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ChicagoNatureNow! ALERT 03-25-2024

ChicagoNatureNow! ALERT
03-25-2024

  • Author: Mike MacDonald
  • Date Posted: Mar 25, 2024
  • Category:

Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
March 25, 2024

“Weekly Wildflower Forecasts Featuring
Chicago’s Best Weekend Getaways & Nature Trips”

 

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Expect many fresh blooms amidst a variety of verdant groundcover.
Bronze leaves are being enveloped by new growth and
the hope that comes with rebirth.
Begin your renewal in nature.

 

WILDFLOWER FORECAST & HIGHLIGHTS to help you plan your outdoor adventures into Chicago’s Woodlands:

RIGHT NOW, SPRING WILDFLOWERS SHOULD BE BLOOMING QUITE WELL. So, when do the spring blooms begin around Chicago? It varies. According to my database, spring can start anytime between the middle of March and mid-April. So just pick a preserve to explore and discover from the list below. Get out into nature and be open to its unexpected gifts, whether it be a colorful, awe-inspiring bloom, the mysterious squeak of two rubbing trees mimicking the cry of a baby animal, or the life-affirming odor of skunk cabbage. All of these things will open up your life to a world of wonder and intrigue.

The start of spring begins in Chicago’s woodlands with a celebration of delicate wildflowers. The blossoms may be plentiful, but they’re often diminutive. To best appreciate these small, low-to-the-ground flowers, bend down and take a closer look. Marvel at their intricate beauty. Many of our springtime flowers are colored white, like cutleaf toothwort, false rue anemone, rue anemone, spring cress, white trout lily, Dutchman’s breeches, and bloodroot (our Plant of the Week). Spring beauty is white with pink stripes, and sharp-lobed hepatica offers a beautiful palette ranging from white to lavender to purple.

You may find yellow flowers, like those of marsh marigold in the muddy woodlands. Oh how I love its flowers and round-hearted leaves. Other golden blooms include yellow violet, bristly buttercup, yellow trout lily, buttery wood betony, and the shy drooping blossoms of large-flowered bellwort. We can see some red in the form of the ethereal prairie trillium. And as for the blues and purples, our common blue violet is extremely beautiful when growing in a clump amidst its heart-shaped foliage. In fact, one of the biggest flower shows of the year is a celebration of blue, as a sea of Virginia Bluebells flood the woodland floor. Our database shows peak bloom happening anytime between April 2 and May 6. The former was in 2012 when it was 85 degrees in April!

And let’s not forget the bright green leaves of the vernal season. You’ll find sprawling leaves of skunk cabbage in the wet and muddy areas with great displays at Pilcher Park, Trout Park, Black Partridge Woods, and Bluff Spring Fen. Wild leek is the one of the first plants to sprout, with swordlike leaves that make up a large percentage of the early-spring greenery. It’s the plant that gives Chicago its name. In the late 1600s, Potawatomi Indians who paddled the area rivers were commonly heard yelling “Chicagoua!” after catching a strong whiff of chicagoua, or wild leek, growing prolifically along the wooded banks. Wild leek is part of the onion family, hence the Chicago nickname, “The Big Onion.” And look for mayapple with foliage that resembles an umbrella, and a closed umbrella when they first sprout. It can take several days for them to open.

NOTE: It is illegal to remove this plant, or any other plant, from any preserve in the Chicago region. 

 

SPRING WILDFLOWER GETAWAYS AROUND CHICAGO:

I’ve ranked the preserves on this week’s list based on the information predicted by my one-of-a-kind propriety database of wildflowers blooming events, 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 make it to the top-rated preserves.

 

LIKELY, THIS WEEK’S BEST CHOICES (“GO!”):

Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve in Monee: The preserve puts on a show with a rich variety of flowers throughout the month of April and into the second half of May. Depending on when spring sprung this year, look for the whitish pink expanse of spring beauty and myriad other wildflowers, including Dutchman’s breeches, false rue anemone, rue anemone, bloodroot, and surprisingly large colonies of flowering white trout lily. The strange and wonderful prairie trillium may also be in bloom. Also, experience the jade hues and lush patterns of wild leek, mayapple, and wild ginger that add to the springtime mix. This preserve will soon offer a nice display of Virginia bluebells, but not an overwhelming ocean like other preserves. Note that many spring flowers don’t open up at the break of day. They are awakened by the light. On cloudy days, they may remain enclosed safely in their buds. Fortunately, when closed, the white petals of toothwort are still visible and continue to twinkle. 

