CARBONDALE – With Southern Illinois in the clutches of a typically stifling August heat wave, one would expect plants and wildflowers to be withering on the vine.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The road sides and fields are alive with the vibrant yellows of woodland sunflowers, the deep purple of ironweed and the searing red of cardinal flowers.
“Different plants have adapted for different things,” said Chris Benda, a visiting plant ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.” I was at Cave Creek Glade, it was hot and dry and facing the sun. I thought, ‘Gee, it’s surprising anything can grow in these conditions.’ But, you don’t expect it to be bare soil. Something is going to have adapted to thrive in those conditions.”
And, Southern Illinois is a wildlife haven.
Benda said January and December are typically the only months when there are no wildflowers blooming in the region. He has spotted the harbinger of spring in February and swamp marigolds into November.
“Southern Illinois is located basically in the center of the United States,” he said. “Certainly from a north-to-south perspective, it’s right in the middle. It’s really where north and south meet on the continent. It’s the southern extent of plants adapted to the northern climates and the northern extent of plants adapted to the southern climates. We even have an east-to-west influence as well.”
Given the climate and the topographical diversity, Illinois is home to about 3,700 species of plants. By contrast, a less diverse state like South Dakota has just 1,200 species.
“I think that particularly in the spring in Southern Illinois, we have a rich component of the spring ephemerals,” Benda said. “Part of that is because the spring ephemerals need to grow and get all their energy in the early spring before there are leaves on the trees and the sunlight reaches the forest floor. In Southern Illinois we have forested communities which then cater to having a richer spring ephemeral display.
“Actually, an interesting phenomenon about Illinois is earlier in the year, Southern Illinois flowers will start blooming before the same species further north. Because the season is so much longer in the middle of the summer, about mid-July, you get the opposite thing. The plants in the north bloom earlier than in the south because they need to get it in before winter.”
Eventually, those early spring flowers yield to the hardy plants now populating the region’s roadsides.
“Typically, the flowers that are in the drier habitats they are going to be fuller, and happy and more open in the morning and in the evening,” Benda said. “During the day they kind of wilt away in the heat. The plants are spread out through all kinds of communities and conditions.”
Most of the wildflowers currently in bloom are bright yellow or white. That is not random, nor a coincidence.
“Most of the wildflowers are yellow and white, those are the colors that really attract insects,” Benda said. “Apparently, insects can’t see red so we have very few red flowers. Those are typically pollinated by hummingbirds. White and yellow are the two popular ones because they are drawing in insect pollinators.”
To view colorful floral displays through the remainder of summer and fall Benda suggested Giant City State Park and Snake Road and Inspiration Point at LaRue Pine Hills.
“Even into November, one of several amazing wildflower displays we have in Southern Illinois is the Little Black Slough area, near Boss Island,” Benda said. “You can walk on the island so you are up on the cliffs and you can look down into the swamp and it is just covered in gold. It’s a swamp marigold species and it just fills in the whole wetland with gold. The best photos I’ve taken of them was on the last day of October.”
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