered false foxglove alongside alabaster blooms of boneset, browning plumes of sweet Joe-Pye weed, purple buttons of ironweed, and the perfectly named bottlebrush grass. Under the open sky, golden rays of towering sawtooth sunflower steal the show, costarring prairie dock and tall coreopsis. Closer to the ground are dozens of other flowers that may take your breath away with their sparkling textures and colors. These include the elegant cream gentian, the blues of bottle, stiff and prairie gentian, various goldenrods, the pinks of obedient plant, the purples of pasture thistle and rough and savanna blazing star, in addition to multi-colored asters. You’ll find 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. 

Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/21.): Peaceful! We did not scout this preserve, this week, but here are my predictions based on last week’s report: There are many species of flowers across the preserve, which is why I think it’ll be among the top preserves to visit. 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, 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 identify them 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. 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, golden rosinweed, stiff goldenrod, the flowering tassels of big bluestem, beautiful flourishes of Canada wild rye, and a “forest” of fading 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 late 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 bloom of purple rough blazing star awaits. 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.

Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates (8/31+): A gem! This Illinois Nature Preserve is located inside the fence, where the color is dominated by a large display of the flamboyant showy goldenrod. Atop the hill, amidst a sea of short flavescent grass known as tall dropseed, you’ll find pink blooms of obedient plant, some remaining pink blooms of cylindrical blazing star, and a smattering of purple rough blazing star. As you pan across the landscape, you also find the golden blooms tall coreopsis and the goldenrods of stiff and field. The woodland is overflowing with yellow and whites, mostly comprised of tall goldenrod and tall boneset along with cup plant and tall coreopsis. 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 (8/30+): There is a lot of color, this week, as more than twenty native plant species are aflower. This is a large preserve with wide trails made for hiking and biking. Many plants are blooming gold, including the goldenrods (grass-leaved, stiff, tall, etc.) alongside the composite blooms of rosinweedcup plant, sawtooth sunflower, compass plant, tall coreopsis, and prairie dock. Highlights of pearl can be seen in tall boneset. The fluffy tops of ironweed add some purple. And there’s much more to see: obedient plant, lots of wild bergamot, and 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.

 

GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:

Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills (Unscouted. Last visited on 8/22.): Panoramic Beauty! This preserve offers a dramatic panoramic view that is best appreciated at edges of daylight, when it’s not hot and sunny. Enjoy an array of flowers that flow along the vast rolling terrain of the prairie and fen. The landscape is awash in the golden hues of late summer, mostly coming from the many goldenrods and the composites of tall coreopsis, rosinweed, and prairie dock. Oceans of tall grasses wave in the warm prairie winds amidst an abundance of blossoms, including the pinks of obedient plant, spotted Joe-Pye weed, 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. 

Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion (8/30=): Even though the annual show of the purple rough blazing star did not arrive this year, this is still the best preserve around. Period. Go to appreciate the beautiful and varied scenery, a stroll along the sandy lakeshore, and the many late-season flowers and grasses, including western sunflowershowy goldenrod, large flowered false foxglove, and the feathery Indian grass.

Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/18.): The preserve wasn’t scouted, so I’ll expect you’ll find fading rough blazing star blooming in the gravel on the eastern prairie. And I also expect a sea of grasses and a prominent mix of yellow and white flowers. The beautiful flowing grasses include 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 sawtooth sunflower, tall coreopsisrosinweed, and a few different goldenrods. And you’re bound to find lots of white boneset. The occasional deep pinks of ironweed should still be around to add a little extra sumpin’ sumpin’ to the panorama. NOTE: Spears Woods and Wolf Road Prairie are not too far away.

Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham (Unscouted.) 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. We didn’t scout this preserve, but we’d expect to find golden displays of stiff and grass-leaved goldenrod, tall coreopsis, long-bracted tickseed sunflower, sawtooth sunflower, and sneezeweed. Alabaster displays of tall boneset should be growing in several locations, while slender false foxglove, pasture thistle, ironweed, rough blazing star, and big bluestem add splashes of color and texture to the prairie canvas. NOTE: Under the summer sun, this prairie can feel hot and bright. For a more enjoyable time, visit in the morning or late-afternoon.