Heron Rookery Trail at Indiana Dunes National Park (National Park Pass required): Begin at the west parking lot. This woodland usually blooms earlier than most of our other preserves, but it can also be flooded by waters of the adjacent Little Calumet River. Depending on your timing, you may find sparkles of sharp-lobed hepatica, rue anemone and false rue anemone, Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort, purple cress, bloodroot, and spring beauty. Look for patches of spear-like foliage that resemble green spotted trout. In there, you may find magnificent blooms of yellow trout lily. And prairie trillium may also be flowering by now. The lush, sprawling foliage of mayapple and wild leek greatly enhance the springtime experience.

O’Hara Woods Preserve in Romeoville: The preserve was once called Dynamite Woods because the site stored explosives during World War II. You can still see the crumbling bunkers, but they’re being taken over by woodland plants. Right now, white flowers of cutleaf toothwort should be exploding, like sparklers across the woodland floor. Walk towards the stream along the south end of the preserve, and you’ll find Dutchman’s breeches (that look like white, puffy overalls), spring beauty, skunk cabbage, mayapple, wild leek (Chicago’s namesake), and soon-to-bloom Virginia bluebells. This will be the top preserve to visit when the Virginia bluebells reach their peak.

Black Partridge Woods in Lemont: When spring takes hold, this preserve is breathtaking. From the filigreed tree canopy to an understory of lushness with many patterns and shades of emerald foliage, especially wild leek, mayapple, the glorious leaves of skunk cabbage, and the small heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger. And you should soon find the shimmering petals of bloodroot, sharp-lobed hepatica, cutleaf toothwort, false rue anemone, spring beauty, and the occasional Dutchman’s breechesVirginia bluebells bloom a little later.

Johnson’s Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn: This intimate preserve is known for its ravines that sparkle white with dense white colonies of false rue anemone that flow across the braes. But you’ll also see many other plants, as well, like cutleaf toothwort, Dutchman’s breeches. sharp-lobed hepatica, wild leek, mayapple, prairie trillium and common blue violet, and the sublime large-flowered large-flowered bellwort that also grows in colonies. In late April or early May, look for drooping trillium and large-flowered trillium.

Pilcher Park Nature Center in Joliet: Begin your hike at the nature center where you may find a lush understory of spring wildflowers. Depending on when you visit, you may find sharp-lobed hepatica, cutleaf toothwort, false rue anemone, spring beauty, purple cress, and Dutchman’s breeches. Just as beautiful as the flowers are the fresh green leaves of wild leek, mayapple, and skunk cabbage. My favorite flower-of-the-moment is marsh marigold, which is probably reaching peak bloom. Look for its yellow blossoms in the low, muddy areas of the site. You can find them near the nature center and around the trail after the bridge at this GPS coordinate: 41.532780, -88.016478. While you’re there (and just about anywhere with mud), look for the large fanning foliage of skunk cabbage. They’re hard to miss. Virginia bluebells also like the mud, especially along the banks of the creek. This preserve is one of the best places to experience a vastitude of bluebells, which often flowers between mid-April and the first week of May.

Fermilab Natural Areas in Batavia: The woodland adjacent to the prairie is rich in springtime ephemerals. Depending on the date of your visit, you’ll find many of the usual suspects in bloom: cutleaf toothwort, bloodroot, spring beauty, white trout lilyDutchman’s breeches, false rue anemone, prairie trillium, and yellow colonies of bristly buttercup in the muddy spots. And of course, these flowers will fall against a verdant backdrop of mayapple, wild ginger, and some wild leek. In May, the grand alabaster blossoms of large-flowered trillium steal the show amidst floating pink blossoms of wild geranium.

