Rain Gardens in Action: What's the Deal?

We are often asked how a rain garden differs from any other garden. Is it a pond? Will it attract mosquitos? Will the plants in it be OK during those long stretches of dry weather? The answers are no, it’s not a pond; no, it won’t attract mosquitos, and yes—the garden will be fine when it’s dry.

A rain garden is a shallow basin—not as deep as a pond—carved into the soil that receives water from a source such as a downspout or sump pump, or from overground sheet flow. A well-planted, well-tended rain garden is a beautiful, colorful place full of plants that can handle inundation as well as dry periods while attracting butterflies, bees and even birds looking for seeds. It will not hold water long enough to breed mosquitos, but it will send water cleansed by roots to the water table below.

Here is a rain garden Red Stem Native Landscapes installed just a day before a deluge was caught on the homeowner’s phone.

Because this garden is small for the amount of water it receives, the first few months it acted more like a swale—moving water from a walkway that used to flood, into the garden but also to a driveway. By summer of the following year, with the roots of the sedges, grasses, and wildflowers filling the soil and pulling water down as well as up into the plants, rainwater is absorbed and no longer reaches the driveway, see the photo taken from the driveway side of the garden, below. The brick and stone structure of the garden, visible in spring, can barely be seen at the height of summer.

Dinneen 1 year.jpg

Another rain garden, below, is fed via an underground pipe from a downspout 30 feet away. Before the garden was installed, rain would form a swampy area near the house.

15 Rothschild spring 1.jpg

The rain garden captures stormwater that sinks into the ground rather than running off into the street and sewers.

Rain garden full of water
In summer, the rain garden is clothed in the ever-changing colors and textures of native plants chosen for their place in the garden—some in wetter areas, others in dry, some in part shade and others in sunnier areas. The garden nurtures pollinators and brightens the landscape, see another view, below.

In summer, the rain garden is clothed in the ever-changing colors and textures of native plants chosen for their place in the garden—some in wetter areas, others in dry, some in part shade and others in sunnier areas. The garden nurtures pollinators and brightens the landscape, see another view, below.

IMG_7840 Rothschild rain garden summer.jpg

Why We Plant "True Species" Native Plants, Not Cultivars

Native cultivars, sometimes called “nativars,” are patented plants. Once the plant breeder is satisfied—with the double flower, the altered color, or whatever characteristic is being cultivated for—the plant is named, patented and marketed, then genetically identical plants are mass produced for sale. These plants will have a brand name in single quotation marks after the genus and species names, e.g. Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’ (pictured, with its freakish second set of ray flowers sticking out of the cones).

Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’

Echinacea purpurea ‘Double Decker’

Once on the shelf at the garden center, a cultivar is a brand-name product whose royalties flow to the breeder for as long as that cultivar sells. Combine this with many gardeners’ tendency to seek novelty and you’ve got the production/consumption pressures that ensure a steady stream of new ornamental cultivars showing up for sale. 

So, what’s the problem with all these cultivars? We have a number of objections to cultivars of native plants. Here are a few: 

Pollen and nectar availability. When a flower with a differently sized, colored, or shaped flower is bred from a native plant, the insects that evolved specialized mouthparts for that plant or responses to its visual cues such as nectar guides, may no longer be able to recognize the plant or be able to reach its nectar and/or pollen. Cultivars often have less pollen and nectar in the first place, and double flowers, none at all. 

Less seed for birds. Many cultivars are sterile, offering nothing in the way of seed to sustain for wildlife.

Caterpillar impact. Research has shown that when foliage color is changed to red or purple, normal insect feeding is significantly reduced. For other traits, such as disease resistance, insect feeding may be increased. So we know that changes in leaf chemistry affect insects’ eating patterns. We say leaf chemistry changes may very well affect insect health and development—and we’d like to see research on that, too.

Constricted genetic diversity. As the climate changes, survival of plants may depend in part on having the flexibility to adapt through genetic diversity. Genetically identical cultivars represent an impoverishment of a species’ gene pool, and individual cultivars—which have been bred to express a narrowed set of traits—are less able to adapt to environmental stresses.

Contamination of the gene pool. Some cultivars can cross-breed with wild plants, contaminating the wild gene pool with their tampered-with genes.

There are other reasons we avoid cultivars of native plants, but we’ll just add this: so many of these designer plants are simply freakish-looking to us. If insects could talk to us, we imagine they’d say, “Whoah, what is THAT!” upon encountering some of these cultivars.

Finally, the natural beauty of “true species” native plants and the ways they interact and support the rest of the native food web is just plain miraculous, requiring no human intervention.

“Gardening in the Shade,” a presentation by Monica Buckley and Charlotte Adelman

“Gardening in the Shade,” 

A presentation by Monica Buckley and Charlotte Adelman

Sunday, June 10, 2-3PM

Emily Oaks Nature Center

4650 Brummel Street, Skokie

Red Stem Native Landscapes owner and native plant book author Charlotte Adelman will be presenting their newly revised “Gardening in the Shade: transform shady areas into beautiful bird and butterfly habitats,” a free event. 

Shady yards present significant challenges, but with the right native plants, they become lovely sanctuaries for people, birds, and butterflies. Charlotte Adelman and Monica Buckley share why we should – and how we can – transform our shady and wooded yards into beautiful and sustainable wildlife habitats.

