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Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
September 9, 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:

September is The Month of Gold. The final glorious flower show of the growing season is at peak bloom with brilliant goldenrods and smiling sunflowers, including the sky-high blooms of sawtooth sunflower. Last year, I found a thirteen-footer at Wolf Road Prairie. So bring your tape measure!

The grasses are beautiful, too, as they begin to don their fall colors, including the tall grasses of Indian and big bluestem, chest-high Canada wild rye, waist-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 the leaves and seeds of mountain mint or wild bergamot.

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

Goldenrod is blooming everywhere, right now, but don’t worry about your allergies because goldenrod is NOT responsible for triggering them. Yes, you read that right. The pollen of goldenrod is so heavy that it drops to the ground. Therefore, it can’t float through air to be inhaled. The real culprit is common ragweed that blooms at the same time. This is also when many of the asters begin to flower, which marks the end of the blooming season. There are so many asters and goldenrods that it’s hard to identify them all. Click here for a complete (pdf) list of local asters and goldenrods. And, right now, you can see white snakeroot, the deadly plant that killed thousands in the 1800’s. You can smell it and touch it, BUT DON’T EAT IT! Watch this video to learn more:

For a greater appreciation of our native habitats, 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!

SUMMARY OF THE BEST WILDFLOWER SHOWS:

Lake in the Hills Fen is a wonder, right now, with its grand panoramic vistas of gold.

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.

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.

Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills (9/5=): 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 combined with a great show of rough blazing star and oceans of tall grasses that wave in the warm prairie winds. Along your journey, you’ll experience the goldenrods of showy goldenrod, stiff, tall, and field along with throngs of skyward sawtooth sunflower and the occasional sprays of tall coreopsis and rosinweed. You’ll also find the pinks of obedient plant, spotted Joe-Pye weed, pasture thistle. And along 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.

Spears Woods in Willow Springs (9/8=): 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, stiff 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 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. The woodlands have a bit of a sparkle, with elm-leaved goldenrod, white snakeroot, and a variety of asters. 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! On Saturday, September 11, the Save the Prairie Society is holding its Annual Old Fashioned Prairie Fest. The prairie is at peak bloom, 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. You’ll also find a smattering of multi-colored asters and gentians. 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.

Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin (9/7=): Peaceful! 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 white snakeroot, various asters and goldenrods, tall boneset, and large flowered false foxglove, and the whimsical bottlebrush grass. At the troll bridge, where friendly trolls have helped to restore the adjacent wetland habitat, look to your right for a fading expanse of purple spotted Joe-Pye weed, great blue lobelia, swamp thistlesawtooth sunflower, New England and other asters. Continuing under the protection of oaks, on your right at the base of the kame, you’ll see another wonderful show of golden wingstem and a little bit of cutleaf coneflower. 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 spindly tall coreopsis, stiff goldenrod, lots of tall goldenrod, and the flowering tassels of big bluestem, and beautiful flourishes of Canada wild rye, 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. On that kame, you’ll find some showy goldenrod and stiff goldenrod alongside many plants changing into their autumn wardrobes. Make a left at the end of the kame to descend into the beautiful bowl of the fen where you’ll discover goldenrods, swamp betonyflat-topped aster, swamp thistle, Kalm’s lobelia, fringed gentian, and 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 small 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 where you’ll find goldenrod and fringed gentian. And finally, follow the path to the left of the big kame and back around to the right where you’ll be led back to the parking lot.
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.

Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest (Unscouted. Last scouted on 8/30.): We didn’t scout here this week, but it should still be looking great because last week, there were more than twenty blooming species. 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:

Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates (9/9=): 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 some remaining pink blooms of obedient plant, a smattering of purple rough blazing star, and the start of New England aster. 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.

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’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. 

Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion (8/30=): Always pretty! 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. There are probably some asters blooming in the western prairie. 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 , 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.

 

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

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.

ACROBATIC FERNS
Miller Woods, Tolleston Dunes, Cowles Bog Trail, and Hoosier Prairie (all in northwestern Indiana) are 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: 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.

 

PHOTO SECTION

 

Wolf Road Prairie

At Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois, golden rays of sawtooth sunflowers tower above the September grassland.

At Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester, Illinois, golden rays of sawtooth sunflowers tower above the September grassland.*

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.*

 

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.

Rough blazing star colors the foggy hill prairie at Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.*

Rough blazing star colors the foggy hill prairie at Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.*

 

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.

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

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

 

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.*

 

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 gentian blooms 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, Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, Chiwaukee Prairie, and Lake in the Hills Fen.

 

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.*

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.*

 

Acrobatic Ferns

Royal ferns in the light fog of the savanna at Hoosier Prairie in Highland, Indiana

Royal fern spread across in the light foggy savanna at Hoosier Prairie in Schererville, Indiana.*

A forest of royal ferns thrives in a wetland that has formed at the base of a high dune.*

In the Cowles Bog Trail area, you’ll find many species of fern. Here, a forest of royal fern thrives in a wetland that has formed at the base of a high dune. And you can find more ferns at Miller Woods.*

 

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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