 

PLANT OF THE WEEK: WESTERN SUNFLOWER

In a shining spot under the open canopy of the black oaks, western sunflowers smile in the late-summer sun at Pembroke Savanna.*

The beautiful western sunflower likes dry sandy or gravelly soil and sunny skies. The stems display a beautiful shade of red, while the flowers are a bit diminutive, unlike the picture above where the lens magnified the flower a bit much. On this shining spot under the open canopy of the black oaks, western sunflowers smile in the September sun at Pembroke Savanna. You can also find them at Shoe Factory Road Prairie and Illinois Beach Nature Preserve.

 

 

PHOTO SECTION

 

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.*

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

 

Bluff Spring Fen

Morning arrives at the flowery seep of the fen at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve in Elgin, Illinois.

At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, the morning light arrives at the edge of a flowery seep where spotted Joe-Pye weed thrives.*

Soon after entering Bluff Spring Fen, you’ll find yourself in an intimate oak savanna, where majestic bur oaks with outstretched limbs protect you in their nurturing embrace.*

Soon after entering Bluff Spring Fen, you’ll find yourself in an intimate oak savanna, where majestic bur oaks with outstretched limbs protect you in their nurturing embrace.*

Bottlebrush grass and wild bergamot glow in the morning light in the oak savanna at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.*

Bottlebrush grass and wild bergamot glow in the morning light in the oak savanna at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin.*

 

Shoe Factory Road Prairie

Atop this gravel hill prairie, a late-summer bloom of showy goldenrod overlooks the grassland below.

Just the other day, I made this picture from atop the hill at Shoe Factory Road Prairie, where a late-summer bloom of showy goldenrod overlooked the grassland below.

 

Lake in the Hills Fen

This expansive landscape features showy goldenrod as it glows in the morning light at Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills, Illinois.

This expansive landscape features showy goldenrod as it glows in the morning light at Lake in the Hills Fen.

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

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

 

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.*

At Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois, towering sawtooth sunflower blooms in fields of endless gold in one of the last dramatic displays of the summer season You can also discover this impressive plant an most of our prairies.

 

Stiff Goldenrod

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.*

 

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.*

 

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.*

In September at Powderhorn Marsh & Prairie, sawtooth sunflowers rise up to 12 feet into the air while rare bottle gentians are just fine growing near the ground.*

Blue bottle gentian survives under the shadow of the dense late-summer prairie, where plants like this sawtooth sunflower can tower twelve feet into the air.*

 

Swamp & Halberd-Leaved Rose Mallow

The beautiful blooms of swamp rose mallow is a plant that can be found in August around some of Chicago's wetlands.*

This is the big beautiful bloom of swamp rose mallow. It can be found in August around some of Chicago’s wetlands along with its cousin halberd-leaved rose mallow.*

 

Rough Blazing Star

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

This year, rough blazing star doesn’t seem to be putting on shows like this. But it does during most years. In this picture, rough blazing star glows in the morning light at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

 

Grasses of the Season

The plume of Canada wild rye covered drenched in morning dew at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

As a photographer, the grass called Canada wild rye is a favorite of mine. The flower heads resemble those of wheat or rye. Rabbits and deer like this plant for the taste of its young foliage. But the seed heads are much less appetizing. Each seed head is a sharp awn, a little spear that can easily puncture the mouths of deer and cause problems as it travels through their digestive tracts. The drooping heads beautifully capture the morning dew for everyone to see  and to feel as they swoosh to-and-fro across your body. They are the paintbrushes of the prairie. I photographed this perfect plume of Canada wild rye with my clothes soaked from my trek through the dew-drenched prairie. On this day, the landscape painted the artist.

Grasses sparkle with dew in the morning prairie Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.*

The grasses of Canada wild rye and big bluestem sparkle with dew in the morning prairie Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, Illinois.

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

The towering height of big bluestem grass gives true meaning to the term “tallgrass prairie.” It can be found at every black soil prairie on our list.*

Miniature yellow flowers of big bluestem grass.

Miniature flowers delicately hang from the turkey-footed tassels 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 goldenrod.*

In the dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, Illinois, a single stalk of prairie dock rises above the fog and the purples of rough blazing star and little bluestem grass.*

A single stalk of prairie dock rises above the fog and sea of little bluestem and rough blazing star at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, Illinois *

 

 

Marram Grass

Rare marram grass dominates the foredune along the shore of Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, Illinois.*

Rare marram grass dominates the flavescent foredune along the shore of Lake Michigan at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, Illinois.*

 

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.
 

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