Chicago Nature NOW! Alert
September 16, 2023
“Weekly Wildflower Forecasts Featuring
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WILDFLOWER FORECAST & HIGHLIGHTS to help you plan your outdoor adventures into Chicago nature:
September is “The Month of Gold” around Chicago, as sunflowers and goldenrods fill our prairies and oak savannas alongside tall grasses that take on rich autumnal tones. And the start of the month also brings breathtaking purple performances of rough blazing star. But nature isn’t just about flowers. It’s about the experience. Explore and discover a preserve from the list below. Be open to nature’s 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 scent of mountain mint. All of these things will open up your life to a world of wonder and intrigue.
This is often peak time to experience The Month of Gold. Goldenrods and sunflowers radiate across Chicago’s prairies and savannas. Spectacular shows of towering sawtooth sunflower are likely taking place at Wolf Road Prairie, Somme Prairie Grove, Spears Woods, and Lake in the Hills Fen.
The big purple performances of rough blazing star may still be happening at Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Bluff Spring Fen, Lake in the Hills Fen, Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, and Pembroke Savanna. Of course, the goldenrods are blooming everywhere around Chicago. But the best display is probably taking place at the panoramic Lake in the Hills Fen.
This is also the moment to experience the beautiful and prominent grasses of our prairies and oak savannas, including big bluestem, Indian grass, side oats grama, little bluestem, Canada wild rye, and prairie dropseed. Indian grass has feather duster plumes with miniature yellow flowers. Gensburg-Markham Prairie and Theodore Stone Preserve are particularly beautiful with their flowing seas of grasses.
TIP: 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 light, 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.
As summer comes to a close, the large and conspicuous plants are stealing the show, which is why you’ll have to look carefully to find the gems hiding at your feet. In particular, September is also the season of gentians: cream, bottle, prairie, stiff, and fringed gentian, our Plant of the Week. You can find one or more species flowering at many of our preserves, including Somme Prairie Grove, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Bluff Spring Fen, Lake in the Hills Fen, Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, and Belmont Prairie.
Spears Woods features wildflower shows in its prairies, woodlands, and wetlands. This preserve also provides great trails far away from traffic, with varied habitats, and dramatic vistas.
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 crick.” And I can vouch for that.
Goldenrod is blooming everywhere, 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 to what was called “milk sickness,” including Mary Lincoln, mother to Abraham. You can smell it and touch it, JUST 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!
SUMMER 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!”):
Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester: Spectacular! The prairie should be covered in an ocean of gold. Normally, I’d have you park at the kiosk along 31st Street on the south end. But to best immerse yourself into the deep sea of gold is to follow the narrow southbound trail located behind the prairie house on Constitution Avenue at the north end of the preserve. Quite quickly, the trail immerses you in swaying waves of towering sawtooth sunflower. Take your tape measure or a child on your shoulders to find the tallest one. The scientific literature states that they can grow as high as twelve feet. But I’ve found thirteen-footers here! That’s taller than two of me. (See picture below.) Large stands of tall boneset represent the most dominant display of white. Adding to the golds are flowers of tall coreopsis, some remaining prairie dock and rosinweed, and various species of goldenrod that include stiff, tall, grass-leaved, field, plus elm-leaved under the trees. Take note of the bob hairdos of prairie dropseed and its feather duster plume that smells like slightly burnt buttered popcorn. And appreciate the warm hues of the coming season with the turkey-footed tassels of big bluestem and the flowering feathery plumes of Indian grass. Along your hike to the south end, you’ll experience cream gentian, bottle gentian, obedient plant, pasture thistle, rough blazing star, ironweed, and the soft rusty flower heads of round-headed bush clover. The oak savanna at the south end offers goldenrod, bottlebrush grass, and the occasional ironweed. Note: Theodore Stone Preserve and Spears Woods are located close by.
Spears Woods in Willow Springs: An adventure! This week is probably this year’s last chance to experience the sea of sawtooth sunflower in the prairie’s undulating terrain. 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 should now be on full display in the prairies, as sawtooth sunflower and its shorter red-stemmed counterpart, long-bracted tickseed sunflower, are joined by tall coreopsis, stiff goldenrod and others of that ilk. There are beautiful displays of ivory false aster and tall boneset along with the purplish hues of pasture thistle, ironweed, New England aster, and slender false foxglove. The turkey-foot tassels of big bluestem and feathered plumes of Indian grass fill the prairie with early tones of autumn. They sway in the prairie winds amongst a subtle color palette of plants that have exited the main stage. While the ivory Tinker Toy shapes of rattlesnake master and the cauliflower-heads of wild quinine have browned, they still maintain their whimsical nature. The white button flower heads of mountain mint don’t have many flowers left, but they still retain their stimulating scent. The woodlands have a bit of a sparkle, with elm-leaved goldenrod, white snakeroot, and a variety of asters. Note: Theodore Stone Preserve and Wolf Road Prairie is not too far away.
