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Spring Flowers Around the Museum


Tags: spring flowers, prairie, savanah, horticulture, wildflowers

Created: 5/18/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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Walk around the restored habitat vignettes on the East and South sides of the museum grounds, and you may notice much of what you see is last year’s dead vegetation, with patches of green and a mixture of native and non-native flowers. Early spring on the prairie is a notoriously dull time for flowers, compared to woodlands or savannas. This is in part due to the fact that, in woodlands, the herbaceous layer is in a race to grow and flower before the trees fully leaf out and gobble up the available light. This results in a floral display intensely concentrated in late April and early May. In prairies, there is no shortage of light and therefore no hurry. Here, the greatest number of species flower in mid to late summer. In addition, tallgrass prairies (and, to a lesser degree, savannas) tended to burn more often in early spring than dense woodlands. This could also be a factor in why saving the flower show for later would be advantageous. Our native habitat restorations are a mixture of both prairie and savanna. Many of the native plants in bloom around the museum are found in both.
I have compiled a list of native species that are in bloom this week. This isn’t meant to be a field guide, but could save time for anyone interested in doing an internet search on a plant they see. I  have attempted to include every native species, but It changes fast, and this list will be obsolete soon!  (Also, there are several species of the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae), in addition to the two I have listed, which cannot be identified until their seeds ripen)   

These are the native species which we have intentionally planted:

White Trout Lilly

White Trout Lilly (Erythronium albidum) We have already missed this one’s blooming period, but some may have noticed this plant a couple weeks ago. A small but conspicuous part of our early spring flora.  It grows in large colonies, usually with the basal leaves far outnumbering the flowering stalks. The number of plants which flower varies greatly from year to year. This plant can be seen in almost any moderately intact woodland or savanna near Chicago in the early spring, and often ventures into nearby prairies as well. Around the Museum, they can be seen in greatest number in the Prairie on the southern side. The show doesn’t last long however, and within a few weeks the flowers and leaves seem to vanish without a trace, until next spring.

Penn’s Sedge

Penn’s Sedge (Carex pensylvanica)  Most people may not think of grasses or sedges as flowers, but if you look closely in certain spots around the museum’s restored areas, you will notice what looks like patches of thin grass with tiny yellow flower petals at the end of short stalks. Actually, this is not a grass but a sedge- a similar looking, but different family of plants. The differences between grasses and sedges are a bit complex to get into here, but an age old rule-of-thumb cliché is that “Sedges have edges.” The base of a Sedge stem is solid and triangular, while grasses have hollow, round stems.  It may be difficult to see, but if you roll the base of a sedge stem between your fingers, you can feel the “edges.” If not, it is probably a grass. This sedge is also a trademark of Chicago area woodlands and nearby prairies that are not too shady. It is one of the first sedges to bloom, and its flowers are also extremely short-lived. The leaves remains visible until at least late summer however. Around the museum, it can be seen in patches all over, especially along the trail to the right of the entrance doors, and on the north side of the “ravine” in back, just before it meets North Pond.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) Another attractive purple flower with “ladder-like” leaves which will persist until June. Grows in damp meadows and woods with rich soil. More occasional around Chicago than common. Very conspicuous on the hill facing Fullerton Ave. at the moment.

Golden Alexanders

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) Found in prairies to open woods, this bright yellow flower is just beginning to bloom.

Wild garlic/onion

Wild garlic/onion (Allium canadense) Not quite in bloom yet but will be soon.  One of two species around Chicago (and the museum) this one blooms earlier than the other.

Shooting Star

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)-One of the earliest blooming Prairie Plants. It is distinctive, conventionally attractive, and quite popular in restoration projects and prairie gardens. It can be found in both prairie and savanna/open woodland. It is somewhat sensitive to disturbance, and unless reintroduced, indicates the land has not been plowed or  too heavily grazed. Currently, it has just began to flower, and will do so for about a month. A colony can be seen on the hill on the right side of the museum entrance.

In addition to the Native plants we have intentionally planted, there are others that are not as sensitive to habitat disturbance, and came here on their own. These are some weedy natives:

Common Wood Sedge

Common Wood Sedge (Carex blanda)  This is probably the most common sedge of the Chicago region, and also one of the most bland-looking.  It has much wider, floppier leaves and stems than Penn’s sedge, and is a grayish blue-green color. (though the petals are also yellow).  It will grow almost anywhwere.

Common Blue violet

Common Blue violet (Viola sororia) Very common in our area, this species is unusual in its adaptability. It can be found in almost any habitat that is not too wet or dry; full sun to dense shade, pristine natural areas to mowed lawns. It has a long blooming period of a month or two. Around the museum, I have only seen a few near the tent out back (the blue variety) 

Missouri Violet

Missouri Violet (Viola missouriensis) Almost identical to common Blue Violet, except for its leaves, which are triangular and pointed, rather than heart shaped and round. Near Chicago, it is most often seen in moist woodlands and meadows, though it can sometimes be seen in more disturbed habitats as well, such as here.

(Note - These two violet species caused me quite a bit of confusion. The majority of the plants around the museum are apparently of the white variety of Missouri Violet. Both have a blue and white variety. The white form is less common but not rare, especially with Common Blue Violet. In the Chicago region, The Missouri Violet is less common in general, and is less likely to occur in lawns and gardens, though around the museum, the reverse is apparently true!)

Kidney-leaved Buttercup

Kidney-leaved Buttercup (Ranuculus aborvitus) Blooms April-June. Part of the huge family of buttercups (Ranunculaceae), this one is the first to bloom and, of the natives in this area, the least sensitive to disturbance.  It can be found in almost any slightly damp place. This one came here on its own.

Aunt Lucy

Aunt Lucy (Ellisia nyctelea) Just beginning to bloom, and will continue into early summer. The flowers are very small, a dull white and easy to miss. This plant is a spring wildflower in woodlands but also a very common weed in gardens and disturbed ground.

Purslane Speedwell

Purslane Speedwell (Veronica peregrine) Very tiny and easy to miss, it looks very similar to the other, non-native Corn Speedwell, except with thinner leaves and white flowers.

Nate Fremont
Assistant Horticulturist

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No Comments

  • b said (on 5/22/2014 )

    Sedges (Carex) don't have petals. The yellow bits you see are likely the staminate (male) parts.

    Ranunculus abortivus*

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