Messenger Woods in Homer Glen: This preserve exudes that green and luxuriant feeling of spring. Once spring takes hold, you’ll see a variety of blooming ephemerals amidst an emerald carpet often rich in a lacy false mermaid. The most common blossoms that bloom in early spring are spring beautycutleaf toothwort, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and false rue anemone. The foliage of mayapple and wild leek greatly contribute to the lush springtime feel of the place. This preserve is known for its vast display of bluebells, which can reach peak bloom sometime between April 2 and May 5, though often in the last week of April.

 

“GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”:

Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin: Early in the spring, the transcendent yellow blossoms of marsh marigold should be flowering alongside fresh lush colonies of skunk cabbage. Soon after, you should also find miniature canopies of mayapple and a small number of spring ephemerals. And under the shade of the oaks in the savanna, you’ll find small patches of false rue anemone. For the best views of marsh marigold and skunk cabbage, visit Trout Park for dense populations of these plants in an intimate setting. The preserve features a trail that takes you up and down the bluffs that includes a wooden boardwalk that carefully guides you through sensitive wet areas. While on the boardwalk, look for Chicago’s only native evergreen tree, the northern white cedar. Atop the bluff, you’ll find other spring wildflowers.

Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook: Park at the main parking lot for this preserve, located at Somme Woods, and then follow the narrow trail to Somme Prairie Grove. Note that springtime starts a little later in the northern suburbs. Remain under the tree canopy to see the most spring ephemerals. Along your stroll, you should discover spring beauty, white trout lily, some bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, mayapple, and others.

 

PLANT OF THE WEEK (Bloodroot):

This is bloodroot. The name comes from the fact that breaking the stem or the roots makes the plant bleed red. Please, just take my word for it, and don't pick the flower to find out. Native Americans used the plant for dying their clothes and baskets, and for body paint.

This is bloodroot of species Sanguinaria canadensis. The white flowers are beautiful, but short-lived. At the end of its run, the slightest touch send the petals falling to the ground. The common name and genus name Sanguinaria come from the fact that breaking the stem or the roots makes the plant bleed a red juice. Don’t pick the flower to find out. Just take my word for it. Native Americans used the plant for dying their clothes and baskets, and for body paint. In woodlands, the wind gets broken up by trees which reduces its speed. Therefore, bloodroot and most other woodland plants do not depend on the breeze to disperse their seed. They rely on ants. In a process known as myrmechochory, the seeds of bloodroot have a fleshy organ called an elaiosome that’s made up of fat or oil. The ants take the seeds back to their colonies where they eat the elaiosomes, but discard the seed into an rich and nourishing accumulation of nest debris where the seeds can safety germinate under the unwitting protection of the colony.

 
 

 

PHOTO SECTION

 

Sharp-lobed Hepatica:

Sharp-lobed hepatica blooms on the bluff at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois.

This is sharp-lobed hepatica of species Hepatica nobilis acuta. It pops up through a layer of last year’s leaves and beckons the start of the new blooming season with floral color that ranges from white to pink, blue to purple. I’m especially taken by the colorful, textured cluster of miniature structures that inhabit the center of the flower, the deep three-lobed leaves, and the dark red stems. Another name for hepatica is liverleaf, referring to the shape of the leaf’s lobes. Early in the spring, you can find them at Heron Rookery Trail, Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, Bluff Spring Fen, and here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois.*

Sharp-lobed hepatica of species Hepatica nobilis acuta at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois.

Here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois, a group of sharp-lobed hepatica huddles around the base of an oak tree.*

 

Marsh Marigold:

At Bluff Spring Fen, Yellow flowers of marsh marigold were covered in a magical patina of morning frost.

My heart skips a beat when I see marsh marigold. At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, yellow flowers of marsh marigold were covered in a magical patina of morning frost. Visit nearby Trout Park for the best view of these plants. Pilcher Park Nature Center also has a beautiful display.*

In early spring, I come to Pilcher Park to play in the mud. Here, skunk cabbage and marsh marigold thrive in a woodland floodplain of inky water and the blackest muck I’ve ever seen.

In early spring, I come to Pilcher Park to play in the mud. Here, skunk cabbage and marsh marigold thrive in a woodland floodplain of inky water and the blackest muck I’ve ever seen.*

 
 

Skunk Cabbage:

Skunk cabbage penetrates the frozen temperatures of late winter using its own heating system known as thermogenesis.