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion: Wilderness! This preserve is wild and beautiful and full of unexpected surprises. And that’s why you should visit. You should find various asters aflower along with goldenrods and any remaining blooms of rough blazing star, western sunflower, large flowered false foxglove, and flowering spurge flowering in the savanna. And in the sunny open expanse towards the beach, you’ll find the final blooms of rough blazing star, western sunflower, flowering spurge, beach wormwood, white goldenrod, showy goldenrod, field goldenrod, and shrubby cinquefoil all amidst a sandy landscape of Indian grass, sand reed, little bluestem, marram grass, and a sprawling groundcover of creeping juniper and bearberry. And keep your eyes open for the intoxicating blossoms of fringed gentian. Note: Consider visiting Chiwaukee Prairie while you’re already in the area. Note: Consider visiting Chiwaukee Prairie while you’re already in the area.
Shoe Factory Road Prairie in Hoffman Estates: A gem! This Illinois Nature Preserve is located atop the hill inside the fence, where you’ll often find grand displays of showy goldenrod along with its cousins stiff and field goldenrod. Adding to the golden mix are tall coreopsis, western sunflower, and prairie dock. And you should still see some purple spikes of rough blazing star. I simply love the sea of short curving grass known as tall dropseed. The subtle, yet gorgeous, round-headed bush clover is showing off its fuzzy rusty head. And then there’s fading ivory displays of white goldenrod, which looks nothing like goldenrod and more like an aster. And search for bottle gentian hiding in the grasses. The savanna often overflows with yellow and white, mostly comprised of tall goldenrod, tall coreopsis, and tall boneset. From the overlook atop the hill, soak up the colors and textures of the vast gold and auburn vista beyond the fence, where the celebration continues. Venturing out into that panorama, you’ll pass large expanses of sawtooth sunflower, a profusion of goldenrods, plus tall coreopsis amidst the tawny grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass, and browning rattlesnake master and wild quinine. Note: Consider visiting Bluff Spring Fen while you’re here. It’s roughly in the neighborhood.
Lake in the Hills Fen in Lake in the Hills: Panoramic beauty! This preserve offers a dramatic panoramic view that is best enjoyed at edges of daylight, when it’s not hot and sunny. Enjoy the array of flowers that flow along the vast rolling landscape of the prairie and fen. On the high ground, dramatic shows of rough blazing star often take center stage in waves of purple. Also take note of the golden hues of late summer exuded by the many goldenrods including Riddell’s, tall, field, showy, and grass-leaved plus the sunflower-like blooms of tall coreopsis and vast colonies of sawtooth sunflower. Oceans of tall grasses wave in the warm prairie winds, including flowering, feathery Indian grass, turkey-foot tasseled big bluestem, and the breathtaking reddening little bluestem. White goldenrod may still be blooming on a gravelly kame near the entrance. The plant looks nothing like goldenrod and more like a white aster. Next to the the fens you may find grass-of-Parnassus, great blue lobelia, shrubby cinquefoil, the cream, bottle and fringed gentians, and spotted Joe-Pye weed that also grows in abundance in most of the wet areas. Along your way, you’ll also notice a significant amount of ivory tall boneset. And you might find a small forest of prairie dock along the far southern trail. When you enter the preserve through the zig-zag opening, consider taking a left and hiking the short looping trail that ends right back at the entrance. Then take the longer trail (making a right at the entrance) that takes the high ground into the southern section of the fen and all the way to “Barbara’s Bench.” This memorial bench pays tribute to the late Barbara Wilson, who dedicated much of her life to the stewardship and protection of this preserve, and to her favorite area of the preserve. In 2004, Barb escorted me to a spot that’s overlooks the seep of a hanging fen that she described as “nirvana” and the “holiest of holy.” NOTE: If you visit in the morning, wear waterproof pants and shoes, otherwise you’ll likely get soaked to the skin with the dew.
Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook: Resplendent! Somme Prairie Grove is known for the simultaneous blooms of many species. And that’s what you’ll find, right now. The best blooms are happening under the sun with beautiful expanses of sawtooth sunflower alongside tall coreopsis, goldenrods, obedient plant, savanna blazing star, and many asters that are just starting (see list below). You also find several beautiful gentians: cream gentian, bottle gentian, stiff gentian, and prairie gentian. The gold continues under the trees with displays of sweet coneflower and brown-eyed Susan mixed with rich purples of Missouri ironweed and spotted Joe-Pye weed. You’ll also find great blue lobelia, white turtlehead, savanna blazing star, and the deadly white snakeroot (watch video above). As is common during the late-summer months, you’ll travel through tunnels of big bluestem grass and Indian grass, which is probably the reason for the misnomer “tallgrass prairie.” It’s a misnomer because most species in a prairie are actually forbs (flowering plants). Still, when the first settlers travelled from the forests of the east, the towering grasses of Illinois would have been an unexpected obstacle. The floppy stringy hairdos of prairie dropseed is growing everywhere under the sun, but watch your step. It’s very easy to trip over. Spend a moment to inhale dropseed‘s feather duster. It smells like slightly burnt buttered popcorn. Finally, don’t miss the dramatic rising of rattlesnake master “skeletons” in the open prairie. During the summer, it’s safe to touch their prickly flower heads. But right now, they’re extremely sharp and will probably leave one of its bony seeds in your finger.
Here’s a list of asters that you can find at Somme Prairie Grove:
In the shade: Drummond’s aster, Short’s aster, and Calico aster (aka side-flowering aster)
Open woods: forked aster
Under the sun: sky blue aster, smooth blue aster, flat-topped aster, and New England aster
NOTE: The trails are narrow and often a little overgrown. So watch your step. If you visit in the morning, wear rain gear or the plants will drench you with dew.
Pembroke Savanna in Hopkins Park: Paradise! This black oak/sand savanna may still be putting on its finest performance of the season that can be described as purple with splashes of gold and white. The spectacular purple spikes of rough blazing star are the star of the show with a glowing cast that includes white flowering spurge, flashy field goldenrod, the floating yellow rays of western sunflower, and creamy sweet everlasting. You’ll also find the buttery trumpets of large flowered false foxglove, the elegantly understated flower heads of round-headed bush clover, and many beautiful grasses.
Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest: Golden! The prairie is overflowing with golden flowers, mainly dominated by sawtooth sunflower and many goldenrods that include tall, grass-leaved, and stiff. Also adding to the yellow mix is sneezeweed, brown-eyed Susan, and a towering combination of cup plant, tall coreopsis, sweet coneflower, and prairie dock. Highlights of pearl can be seen in tall boneset, flowering spurge, false aster, hairy aster, and in the fading, fragrant flourishes of mountain mint alongside the browning rattlesnake master. The dramatic deep purples of ironweed add some visual excitement. The purples of ironweed, New England aster, and pasture thistle add splashes of visual excitement. And there’s much more to see: obedient plant and the sublime cream gentian. In the wetter areas, you may still find spires of great blue lobelia, orange jewelweed, the brilliantly red cardinal flower, and the gorgeous pink blooms of swamp milkweed and spotted Joe-Pye weed. And finally, this is the perfect time to experience the many grasses that include Canada wild rye, big bluestem, and Indian grass.
Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham: First of all, 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 to enter, and then move it back when you leave. Once inside, I suggest walking all of the trails to enjoy the many flowers that vary along the way. In August, you can often find at least two dozen species in bloom at the same time, while the textures of the grasses and sedges add to the grand experience. Stop to appreciate the purple waves of big bluestem and oceans of prairie cordgrass that rise and fall like waves in the wind. Experience the whimsical plumes of Canada wild rye, big bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, and prairie dropseed. Spend a moment to inhale dropseed‘s feather duster. It smells like slightly burnt buttered popcorn. Start by taking the path to your left, and travel clockwise around the square mowed trail. Along your way, you should find a beautiful mix of yellow, white, and pink. Grass-leaved, tall, and stiff goldenrod combined with sympathetic hues of long-bracted tickseed sunflower sawtooth sunflower, rosinweed, tall coreopsis, prairie dock, and sneezeweed. Large white blooms of tall boneset fall amidst the now-brown flowers of rattlesnake master, wild quinine, and mountain mint. The pinks are provided by ironweed, New England aster, spotted Joe-Pye weed in the wet areas, and the occasional appearances of rough blazing star and pasture thistle. And a variety of aster add color to the mix. As you peruse the prairie, see if you can find the fluffy greenish heads of round-headed bush clover. As you return on the final leg of the square, the scenery turns to shrubs and royal ferns.