Charlotte Adelman is the co-author of The Midwestern Native Garden and it’s companion book,  Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees: Gardening Alternatives to Nonnative Species, her newest publication. As part of its Plants for Birds campaign, Audubon Great Lakes urrges  Midwesterners to secure a copy of Midwestern Native Shrubs and Trees and put its concepts into practice. Charlotte’s books will be available at the presentation, where she is donating the proceeds to Emily Oaks Nature Center. 

Monica Buckley is owner of Red Stem Native Landscapes Inc., a company located in north Chicago that designs, installs, and cares for native plant gardens and landscapes. 

Want to See Red? Grow Royal Catchfly


Royal Catchfly is one of few native prairie plants whose flowers are a true red. The single stalks branch only at the top, where the spray of showy scarlet blooms appears in mid to late summer. Only a few birds and insects are able to see the color red, so this plant requires an elite group of pollinators who can respond to that wavelength: ruby-throated hummingbirds and larger butterflies, such as the Tiger Swallowtail. In addition, the configuration of the flower­—a long, tubular base topped by a starlike arrangement of five petals—requires its visitors to have a long proboscis, or beak, for effective pollination. The plant stem and the tubular part of the Royal Catchfly flower are studded with long, sticky hairs that trap climbing insects, perhaps to keep them from dining on plant parts.

While native to Illinois, Royal Catchfly is considered an endangered plant there and is found in only a few areas: near Chicago and East St. Louis and in some southeastern counties. Its native habitats are black soil prairies, upland forest clearings, savannas, and open areas along roadsides and railroad rights of way. In the garden, Royal Catchfly prefers full or partial sun and moist soil. It tolerates dry conditions but not shade. Plants may take a few years to reach their full height of 2 to 4 feet and to bloom at their maximum potential.

Another common name for Royal Catchfly is Prairie Fire, a reference to its bright red flowers. In fact, it has a relationship to real prairie fires: Its seeds germinate well in fire-scorched soil. There are no reported medicinal or folklore uses for this plant. Enjoy it for its own beauty and elegance and that of its pollinators. 

Scientific Names

Royal Catchfly: Silene regia

Tiger Swallowtail: Papilio glaucus

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Archilochus colubris

Both photos courtesy of the Prairie Moon Nursery.

Wild Geranium—Creeping Seeds and Blue Pollen!

If lengthening daylight hours and warming weather have you dreaming about what’s next for your native plant garden, how about wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)? The word “geranium” may bring to mind a ball of red flowers on a stiff stem in a pot on your mom’s window sill, but this little perennial is no potted plant. Native to a wide swath of eastern North America, it is a lovely flowering plant generally found in woodland areas that can be used as a groundcover or tucked in among other natives in your shade garden.


Mature plants are about a foot and a half tall. The leaves are about five inches across, and are divided deeply into five lobes with sublobes. The stem, leaves, petioles, and buds are all slightly hairy.

Over a six- to seven- week period in late spring to early summer, wild geranium produces loose clusters of delicate pink to lavender five-petaled flowers. After blooming, the flower pistil at the end of the stem lengthens into a beak-like seed pod—the reason for the plant’s common name of cranesbill. In fact, geranos is the Greek word for “crane.” Some other common names for the wild geranium include alumroot, shameface, and sailor’s knot.

The wild geranium prefers moist, loamy soil and light shade to partial sun; if planted in full sun, it requires a lot of moisture. Plants spread by rhizome as well as by seed, but do not generally become invasive. The seeds have two ways of arriving at their germination sites: the spring-loaded seed capsule (check out the pic) ruptures and launches its contents up to 30 feet away; then each seed has a little tail, or awn, that straightens out when wet and curls up when dry, giving the seed the potential to creep short distances from wherever it lands!

Wild geranium foliage begins to look a little peaked late in the season, so it’s good to plant it among neighbors with showier foliage, like Jacob’s ladder or woodland sedges. Pollinators include many types of bees, syrphid and dance flies, digger wasps, and several types of butterflies and skippers. And speaking of pollen, while other wildflowers produce yellow, orange, or white pollen, some wild geranium pollen is bright blue—you’ll have to look closely to observe this unusual trait.

According to the St. Olaf website, early native Americans used various parts of the wild geranium to treat thrush, bleeding, burns, sore throats hemorrhoids, gonorrhea, diarrhea, and cholera. The astringent properties of its roots were particularly valued. And for unwitting victims of a love charm, a tea brewed from wild geranium roots would counteract the spell.

So if you’re looking for a colorful, easy-to-care-for native perennial, why not wild geranium? Unless, of course, you want that love charm to work! 

Photo of flower by Frank Bramley, courtesy of the New England Wildflower Society.

Scientific Names

Wild Geranium: Geranium maculatum

Bees: Apis

Syrphid flies: Syrphidae

Dance flies: Empididae

Digger wasps: Sphex

Butterflies and Skippers: Lepidoptera





Planting a Tree? Consider the Oak!

Do you have a spot in your yard or garden for a tree? Consider planting an oak. Oak trees were named America’s National Tree in 2004, and the White Oak is the designated Illinois State Tree. Of the hundreds of oak species, about 20 are native to Illinois.

Hardwoods known for their sturdiness and longevity, oaks can live for more than 200 years. The longest-lived native oak, the white oak, has an average lifespan of 300 years and can, under excellent growing conditions, live up to 600 years.