Skunk cabbage penetrates the frozen temperatures of late winter to be Chicago’s first plant to bloom. It uses its own heating system to melt the snow and ice in a process known as thermogenesis. The bumps atop the ball inside the spathe (the hood) are the plant’s flowers. And that ball is called the spadix. It’s the furnace that generates the heat and also creates a odor reminiscent of a yummy dead animal. Not yummy to us, but to carrion flies that are in search of a delicious treat. The plant uses this trick to attract flies, hoping that they’ll unwittingly pollinate the flowers as they buzz about looking for something dead to eat.

The speckled maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as it grows larger and produces its curious, oval-shaped yellow flower head, known as a spadix. The tiny delicate protrusions you see on the spadix are the flowers. The spadix emits a foul odor that, to a human, is reminiscent of skunk. However, to flesh flies, carrion flies, and several kinds of gnats, the spadix smells and looks more like a yummy dead animal, a trick the plant uses to lure them in for pollination. The spadix is also where the process of thermogenesis takes place. It warms the confines of the spathe, providing a cozy haven for pollinating insects while transmitting the smell of carrion far and wide.

The speckled maroon spathe of skunk cabbage blends with leaf litter on the woodland floor, making it difficult to find when it first emerges. However, the plant becomes more conspicuous as it grows larger and produces its curious, oval-shaped yellow flower head, known as a spadix. The tiny delicate protrusions you see on the spadix are the flowers.

It's springtime at Pilcher Park and sunlight shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage which, if broken, releases a strong scent reminiscent of skunk, though sweeter and not nearly as overpowering. If you’re someone who, like me, finds the powerful essence of skunk to be an invigorating and life-affirming experience, the skunk inside the cabbage will definitely let you down.*

It’s springtime at Pilcher Park and sunlight shines through the enormous fanning foliage of skunk cabbage which, if broken, releases a strong scent reminiscent of skunk, though sweeter and not nearly as overpowering. If you’re someone who, like me, finds the powerful essence of skunk to be an invigorating and life-affirming experience, the skunk inside the cabbage will definitely let you down. You’ll find many at Pilcher Park Nature Center, Black Partridge Woods, Bluff Spring Fen, Trout Park, and O’Hara Woods.*

 

Cutleaf Toothwort:

Cutleaf toothwort at O'Hara Woods Nature Preserve in Romeoville, Illinois.

Cutleaf toothwort is small flowers makes a big impact for their size of its flowers, especially when blooming in large numbers. Even when closed, they still impart a sparkle because the petals are much longer than the sepals. Initially, I thought that the “toothwort” name came from the toothed leaves or the closed flowers that look like molars. But I was wrong. It is the rhyzome, a root-like structure located just below the soil between the stem and the root. Most people would not figure this out. I mean, I only discovered it after employing my X-ray vision. However, there was a time when people relied on plants, and often their roots, for survival. And Native Americans ate the tooth-shaped tuber. Now, this isn’t the only plant named after its root. The root of bloodroot, as the name suggest, bleeds a red liquid when broken. Native Americans used this sanguine solution as body paint and to dye clothes and baskets. This shot was taken at O’Hara Woods in Romeoville, but you can find it at any of our featured woodlands.*

In April, cutleaf toothwort blooms in profusion amongst a backdrop of mayapples at many woodlands including Raccoon Grove, Black Partridge Woods, Pilcher Park, Messenger Woods, and here at O'Hara Woods where they explode like firecrackers. This preserve was previously known as Dynamite Woods because explosives were stored here during World War II. Nowadays, only thing the spring wildflowers blow up.*

In April, cutleaf toothwort blooms in profusion amongst a backdrop of mayapples at every local woodland, including here at O’Hara Woods Nature Preserve where they explode like firecrackers. This preserve was previously known as Dynamite Woods because explosives were stored here during World War II. Nowadays, the only thing that blows up are the spring wildflowers.*

April at O'Hara Woods Nature Preserve brings a woodland floor sparkling with cutleaf toothwort and the greenery of wild leek and mayapple.