“GO, IF YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD”:
Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins: A glorious grassland! The main show should be taking place in a small patch of dolomite prairie on the eastern half of the preserve. Growing from the rock you may find a glorious little patch that includes rough blazing star, little bluestem, prairie dock, field goldenrod, and the unusual white goldenrod that looks like an aster. This is a scene that steals my heart. It’s a very special and delicate spot, so please stay on the trail. Aside from that little show, the sea of grasses and the mix of yellow flowers dominate the vast majority of the prairie panorama. You’ll experience the beautiful flowing grasses that includes: Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem, switch grass, Canada wild rye, prairie dropseed, and side oats grama. And you may see many other flowers, too, like asters, tall coreopsis, goldenrods, smooth ironweed, spotted Joe-Pye weed, great blue lobelia, sneezeweed, sweet coneflower, swamp rose mallow, pasture thistle, swamp thistle, and stands of late boneset. NOTE: Spears Woods and Wolf Road Prairie are not too far away.
Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove: This intimate remnant prairie is probably not as showy as the preserves on our “Go” list (above). But, if you’re in Downers Grove and have a few minutes, it’s worth a trip. Amidst the tunnels of tall grasses of Indian and big bluestem, you’ll find sawtooth sunflower, a mix of goldenrods, colorful asters, the occasional pasture thistle, tall boneset, cream gentian, and blue bottle (or “closed”) gentian. Unlike cream gentian‘s slight opening at the tip of the flower, the flowers of bottle gentian are always closed, so don’t expect them to ever open. To detect these low-lying plants, keep your eyes to the ground. They’re easy to miss as you swim through the sea of tall grasses. A special thanks to Greg Jerzyk who provided us with a list of asters at Belmont Prairie: Drummond’s aster, Heath aster, New England aster, hairy aster, and smooth blue aster.
NOTE: If you visit in the morning, make sure to wear rain gear or you’ll get drenched from head to toe.
Chiwaukee Prairie in Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin: This pretty prairie-on-the-lake is a “Go!” for the appearance of the breathtaking fringed and prairie gentians. You should also see a smattering of golden sawtooth sunflower, several species of goldenrod, and fading flowers of rough blazing star, western sunflower, and flowering spurge. You should also find swamp thistle and a variety of asters. And seas of beautiful grasses are changing color into their autumn tones.
Note: Definitely consider visiting Illinois Beach Nature Preserve while you’re already in the area.
Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin: The foliage of the summer prairie transform into the rusts, browns, and reds of autumn, with just a handful of blooming flowers. Under the trees, you’ll find asters, some goldenrods, and the poisonous white snakeroot. Under the sun, the grasses of big bluestem and Indian grass show off beautiful tones of brown and rusty tones. You may find a smattering of goldenrods and sunflowers. The seep of the fen at the center of the preserve may be the preserves most enchanting spot, that could feature a beautiful mixture of shrubby cinquefoil, grass-leaved goldenrod, assorted sunflowers, and gentians, including cream, bottle, and fringed. Finally, keep an eye out for the beautiful great blue lobelia, which is scattered across the preserve. Watch your step on the narrow, hard-to-see boardwalks in the center of the preserve.
Fermilab Prairie in Batavia: A large display of sawtooth sunflower, goldenrods, and tall seas of of Indian and big bluestem grass dominate the prairie vista. You’ll also run into a smattering of asters. Much of the preserve is covered with waves of purple and brown grasses combined with soft highlights of gold. This prairie is a reconstruction, not a restoration. It was originally a prairie that was turned into farmland and turned back into prairie (sort of). In 1971, Dr. Robert Betz embarked on a bold experiment to reconstruct the prairie from nothing, employing the same agricultural practices that caused its demise. While the soil will take eons to replenish and, though not as rich as other remnants or restored prairies, Fermilab Prairie provides the region with a large expanse of grassland for people to explore. I say “grassland” because, in proportion to the flowering plants (forbs), you’ll find much more big bluestem and Indian grass than most prairies. You can find a similar situation with the prairie at Carl Hansen Woods—the expanse south of the Shoe Factory Road Prairie. It was once thought that planting grasses first would help heal the land. But it was later learned that they prevented the forbs from taking hold. Nowadays, forbs and less-aggressive grasses (like side oats grama) are planted first. Then, after they’re well-established, the grasses are introduced.
The hummingbirds are here! You can find them buzzing about at many nature centers including: Sagawau Canyon, Pilcher Park (at the nature center and south of the greenhouse), and Little Red Schoolhouse.
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: FRINGED GENTIAN
Wolf Road Prairie
Lake in the Hills Fen
Illinois Beach Nature Preserve
Rough Blazing Star
Asters, Asters, Asters!
Spotted Joe-Pye Weed
Canada Wild Rye
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