Depending on type, the trees may be small and shrubby or enormous and spreading. None are too fussy about soil and can adapt to most conditions, though they prefer a sunny site. There are two main families of oaks: white (native northern Illinois examples include bur oak, swamp oak, chinkapin oak) and red (such as northern red oak, blackjack oak, pin oak). The trees can be identified by the shapes of their leaves.

Oaks grace the human landscape with beauty, shade, and fall color. And for the wildlife community, they stand tall. Oaks support 534 species of butterflies and moths, more than any other native tree. Caterpillars of these species develop on oak leaves and, like all caterpillars, are a crucial a protein source for birds, particularly during breeding season. While oak leaves stock the nursery pantry for such a large number of butterflies and moths, all parts of the oak—the leaves, branches, bark, and roots—provide habitat, including nesting materials and sites, roosts for birds, and concealment and shelter for mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

The oak tree is an important part of nature’s food chain. About 100 U.S. animal species eat acorns, the fruit of the oak, which fortuitously ripen about the time—August to December—when other native food sources are beginning to diminish. Acorns support the seasonal diet of many species of birds, from raptors to songbirds, and of mammals great and small. These “nuts” were an important feature of the Native American diet. William Bryant Logan, in his prodigiously researched book, Oak: The Frame of Civilization, claims that over the millennia, humans have followed oaks to new territories, knowing that where there are oaks, there will be food. Even today, you can find acorn recipes online. So many critters feed on acorns that a blogger for the National Wildlife Federation called them “the cheeseburger of the forest ecosystem—fairly easy to find and neatly packaged.” And of course, you can grow your very own oak tree from an acorn, although it will take a while before it produces acorns of its own.

Oaks are prized for their hardwood, long used for furniture, flooring, and shipbuilding, among others. White oak is the preferred material for the staves of whiskey barrels. King Arthur’s roundtable is said to have been made from a single cross-section of an oak tree. The bark of the oak tree has been used to make a tea for ailments such as diarrhea, cough, cold, fever, bronchitis, appetite stimulation, and digestive aid, and extracts have been used as liniments or added to bath water for pain, swelling, and skin irritation, though some experts caution that no scientific evidence supports these remedies, and possible side effects are unknown. Magical properties are attributed to oak trees; for instance, dreaming of resting under an oak predicts long life and wealth, and dreams of a fallen oak presage the loss of love.

The character of some of the most beautiful natural preserves in the Chicago region is defined by old oaks; yet in many cases young oaks are not managing to replace these venerable trees. The oak tree has endowed so much aesthetic and practical value to humankind, and it has occupied such a towering place in human myth and imagination. How could we not want to preserve and protect this companion to human development? If you’re thinking of planting a tree, consider the oak!

Artwork by Iggy Oblomov







William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization, 2005, W. W. Norton & Compan


Scientific Names

Oak Tree Genus: Quercus

Blackjack Oak: Quercus marilandica

Bur Oak: Quercus macrocarpa

Chinkapin Oak: Quercus muehlenbergii

Northern Red Oak: Quercus rubra

Pin Oak: Quercus palustris

Swamp Oak: Quercus bicolor

White Oak: Quercus alba

Butterfly, Moth Order: Lepidoptera

Penstemon digitalis: An Early Bloomer for Your Garden

Does the name penstemon ring a bell? Penstemon digitalis is a lovely perennial plant, about three feet tall, that features elegant green (and sometimes purple-tinged) leaves and multiple white, bell-shaped flowers blooming in late spring and early summer. The flowers may last up to a month, a welcome sight at this time of year, when spring flowers are finished and summer ones not yet blooming.


A member of the snapdragon family, penstemon digitalis seems to be better known by part of its scientific name (penstemon) than by its common name, foxglove beardtongue. Peer into one of the flowers and you’ll see the reason for the common name: the stamens have tufts of short hairs, like tongues with a beard. The plant is native to most areas in Illinois, preferring prairies, open forest areas, savannas, pastures, and abandoned fields. It is resistant to disease and thrives in loamy soil, average moisture, and full or partial sun. Lengthy dry spells may cause the leaves to yellow and wilt. Plants are generally easy to grow from seeds and cuttings, and often reseed themselves.

The deep, tubular flowers of penstemon require long-tongued bees (such as honeybees and bumblebees) for pollination. Other types of bees, sphinx moths, and hummingbirds may be seen feeding at these flowers but probably don’t contribute much to pollination. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation considers the plant to be of special value to native bees. The seeds and leaves do not seem to be an attractive dining option for birds, deer, rabbits, or other plant-eating animals.

Other names for penstemon digitalis include foxglove penstemon, talus slope penstemon, and smooth penstemon. One source reports that all parts of the plant are poisonous, which may be one of the reasons it’s not a preferred food plant. Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest, by Charles Kane, says that penstemon has been used as a poultice for skin wounds, insect bites and rashes. HerbNET reports that penstemon has also been used to relieve toothache, stomachache, chest pains, fever and chills.

If you’d like some early bloomers that invite bees to your garden, consider penstemon digitalis.

Scientific Names

Foxglove beardtongue: Penstemon digitalis

Bumblebee: Bombus

Honeybee: Apis

Wild Ginger: How Did It Get Way Over There???

