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.
This past winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in the project area. The goal was (and still is) to help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.
Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the photo below, even the best-laid plans can go awry. And so they did, when an unseasonable early drought struck. Pati will pick it up from here.
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.
Early fall finds most naturalists outside in fields of waist-high wildflowers. This was the case recently when a few Lake County Forest Preserves Environmental Educators stumbled across a miniscule critter with mighty camouflage capabilities. So small and inconspicuous, it was almost dismissed entirely as merely a part of the black-eyed susan flower (Rudbeckia hirta)—until it started to move.