A parade of colors

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

Watching kids play in a pool, waiting for burgers to come off the grill, sitting on a curb enjoying a parade—these are all images that I conjure when daydreaming about summer.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait to watch a parade; I can see a parade every day this summer by taking a walk in our Lake County Forest Preserves.

Not the type of parade with floats and brass bands, but nature’s parade of colors, textures and blooms. My favorite preserves to see this parade are those that have splendid expanses of prairie.

Summer in the prairie starts with green. Not with one hue of green but myriad greens—more hues than I can count. Early in the season the green is fresh and shows more yellow. Then, as photosynthesis does its magic, the green intensifies and hides all hint of yellow. During your next walk, take a moment to really look at the surroundings and focus on the vast number of greens.

The violet-blue of spiderwort blossoms, with their bright yellow stamens, are often the first showy colors in the prairie parade, followed by the white blossoms of the wild indigo with its blue-tinted leaves.

Next in the parade comes lavender. Large patches of preserves seem to be painted purple by bergamot and Echinacea carpeting the area.

Midsummer is announced by the stunning orange of butterfly weed and the subtle pink of common milkweed. Close inspection of either of these blossoms reveals clusters of tiny individual flowers that remind me of women dressed for a ball with long flowing skirts.

Purple spikes of feathery blazing star blossoms not only add a vertical feature to the scene but also act as terrific landing pads for butterflies and bees.

Remember to explore the textures of the prairie as well. Spiderwort has long, slender smooth stems. The leaves of prairie dock are rough like sand paper and are easy to notice among the vegetation. The flowers of rattlesnake master look like miniature pieces of sculpture that add their own texture to the landscape.

The end of the parade is signaled by the yellows of late summer. Gray-headed coneflower and multiple species of goldenrods add sunshine to prairie, even on overcast days. Prairie dock and compass plant punctuate the late summer prairie by sending their yellow flowers high over our heads.

Happily, the finale of the prairie parade doesn’t happen until October. As the seasons change, the bright yellow will fade away but the parade isn’t over yet—grasses will show rich browns, reds, and tans.

The best way to appreciate nature’s parade is visit your favorite preserve regularly.

Recommended hikes: Forest preserves with a showy prairie parade include Rollins Savanna, Berkeley Prairie, Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway (walking north of Sedge Meadow), and Waukegan Savanna Forest Preserves.

Virtual wildflower walk

Post by Jen Berlinghof

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.

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Ghost of the prairie

Post by Jen B

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.

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Goldenrod galls

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.

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Red admirals at attention

Last week while visiting Lyons Woods, I noticed that a large patch of garlic mustard was quivering. When I got closer, I found that it was not the breeze making the plants sway, but rather a huge group of red admiral butterflies (Vanessa atalanta) flitting from flower to flower. In many areas, all you have to do is walk out your front door to witness the population explosion of these ubiquitous butterflies that is sweeping the northeastern United States this spring.

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Ground’s abuzz

During a training hike for volunteer nature guides last week, a fellow naturalist pointed out a series of pea-sized holes in the ground. I walk along this same trail regularly and had never noticed them. As our group stooped around these holes, shivering on this cold but sunny spring morning, a tiny head crept slowly out of the one of the holes. It was the head of a mining bee! Continue reading

Spring stinks

Don’t get me wrong, I love spring, but the first signs of green to shoot out of the leaf litter stink! While this spring seems to be on fast-forward, with many woodland wildflowers appearing almost to six weeks early, the first plants to sprout in Lake County were still the stinky duo of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), and Chicago‘s supposed namesake, wild leek (Allium tricoccum). The Native American tribes of this region called the plant in question “shikaakwa” or “chicagoua”.

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