As spring arrives, plants once again emerge from the cool, moist soil. One of the most charming to unfurl its leaves is Canadian wild ginger. Native to most of the eastern half of North America, wild ginger has deep green, slightly fuzzy, heart-shaped leaves, which grow in clusters close to the ground. Each pair of wild ginger stems produces a single, small, brownish-purple flower hidden under its leaves that is said to resemble “rotting carcasses.” This characteristic, as well as the flowers’ ground-level accessibility, is attractive to flies that emerge from the ground in the spring. It’s unclear whether these flies serve as the main pollinators, but they do spread pollen from plant to plant.

Another insect provides the plants a method to extend their territory in a manner employed by a number of our native spring ephemerals. A portion of the seed produces, as one source terms it, “a little oily food gift attached to the seed.”* This attachment (called an elaiosome) attracts ants, which carry the seeds to their underground nests to be used for food. The activities of these ants keep the soil loose and well-aerated, creating a perfect environment for germination, and the seeds sprout in their new location, producing a new cluster of plants.

In its native forest habitat, wild ginger thrives in colonies in moist soil beneath the shade of deciduous trees. In the home native plant garden, it makes an excellent ground cover for shady areas, keeping its foliage through the summer. It spreads by rhizomes (underground root systems) and can extend its colony six to eight inches in each direction yearly—in addition to showing up wherever its seeds have been conveyed. Unless you’re an ant, it’s difficult to grow wild ginger from seed; plants are best purchased from a reliable native plant source or dug from another gardener’s cluster.

Native Americans and early European settlers are said to have used wild ginger root as a spice, candied it as a treat, and used syrup made from the candying process as a sweetener. However, wild ginger contains small amounts of toxic compounds; scientists caution that no part of it should be eaten. It has also been used in poultices to treat wounds, and in fact, antibiotic compounds have been identified in components of the plant.

If you have a shady spot in need of some ground cover, why not consider Canadian wild ginger?

Scientific names

Canadian wild ginger: Asarum canadense

Flies: Diptera

Ants: Formicidae

*Source: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/asarum_canadense.shtml

Goldenrods: We Do Not Make You Sneeze!

Goldenrods come in more than 100 different varieties, many of which are native to northern Illinois. Their fluffy, bright yellow flowers add color to the late-summer garden and attract honeybees, bumblebees, wasps, ants, beetles, moths, and butterflies. And despite a bad reputation for “causing” hayfever, they’re not guilty! The real culprit is ragweed, which blooms at the same time as goldenrod and produces a lightweight pollen easily carried by the wind. Goldenrod pollen is heavy and sticky, requiring pollinators for dispersal.

Goldenrod attracts a multitude of insects, these bees feast on nectar of these Showy Goldenrod flowers.

Goldenrod attracts a multitude of insects, these bees feast on nectar of these Showy Goldenrod flowers.

Goldenrods range from the diminutive one or two feet of the woodland varieties to the sun-loving varieties that stand on erect stems to six or eight feet tall. There is a goldenrod that will thrive in prairie, woodland, or wetland; accordingly their sun and soil requirements vary, but too much water or fertilizer may cause their long stems to flop. Some types, notably the native (despite its name) Canadian goldenrod, can be tall, weedy, and aggressive, but many varieties are more mannerly and better suited to home gardens. Bluestem goldenrod is best grown in partial sun and dry soil with some rocky content. Elm-leaved goldenrod is a shorter variety that prefers shade to semi-shade and medium-moist to dry soil. Showy goldenrod, with blooms that live up to its name, prefers dry soil and full sun. Stiff goldenrod has leaves that turn red in the fall and enjoys full sun and moist to slightly dry conditions; it is not too picky about soil type.

In some parts of the world, goldenrods are considered a sign of good luck. The leaves contain some rubber; Thomas Edison experimented with goldenrod as a material for tires, and during World War II an unsuccessful attempt was made to introduce goldenrod as a commercial rubber source. A species of goldenrod has been used in herbal medicine as a kidney tonic. Native Americans used goldenrod leaves to relieve sore throats and chewed the roots to soothe toothache.

Bluestem has a delicate, arching form and grows in wooded areas. It reaches a height of just two feet.

Bluestem has a delicate, arching form and grows in wooded areas. It reaches a height of just two feet.

Scientific Names

Goldenrod: Solidago

Bluestem goldenrod: Solidago caesia

Elm-leaved goldenrod: Solidago ulmifolia

Showy goldenrod: Solidago speciosa

Stiff goldenrod: Solidago rigida 

Ants: Formicidae

Beetles: Coleoptera

Butterflies and moths: Lepidoptera

Bumblebees: Bombus

Honeybees: Apis mellifera

Wasps: Hymenoptera

Shrubby Spikenard Thrives in the Shade

American Spikenard is not a shrub—it has no woody structure that stands through the winter—yet it bursts out of the ground in mid-spring, its long, maroon-to-black stems and dark green leaves reaching higher each year as it matures, to a height of up to five feet. Combine this considerable height with large, compound leaves that are subdivided into nine to 21 leaflets, and spikenard makes a formidable plant that you want to give a bit of space to—as if it were, well, a shrub!


An unrelated plant used for aromatherapy and native to India has the same common name, Spikenard (a common problem with common names!), and should not be confused with our native, Aralia racemosa, which is right at home in the Chicago area.

