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