During the month of April, O’Hara Woods Nature Preserve brings a woodland floor sparkling with cutleaf toothwort and the greenery of wild leek and mayapple. You can see all of these plants at all of our featured woodlands.

 

Dutchman’s Breeches (or Dutchman’s Britches):

Dutchman's Breeches at O'Hara Woods

O’Hara Woods Nature Preserve has a large number of Dutchman’s breeches. It is one of my favorite spring flowers because the flower is just so kooky and the leaves are a dream. You can find them at Heron Rookery Trail, Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve, and many of our showcase woodlands.*

Pink Dutchman's breeches at O'Hara Woods Nature Preserve in Romeoville, Illinois.

I discovered this pink variety of Dutchman’s breeches at O’Hara Woods Nature Preserve in Romeoville. Notice the beautiful parts and details.*

 

Rue Anemone:

Rue anemone (of of species Thalictrum thalictroides) is a found in the higher quality woodlands of our region that have not been disturbed by human activity. The plant is sometimes called windflower because of ease at which the flowers blow around in the breeze. And windflower definitely likes the breeze because its blossoms depend on the wind for pollination. Here, it was a cold Tuesday morning at Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve. And while there were hundreds of flowers waiting to open, only this plant of rue anemone was brave enough to blossom.

Rue anemone (of species Thalictrum thalictroides) is a found in the higher quality woodlands of our region that have not been disturbed by human activity. The plant is sometimes called windflower because of the ease at which the flowers blow around in the breeze. And windflower definitely likes the breeze because its blossoms depend on the wind for pollination. Here, it was a cold Tuesday morning at Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve. And while there were hundreds of flowers waiting to open, only this plant of rue anemone was brave enough to blossom. This plant is often confused with false rue anemone. The flowers and foliage are similar, but a closer look will reveal the difference. The number of flower petals, which are actually not petals but sepals, number only five on false rue anemone, whereas the sepal count for rue anemone varies widely, even on the same plant. Here, we see ten. As for the foliage, both have foliage with three lobes. However, they’re “deeply lobed” on the false version, meaning that the leaves have a deeper cleavage between the lobes. Also, the true version tends to grow alone, while the false often grows in clusters.

 


False Rue Anemone:

 
False rue anemone

False rue anemone (of species Enemion biternatum) is a beautiful plant that often blooms in dense colonies. The flowers are white and never have more than five sepals (the white petals that really aren’t petals at all). During the night, they close up into little white balls. False rue anemone is more common than its similar, (true) rue anemone. You can tell them apart by looking at their leaves and flowers. The flowers of false rue anemone can have many sepals, whereas the false version only has five. And the three-lobed leaves have a deeper cleavage between the lobes. Both characteristics are depicted in the image. You can see this plant at any of our showcase woodland. But the nicest shows take place at Johnson’s Mound, Black Partridge Woods, and Heron Rookery Trail. This and every other woodland wildflower is under attack by the foreign invader known as garlic mustard. It crowds out and poisons its neighbors until all that remains is its own kind covering black earth. This is one reason why the forest preserves are always looking for volunteers, like you, to help control such threats. Volunteer today!

 

Mayapple:

In woodlands across northeastern Illinois, like here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, Illinois, April showers bring out the umbrellas in the form of mayapples. And the white flowers of false rue anemone sparkle like raindrops.*

In woodlands across northeastern Illinois, like here at Black Partridge Woods, in Lemont, April showers bring out the umbrellas in the form of mayapples. And the white flowers of false rue anemone sparkle like raindrops. At the moment, mayapples are either just sprouting or just starting to open their umbrellas.*

 

Prairie Trillium:

Prairie trillium and setting sun.*

At O’Hara Woods in Romeoville, prairie trillium rises as the sun sets.*

 

Virginia Bluebell:

Flower buds of Virginia bluebell of species Mertensia virginica at O'Hara Woods Nature Preserve in Romeoville, Illinois

Right now, you’ll find the blue and pink buds of Virginia bluebell (of species Mertensia virginica) at Messenger Woods, Pilcher Park, Black Partridge Woods, and here at O’Hara Woods Nature Preserve in Romeoville.*

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

 

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