In late June, this easily grown plant starts displaying its blossoms: tiny greenish-white clusters of blooms on long upright stems. After flowers emerge and their main pollinators, bees, have done their work, the real show begins. Racemes loaded with small, showy red berries spill out over the dark-green leaves, the berries eventually turning deep purple. There is no other plant that resembles Spikenard, with its long, branching dark stems, big bushy leaves, and striking berries, yet this North American beauty is rarely seen in Chicago gardens.

American Spikenard’s many berries add drama to the garden as they turn to purple. They have a history of culinary and native American medicinal use.

American Spikenard’s many berries add drama to the garden as they turn to purple. They have a history of culinary and native American medicinal use.

The plant grows in a wide range of soils (sandy, clay, loamy), though it’s a denizen of cool, moist, rocky forests, often found on north-facing slopes. It thrives in full shade to part sun, and because it can often coexist happily with tree roots, Spikenard may be successful where few other plants will thrive. It prefers moist soil but will tolerate drought. Plants propagate slowly, both by self-seeding and along spreading rhizomes.

Spikenard is related to Ginseng. Its large, bulbous roots are marvelously aromatic and have been used as tea, in soups, or, like sarsaparilla, to make root beer. Native Americans used the root as medicine, for external use as a poultice for burns, ulcers, skin irritations, and swelling; and the roots and berries together were used for many internal uses, too. The berries can be made into wine, jam, or vinegar. Some gardeners have described American Spikenard as a “neglected native.” Maybe it’s time to pay this showy, shrubby perennial some attention.

Scientific Name American Spikenard: Aralia Racemosa

Wild Columbine: Dancing Fairies in Your Garden

The wild columbines are blooming red and yellow as May comes to a close, each delicate but spectacular flower consisting of a fountain-like cluster of five spikey, cone-shaped, hollow petals, with yellow stamens showering out the center. Because the hollow petals are so deep, this plant requires long-tongued pollinators: bumblebees and ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Columbine is easy to grow. It likes light shade or partial sun, though it may tolerate full sun. It’s satisfied with moist to dry conditions and loamy, rocky, or slightly sandy soil. With a few exceptions, you can find wild columbine in a variety of habitats throughout Illinois.

Columbine is considered a perennial, but is short-lived. Though not prolific, it usually manages to increase in numbers of plants a little each year by seed. One native plant gardener, though, told us her columbine up and moved to the neighbor’s yard, never to return home. Another example of how our genetically robust natives sometimes choose their own placement without our permission.

While columbine blooms in late spring, some gardeners like to keep the blooms going for many weeks by cutting off the spent ones before seeds form. The energy saved from seed making goes into making more flowers.

Leafminer larvae may feed on the leaves, causing light-colored tunnels, but they rarely destroy the plant. Because its leaves are toxic, you generally don’t need to worry about columbine being nibbled by common mammals, such as rabbits or deer.

According to some lore, Meskwaki Indians used ground columbine seeds as an ingredient in a love potion. One source reports it was at one time considered America’s national flower because the spiked flower petals resemble a bald eagle’s talons. Some common names for this plant are granny’s bonnets (picture your granny wearing a columbine-shaped hat) and dancing fairies. And who couldn’t use some dancing fairies in their garden? 

Because of its deep, hollow petals, only long-tongued insects such as the bumblebee can pollinate columbine. Photo credit: © Andrea Leigh Ptak

Because of its deep, hollow petals, only long-tongued insects such as the bumblebee can pollinate columbine. Photo credit: © Andrea Leigh Ptak

Scientific Names

Wild columbine: Aquilegia canadensis

Ruby-throated hummingbird: Archilochus colubris

Bumblebee: Bombus species

Leaf miner: Lyriomyza species

Hepatica—It Must Be Spring in Chicago!

The sweetest of spring’s early native flowers has just sprung up along the stepping stones in this Chicago front yard. Liverwort is its common name, but its botanical name, Hepatica, has a pretty ring to it that matches the little plant’s delicate yet stunning beauty.

Hepatica blooms for only a short time. True to its woodland origins, it likes a little sprinkling of last year’s leaves from which to emerge.

Hepatica blooms for only a short time. True to its woodland origins, it likes a little sprinkling of last year’s leaves from which to emerge.

Right about the time when the familiar, non-native crocuses come out—when the snow has barely cleared—Hepatica sends up hairy stalks bearing droopy buds among the tattered remnants of its winter leaves. Then, all at once, most of the buds turn upward and pop open into a disarmingly brilliant little bouquet of flowers that are made up of white, pink, blue or lavender sepals (not true petals), each flower about an inch across. There is much variation in color among plants but always the stark white stamens surround a center of green carpels. Stamens and carpels represent male and female flower parts, respectively.

This five-inch tall plant has attractive, pointy, three-lobed leaves tinged in purple, though there is a native variety with rounded leaves. While the flowers bloom, last year’s leaves recede, making way for a new set that will grace the woodland garden until they are buried by next winter’s snow.

The accessible, open flowers serve a wide variety of pollinators, including butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and beetles—which is generous of the little plant, because so few flowers are available now to the insects venturing out to find them.

Hepatica, as delicate as it looks, is a tough plant as long as it has a some leaf litter and soil that is well drained. The plant was named because of its prior use as a liver remedy and its constituents include flavonoids and saponins, pharmacologically active compounds. Native Americans used the local species to treat abdominal pains, poor digestion, constipation, and gynecological issues. The genus has species native to eastern North America, northern Europe, and Asia.

