Red, white and blue wildflowers

These native gems are about as American as they get


Depending on the time of year, a trek into the preserves can yield a visual display sure to please the senses with an abundance of wildflowers dotting the landscape. 

Sometimes, we'll gladly point them out and tell you where to see them for yourself. For example, there's the wild hyacinth at Alessio Prairie in Crest Hill, the harbinger of spring at Raccoon Grove Nature Preserve in Monee Township, or a smorgasboard of native plants at Sugar Creek Preserve in Joliet. But every now and then, we'll share a gem that's so rare, we can't tell you where it is.

Pick your favorite color — just about any color — and odds are you'll be able to find it courtesy of a flower in full bloom.

But since it's the Fourth of July, we thought it's a perfect time to highlight some of the local plants that are as American as you can get. Not only are they native to the area, but they all feature the most American colors of them all: Red, White and Blue.

The reds

Closeup of cardinal flower.

Cardinal Flower

Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko

The cardinal flower, which often is confused with the endangered royal catchfly, is nearly impossible to miss not only due to its bright color, but also thanks to its ability to grow up to 3 1/2 feet tall.

Your best chance of finding one is in an area where there's full sun and that's near water, as it prefers wet and moist conditions. It thrives in wet prairies, floodplains and soggy meadows along rivers. It also can be found in woodlands where moist depressions occur.


The cardinal flower not only can attract swallowtail butterflies, but also hummingbirds. 

So if you enjoy watching either of those amazing creatures, incorporate some cardinal flower into your garden and you'll surely enjoy the show that will follow.

A ruby-throated hummingbird sipping nectar from a cardinal flower.

(Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

Closeup of red trillium.

Red Trillium

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

This rare wildflower is listed as endangered and only has been observed in a few counties in northern Illinois. 

The flowers aren't limited to a red or purplish color; they also can be white, pink, yellow or green, but only the red flowers have been found in Illinois

It's also commonly referred to as stinking Benjamin, thanks to the foul odor it emits. That stench wasn't enough to scare off Native Americans, who used it in a root tea for menstrual disorders and to induce childbirth.

The whites

Closeup of wild white indigo.

Wild White Indigo

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

This one clearly stands tall in the prairie.

Towering up to six feet, it soaks in the full summer sun in a number of areas, beause it's not overly picky about where it grows. From moist to dry prairies, marshes and dry clay hills, this beauty thrives. 

While white-tailed deer will often feast on trillium, wild indigo largely goes untouched by wildlife because it's poisonous when eaten.

Closeup of Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman's Breeches

(Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)

This incredibly unique plant gets its name from its flowers, which dangle downward and look like pants hanging upside down, slightly inflated by the wind blowing through them on a clothesline. 

Much like the wild indigo, this one also is poisonous if eaten and can result in a staggering walk, which also gave rise to one of its common names: staggerweed.

It appears in nearly ever Illinois county in woodlands that have never been plowed. 

The blues

Closeup of Virginia bluebells.

Virginia Bluebells

(Photo by Cindy Cain)

These are easily the most highly-anticipated flowers each spring, and can blanket the forest floor in places like Messenger Woods Nature Preserve, McKinley Woods and Hammel Woods

They develop quickly in the spring after danger of a hard frost has passed, and the pink buds open into trumpet-shaped, light blue flowers.

Once they bloom, it's a mad dash to the preserves to see bluebells in all their glory because the stems are weak and watery, and the blooms quickly die back to the ground.


The white and blue

Closeup of blue-eyed Mary.

Blue-eyed Mary

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

This is an indicator species, meaning if it's present in a preserve, that's an indication of it being a high quality woodland. Blue-eyed Mary is common in northeastern Illinois and, while it appears in other parts of the state, it's not nearly as abundant.

If you're in a preserve looking for them, mid- to late spring is the time, and there's about a three-week window to spot these beauties along wooded lower slopes or along woodland paths.

They attract a variety of pollinators, including honeybees, bumblebees, long-horned bees and butterflies.

(Lead image by Chad Merda)

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