It’s a sunny July afternoon at a Lake County Forest Preserve in northern Illinois. The humidity is low and the breeze is just right. I’m poised over a patch of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), furiously clicking away with my camera, hoping to get at least one image that will be clear enough for me to identify the native bumble bee feeding on the flower. If there’s a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I haven’t found it.
What is your earliest gardening memory? Was it planting a seed in a paper cup at school, and watching it sprout and grow on the classroom windowsill? Perhaps you gathered dandelion flowers and presented your mom with a beautiful, yellow bouquet. Or did you rake up a giant pile of leaves to jump in on a crisp fall day? You might even have visited the native garden at Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
My earliest gardening memory is helping my aunt and uncle in their garden. I was only about four or five years old, but I clearly remember the prickly feeling of the cucumber vines scratching my forearm as I helped pull weeds. No matter the memory, we are all doing the same thing—tending to our little piece of the Earth. It’s something humans have done for thousands and thousands of years. We are and always have been dependent on our environment for survival.
Being home more these past months has allowed my family copious time to observe the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden go through its life cycle day by day. We’ve witnessed the transformation from wily little sprouts in early summer to blooming beasts, with pompoms of eraser-pink flowers wafting perfume across the yard—even threatening to take over the footpath—by Fourth of July. Now in the sweet days of September, our milkweed is laden with swelling seed pods, ready to burst with floating seeds like so many little white parachutes scattered in the autumnal sky. The situation is similar in many of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.
Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.
Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)
Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.
The air was warm, the sunshine spread everywhere. Spiderwort blooms were freshly open, a waist-high meadow of bluish-purple fireworks. We found the steel T-post marking the start of the day’s first transect and the red flag for the first plot.
Then we gathered our tools. A one-meter-square collapsible wooden quadrat, retractable tape measure, clipboard, data sheets, and each other’s knowledge of plants.
Well, my own knowledge, not so much. I was there to take photos and observe the three experts onsite: Pati Vitt, Manager of Ecological Restoration; Ken Klick, Restoration Ecologist II; and Pete Jackson, who authored a 2009 study on this preserve’s plant communities that served as his thesis for a master’s degree program. In my head, I called them the Plant Team.
Time can never be stopped, sped up, or slowed down. It started long before now and will continue far after. But with photographs, we can pause time, pin it in front of us, and study reality. It’s like kneeling at a riverbank and scooping a handful of water. The current stops in your palm, but just a foot beneath it carries on. Photos take time to make a moment.
With nearly 31,000 acres to explore, many moments are possible in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. An eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) landing with one foot, wings at sharp angles. A cluster of milkweed seeds hanging on to their pod by threads of floss. Sunflowers and sunbeams, two shades of honey mixing in the air. I’ve collected these special moments and more in a gallery below.
All photos featured were taken by the truly skillful photographers in our group Flickr pool. Each of these images, these presses of the pause button and scoops out of the river, were captured in 2018. Our sincere thanks go to every photographer who shares their time and talent documenting the flora, fauna, and natural areas of Lake County.
April is the month when every day seems to bring a new bird flying into the woodland, a new amphibian calling from the pond, a new mammal poking along the river, a new insect hatching in the prairie, and, most of all, a new plant unfurling from the forest floor.
April through the end of May provides ideal conditions to enjoy spring wildflowers. These plants are also called “ephemerals,” which means “lasting for a very short time.” Spring ephemerals take advantage of abundant light in the woodland before leaves emerge in the canopy above. Ephemerals complete their entire life cycle before shade covers the forest floor.
If you haven’t visited your favorite Lake County Forest Preserve lately, come along with me on this virtual wildflower walk to see what’s blooming now and what’s to come.
Many years ago, while hiking through a prairie at dusk, I saw a stalk of delicate white flowers. They seemed to rise and hover above the surrounding plants like a group of little dancing ghosts. This was the first and last time I ever saw an eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). Due to its dwindling numbers and hidden habitats, this rare plant has reached almost mythical status—a holy grail of sorts in the Midwest. We’re thrilled that this endangered native orchid seems to be gaining a foothold in the Lake County Forest Preserves, which are home to some of the largest remaining populations. Just this month, one of our restoration ecologists discovered an orchid in bloom (photo below). It was found at one of the preserves known to provide habitat for this species but is the first documentation of a population at the site.
September in Lake County, Illinois is a month of big sky punctuated by tips of tall prairie plants in an array of autumnal colors. Before the trees really get going with their own colorful show, sparks of bright yellow from the many varieties of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) dominate the open spaces. Most of the summer these plants go unnoticed, adding merely another green hue to the lush surroundings, but September is their time to shine. What may also go unnoticed, even now as goldenrod demands our attention, is the hidden world inside each plant in the form of a gall.