If you have a little space under a tree, and you don’t insist on clearing all the leaves in the fall, plant a few Hepatica specimens and prepare to be delighted in the spring by this diminutive beauty that has made its home in the Midwest for thousands of years!

Scientific names: Hepatica nobilis var. acuta

Jerry Wilhelm on Soil, Water, Organisms, and Love

When mid-nineteenth century plough technology finally made “breaking” the tough prairie sod feasible, the extraordinary fertility of Midwestern soil was revealed and the destruction of the prairie immediately got underway. Then modern development and agricultural methods increased the pace, until today only 1/10th of one percent of original, remnant prairie remains in Illinois, with similar tiny percentages for other types of remnant habitats.

Remnant habitat: Why should we care?
Jerry Wilhelm, PhD, co-author of the 4th edition of The Plants of the Chicago Region, says emphatically, “There is nothing we can do for our grandchildren that is more important than to preserve the remnants that are left, and to try to return health to the soil.” The remnants are a font of genetic diversity that exists nowhere else, and healthy soil cools the atmosphere, replenishes the water table, and protects rivers and streams, he explains.

Wilhelm calls remnant lands “the living tissue of the earth,” its original skin. The species diversity found on these tiny parcels of original wild lands is way beyond what can be reproduced in new native plantings, and this diversity is the safety net evolution has provided that allows for calamities to be overcome through redundancies in natural systems. Such redundancies have kept natural systems in balance for millennia, but the webs that they create are being broken as extinctions occur across our flora and fauna in the modern era.

The way we treat soil and water now ignores the natural laws that our very existence depends upon, Wilhelm warns. Healthy soil is replete with organic material, which gives it tremendous water-retention capacity that in turn mitigates the wildly fluctuating climate scenarios we are now experiencing across our landscapes.  Modern agricultural practices and development strip the soil and send it with our rainwater, polluted, into our waterways, rather than keeping soil in place and water where it falls, as has been nature’s way for millennia. Finally, tilling the soil dumps enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, a rarely discussed source of greenhouse gas.


Wilhelm explains that climate change isn’t only about atmospheric CO2. “It’s the whole living system,” he says. The earth’s natural skin is made up of healthy soil that is able to regulate its own temperature, a moderating effect that is transferred to the atmosphere above it. Healthy soil is full of many forms of life and a measure of porosity that allows water to be held in those pores. Water has a special property that allows it to heat and cool only very slowly, so that soil with sufficient moisture does not experience extreme temperature fluctuations.

“Healthy soil contains about 55 percent soil moisture,” Wilhelm says, “which gives it a connection to the thermal mass of the earth below so that its temperature cannot change rapidly. This, in turn, allows the organisms in the soil that depend upon a stable, slowly changing temperature regime to thrive. ”

It is this healthy community of organisms that, in turn, allows the soil to retain moisture and the organisms and roots within it to continue to fix carbon in the soil. When the soil becomes depleted of organic matter, soil moisture drops to as low as 20 percent, Wilhelm says. Then there is not enough water in the system to protect the living organisms, and the system can no longer thermoregulate.

“That presents a real danger,” Wilhelm warns. “It’s what’s wrong with our land. If you look at our region in Google Earth, you will see how high a percentage of our land in Illinois is planted in soy and corn, in commodity-scale agriculture. That soil has lost its organic matter.”

Depleted soils, such as those under commodity agricultural crops, experience “fever and chills,” says Wilhelm. And the atmosphere above those soils does the same. “The commodity farmer has to irrigate to bring the soil moisture up, and that soil is only alive about 90 days per year. Every time the farmer tills, organic matter is lost to oxidation. That means that farmers have to irrigate the soil and when it is not irrigated the temperature of the soil fluctuates wildly.”

Wilhelm adds that we have similar problems with the soil beneath our lawns and paved areas, where little or no water infiltration can occur.

Today’s earth has third-degree burns
“It’s almost as if the whole earth skin has third-degree burns,” he says. “We have to get the organic matter back into the soil. We have to allow perennial grass roots—which go down into the soil up to 15 feet—to grow and die every year. That will replenish the organic matter and bring the soil back to life.

Another soil health problem is compaction, from the depletion of spongy organic matter and the use of heavy equipment. “The more we subsidize, and the more land we put into commodity agriculture, the more compacted the soils become and so when we do get rain, the soil’s ability to absorb the water has been reduced. So, this precious resource simply runs off—causing havoc to downstream neighbors and aquatic systems.”

To Wilhelm, it’s simple: If we don’t put organic matter back into the soil and allow natural thermoregulation to occur, we will keep having broad climate fluxes, we will face extinctions, and we will be in for a very bad time. “Slowly but surely, we have to go in that direction, to preserve the remnants that are left, and to try to return health to the soil. But the remnants are important, you have to have some living tissue, you can’t start it from nothing.”

Why remnants are supreme among native plantings

Among the signs of health on any parcel of open land is the number of native species still present, both plant and animal. Wilhelm says that his co-author on the current book-in-progress, Laura Rericha, has found as many as 26 bee species in her home garden, which hosts an array of native plants. Yet, he adds, Laura has found more than 62 species of bee on Amorpha canescens [lead plant] alone in a remnant prairie; there is no comparison between native gardens whose owners seek to replicate the prairie, and the genuine article.

