4 Months of Seeds of Success in the Midwest

Early in June, we were lucky enough to be led to a wonderful population of Blanketflower in Minnesota. By our third visit in August, the seed was ripe and ready to collect! I’m a big fan of this species for many reasons. Its deep red disk flowers and multicolored ray sepals are guaranteed to stun, and I find its latin name, Gaillardia aristata, easy to remember. To me, aristata looks like “artist” which I find easily associates with the colorfully painted inflorescence.

Bracts are my new identification besties, at least when it comes to identifying thistles and Liatris spp. Bracts are reduced leaves, or leaflike structures at the base of an inflorescence. Bracts can look so many different ways, even within a genus.

Identifying thistles can be hard. People say the leaves of many natives have fairly white leaf undersides. After I check the leaves, I check the bracts to help lead me to species ID. For example, if the bulbous scaly part beneath the florets (in this case I think you can call that an involucre), is wooly, it may be Cirsium muticum!

Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), of which there are quite a few native species in the Midwest, were relatively easy to key out once I learned to observe them for their inflorescence silhouettes and bract characters rather than their florets or leaves.

Early in the growing season, aka during the cool season, I found it difficult to identify big bluestem. All the grasses looked basically the same to me, short…and grassy… Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a native warm season grass that doesn’t flower until July. It’s spikes are often compared to the foot of a turkey- so people sometimes call it turkeyfoot. By July, I was starting to get familiar, and by August I was surrounded by turkeyfeet sometimes up to 7 ft tall. The specimen pictured below had a nice green silly-looking conehead insect on it.

More than Seed Collection

We’ve made 15 native seed collections, traveled through 5 states, and had countless exciting, educational, and inspiring days on the job. Here are some highlights!

Calumet Region Park Tour

Hegewisch Marsh Park new restoration

Our crew tagged along with the Stewardship and Ecology of Natural Areas crew for a tour of Chicago Park District restorations/re-creations on the South East side (Calumet area) of Chicago. They’re attempting a project at Big Marsh Park unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re restoring wetland habitat and capping an old dumping site- a super unique problem to solve, especially with little to no budget. If you’re in the Chicago area and like to mountain bike, the bike park at Big Marsh is a must. You can rent bikes and thereby support the habitat restoration efforts with your money and enthusiasm. I didn’t take any photos of the bike features because I was too busy flying around on my bike with childlike fervor.

The trunks of these cottonwoods have been buried, along with the decades old dumping grounds at Big Marsh

Neighborhood Natives

Finding native plants in the dense urban environment of Chicago never fails to be heart warming. Most of Cook County is developed and densely populated and concrete covered.

Liatris pycnosachya

Before this job, I was not at all passionate about landscaping. Oh, how things change.

Cook County, IL is also home to one of the oldest and largest forest preserve districts in the country. A Resource Program Manager of Forest Preserves of Cook County led a day of “Reading the Landscape” which included a trip to a unique Illinois Nature Preserve called Wolf Road Prairie. The southern portion of Wolf Road Prairie is crisscrossed with sidewalks—laid for a planned subdivision ended by the Great Depression. The concrete strips throughout the rare remnant black soil prairie are disorienting and thought-provoking.

My First Trip to the Upper Peninsula

The crew visited Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the end of July. We also went on special mission to Whitefish Point which is managed partially by the folks at Seney NWR. They just put in a new parking lot at the Point, and plan to landscape it with native plants. So, we had the opportunity to botanize and collect seed on in dune swales of Lake Superior, and take an after work dip in the lake!

While at Seney proper, we saw lots of Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium), a species I don’t think I’ve seen east of the Mississippi.

Fireweed next to the CCC-engineered pool system at Seney National Wildlife Refuge

Monarda in the Midwest

Wild bergamot, horsemint, beebalm, Monarda spp… a genus that has stolen my heart!

Apparently it’s berga-MOT, not berga-MONT as I always have thought, and it’s not the source of the well-known essential oil of bergamot, which comes from the fruit native to Italy. However, this aromatic, herbaceous perennial of the mint family (Lamiaceae), has a scent similar to that of Citrus bergamia, and has many edible and medicinal properties.

Monarda fistulosa in a prairie restoration, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge system (USFWS), southern Wisconsin

I first saw M. fistulosa in the prairies of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. I love the pale magenta tubular flowers, sticking up like a tuft of troll hair, and the buds that look like little presents, all folded up. White flowers were also found among the magenta, which in some cases may actually be M. clinopodia, but I’m not sure.

Maybe a M. clinopodia in the Hackmatack restoration

There are about 18 Monarda species in the world (Elpel), and about 7 native to Illinois including M. bradburiana; M. clinopodia or white bergamont; M. didyma or scarlet beebalm; M. fistulosa of which 3 varieties have been found in IL, including M. fistulosa var. rubra which is deep purple to crimson; 2 varieties of M. punctata, spotted beebalm; and M. media, a rare reputed hybrid between M. fistulosa and M. clinopodia (Mohlenbrock). The differences are minute, and I will have to practice my keying skills!

Monarda is one of the few native herbaceous plants I’ve seen in the urban neighborhoods of Chicago where I live. The other week I spotted a somewhat rare strip of prairie plants in a park strip in Wicker Park neighborhood (Hoyne Ave and North Ave).

Wicker Park

At Chicago Botanic Garden, you can find a cultivated hybrid varieties developed by Proven Winners named Upscale TM in the Lavin Evaluation Garden. Pictured below are the ‘Red Velvet’ variety. They are much taller than the ones I’ve seen in the wild thus far.

Suggested Reading:




Elpel, Thomas J. (2021). Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America (6th ed.). Hops Press.

Mohlenbrock, Robert H. (2002). Vascular Flora of Illinois. Southern Illinois University Press.