“You can’t just plant plants and get all our insects back,” Wilhelm says. “Ninety percent of our native insect species live in our remnants. We have over 400 species of bee in our region, but you can’t put them into unhealthy soil [many of our native bees are ground-dwelling, as opposed to the European honey bee]. And you may be able to build a healthy soil, but that bee may be in a remnant 20 miles away. And then, there are so many connections; some of these bees are parasitic on other bees, for example.”

Yet, Wilhelm is not saying we should give up on planting natives in our yards and parks. His own backyard is full of natives and he performs a prescribed burn, simulating the burning native Americans performed for millennia on our wild lands, every year. He encourages everyone to do what they can to plant and preserve native species, and gives solace and encouragement to those working to know and love and support our native flora and fauna.

“What’s important is what is in your heart. There’s a force there. If you’re not doing that, what else are you doing? Tie yourself to something real. When you start trying to restore, you reach a better frame of mind.” Finally, he adds, paraphrasing Rachel Carson, “If you are devoted to nature and love its beauty, you’ll have less of an inclination to destroy it.”

Monica Buckley interviewed Gerould (Jerry) Wilhelm, Ph.D., for this post. Wilhelm is director of research, Conservation Research Institute. He and co-author wildlife biologist Laura Rericha are updating and expanding Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm’s 1994 reference book, Plants of the Chicago Region, to be renamed  Flora of the Chicago Region: An Ecological Synthesis. The new book will include observations on regional fauna and geology in addition to regional flora. It will be published by Conservation Research Institute and the Indiana Academy of Sciences. 

To learn more about native ecosystem function and restoration, go to http://www.conservationresearchinstitute.org to read essays by Jerry Wilhelm.

The image of Wolf Road Prairie in midsummer was taken by Dan Kirk of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The image of Jerry Wilhelm leading a group at Wolf Road Prairie was taken by Dave Wacie for the Salt Creek Greenway Association.

We Like Bugs, and Here's Why

Teachers of landscaping and plant ID classes can still be heard saying something like “This is a great plant to use—it’s completely pest-free!” The assumption is that insects are pests, that we do not want them in our landscapes. But this is the language and thinking of yesteryear, of a culture that took to extremes the manicured landscape aesthetic that post-WWII suburbia borrowed from late 19th-century robber barons who borrowed it from English lords…it is a culture that views nature as a thing to be dominated, and it requires constant mowing and clipping and chemical applications, until our neighborhoods look the same year round and ring with the abrasive sounds of these activities to the exclusion of what might be the sound of birds singing, or even a breeze in the trees. Bugs of all sorts are not to be tolerated; we must not allow the leaves of our plants to be consumed. Yet, for eons, countless creatures that are part of the complex web of life on earth have counted on leaves for their survival.

The polyphemus moth is a giant silk moth native to our region, with a wingspan of up to 6 inches.

The polyphemus moth is a giant silk moth native to our region, with a wingspan of up to 6 inches.

The thing about bugs is: even if you don’t enjoy them for their own charms, or because they evolved with us and each species is unique, we need them! They pollinate our food crops; they are first responders in dispatching with dead things; they provide the protein that allows our favorite animals, songbirds, to raise their broods. Some are considered lovely and charismatic in their own right, like butterflies and dragonflies. In some countries, insects provide a key source of protein for humans. Even here, a few adventurous foodies have begun trying them out.

Of course, bugs can be pests, bugs can be damaging; but few native insects are, because they depend on a healthy ecosystem for their own survival. It tends to be the exotic bugs, with no natural enemies in their adopted environment, that cause trouble, or our own agricultural practices, such as monocropping, or planting acres and acres of a single crop.

Yet we tend to lump all the insects together as a collective ickiness, and we wipe out insect allies along with insect enemies. Here in the Midwest, we destroy the plants our native insects depend on. Roundup©-ready crops mean that crop dusters can rain down herbicide, killing any plant that isn’t genetically engineered to withstand it. Along with those plants go the insects that depend upon them for food, many of which specialize and can develop only on one species of plant or genus of plants. The 2013 migration of monarch butterflies has shrunk to a fraction of its former size and scientists have expressed concern that the fabled migration may disappear altogether; a ride through the countryside where genetically altered corn is grown can be eerily quiet…and “pest-free.” In these stretches of country, many of the native insects have nothing to eat, and the birds that depend on them don’t, either. Monarchs, though iconic and readily recognized by most Midwesterners, are not the only native insects that lose out when we lose our native plants. Another beauty, once very common in Chicago, is the polyphemus moth, pictured above. Its widely diverse diet of the leaves of many kinds of native trees and shrubs help it survive (whereas a specialist like the monarch can eat only from plants in the milkweed genus), and it can still be found in the city, although it’s a night flyer. The adult does not eat—it doesn’t even have a working mouth!

Without this crawly phase, during which the polyphemus caterpillar nibbles on a wide variety of native trees and shrubs, we would have no gorgeous moth.

Without this crawly phase, during which the polyphemus caterpillar nibbles on a wide variety of native trees and shrubs, we would have no gorgeous moth.

The Chicago region is blessed with a rich and diverse natural heritage. Planting natives in our yards helps preserve what remains of that heritage. Allowing insects to have their share of the native plants upon which they rely rather than running for the sprayer is an act of generosity and kindness to fellow beings that helps heal the landscape and build healthy wildlife habitat. These creatures provide protein for the birds that eat them, and the birds keep the number of insects in check.

Scientific name: Antheraea polyphemus

Caterpillar image by photochem_PA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Adult polyphemus moth image by Mark Meravy

Golden Alexanders and the Black Swallowtail


The cheerfully bright-yellow golden alexanders is an easy-to-grow native host in our area for the black swallowtail caterpillar—though the caterpillar will also eat the non-native Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, and other plants of the Apiaceae, or carrot (sometimes called parsley), family. The plant has a wide range and can be found in the wild throughout the eastern United States, into Canada, and west to the Rocky Mountains.

Blooming midspring through June, golden alexanders grows in a range of soils, including clay and sand. It can take partial shade to full sun. While it likes wet soil, it will tolerate drying out, which makes it a good rain-garden plant.

Black swallowtail visiting golden alexanders

Black swallowtail visiting golden alexanders

Golden alexanders can get a little exuberant when it comes to reseeding, so, in small gardens where plant diversity is desired, plant it where there’s some shade, which dampens its enthusiasm a bit. For a more traditional look, cut off the spent flowers as their blooms fade. This keeps the plants tidy and also keeps reseeding to a minimum, preventing the creation of a little colony; though some gardeners revel in its tendency to fill space by spreading through seed. The pretty, spikey foliage and happy 3-inch yellow umbels make these plants worth the trouble—and what could be better than playing host to black swallowtail babies, some of whom will serve as food for breeding birds?

Golden alexanders: Zizia aurea

Black swallowtail: Papilio polyxenes

Photo credits

Black swallowtail adult visiting golden alexanders used with permission from Janet Allen, whose blog can be found at www.ourhabitatgarden.org

Hosting the Regal Monarch in Our Gardens

There is nothing as graceful as a monarch butterfly sailing with strong wing strokes over the garden wall, and few moments as enjoyable as when that butterfly stays to visit, floating from flower to flower.


The spectacle of monarchs crossing the Midwest by the millions every Fall on their way to their winter roost in Mexico is among the little miracles of nature that mark the turn of the seasons for Chicago-area residents. We still don’t understand the mechanism by which these creatures find their way back; those returning are often as many as four generations away from those that returned the previous year!

Yet this legendary migration is under threat, with 2013 butterfly counts the lowest they’ve ever been and scientists warning that the migration will soon come to an end if the trend continues. Adult monarchs need lots of nectar to fuel their migration, and butterfly-loving gardeners often plant nectar-heavy flowers to attract them. But equally essential to the monarch’s survival are the plants they lay their eggs on—the only plants their caterpillars are able to eat: the milkweeds. To really support the monarch, plant its food plants and don’t be upset about a bit of leaf damage—the sign of happily growing baby monarchs! Their nibbles rarely harm these perennial plants.

There are many species of milkweed, and some are exceptionally beautiful. They grow to various heights and feature flowers that range across species from pink to purple to white to yellow to orange. There is a milkweed to complement every garden. All milkweeds fit in gardens with other native plants, but many can also work in the traditional border or cottage garden.

Each milkweed has its preferred ecological niche. The intensely fire-orange, short-statured butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), for example, prefers well-drained soil. Many of us know the pink-blossomed common milkweed (A. syriaca) from the empty lots and open fields of our childhoods. It is tall, spreads easily, and is quite happy in a range of conditions. Sullivant’s milkweed, A. sullivantii, resembles common milkweed but does not spread. A. incarnata, AKA rose, red, or swamp milkweed, is a pretty, dark pink milkweed that doesn’t mind clay and periods of inundation. The white A. verticillata stays under two feet and can tolerate poor, gravelly soil. The intensely colored purple milkweed, A. purpurascens, is fine with part shade, favoring the woodland edge. There are several other gorgeous milkweeds native to our area: a milkweed to fit every garden!

Learning which species are suited to your conditions can help you incorporate these important native plants into a garden that will host the entire lifecycle of the regal monarch. It takes a monarch less than a month to go from egg to adult, and in the northern summer our gardens can support as many as four generations before migration begins in the Fall.

It has become essential, if our children are to enjoy these beautiful creatures, that city and suburban areas host healthy stands of milkweed. Monarch habitat is under siege. Developed complexes of sterile lawns have taken over much of its habitat; farmland is now planted with Roundup-ready crops that are heavily sprayed with herbicide, preventing wildflowers such as milkweeds from growing between the rows and along roadsides; and woodlands and prairies with the full complement of native plants are now extremely rare. At the southern end of the monarch’s migration, in Mexico, illegal logging continues to erode habitat.

More and more, it is up to gardeners to provide the native plants that many of our butterflies require. For the monarch, it’s the milkweed. Plant some in your garden, or consult a native plant nursery or landscaper to choose the right combination of plantings for your soil, light, and moisture conditions.

Fun facts about monarch butterflies

  • They can fly for 11 hours before having to rest

  • The milkweeds they eat as larvae impart a nasty-tasting toxin to the adults’ bodies that make birds avoid them

  • Their distinctive orange and black coloring is mimicked by the viceroy butterfly, helping to protect it from birds that might mistake it for a monarch

You can document your milkweed planting and be recognized as an official monarch waystation. Go to Monarch Waystations at http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/http://www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/

Monarch caterpillar image used with permission from the North Carolina Botanical Gardens