Where and When to See the Best Chicago-Area Wildflowers


When Chicago nature photographer Mike MacDonald visited Saguaro National Park in Arizona, he saw glorious photos in the visitor’s center.  “Wow,” he remembers thinking to himself. “You have to be here all year long to be able to capture these pictures. Why don’t I be that guy back home in Chicago?”

Chicago can’t claim the grandeur of many national parks, but MacDonald knew that Chicago has plenty to offer. 

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“Chicago has more protected natural areas within 50 miles of downtown than most national parks,” he said. “And more native plant species than any national park by far.” According to MacDonald, the Chicago area has more than 1,700 native plant species while the Grand Canyon has less than 1,600.

And that makes for some spectacular wildflower displays, MacDonald says – provided you know when to venture into the woods. 

“A lot of people know where to see stuff, but you have to know when. The combination is really necessary,” he said.

Photos, below, are from Mike MacDonald’s book, “My Journey Into the Wilds of Chicago.”

  • In woodlands across northeastern Illinois, like here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, April showers bring out the umbrellas in the form of mayapples. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In woodlands across northeastern Illinois, like here at Black Partridge Woods in Lemont, April showers bring out the umbrellas in the form of mayapples. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • At O'Hara Woods in Romeoville, the April sun rises to warm the springtime woodland brimming with Virginia bluebells. Copyright 2016 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    At O'Hara Woods in Romeoville, the April sun rises to warm the springtime woodland brimming with Virginia bluebells. Copyright 2016 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In May, Pembroke Savanna features blooms of white sand phlox and the sublime bird-foot violet. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In May, Pembroke Savanna features blooms of white sand phlox and the sublime bird-foot violet. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • Atop this spring dune thrives wild lupine at Miller Woods Nature Preserve, part of Indiana Dunes National Park in Gary, Indiana. Copyright 2018 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    Atop this spring dune thrives wild lupine at Miller Woods Nature Preserve, part of Indiana Dunes National Park in Gary, Indiana. Copyright 2018 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • A phalanx of bue flag iris loomd above the spring wetland at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook. Copyright 2017 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    A phalanx of bue flag iris loomd above the spring wetland at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook. Copyright 2017 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • On this spring morning in the sand prairie at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, dew covered the spider webs and the blooms of yellow sand coreopsis and pearlyNew Jersey tea. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    On this spring morning in the sand prairie at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve in Zion, dew covered the spider webs and the blooms of yellow sand coreopsis and pearlyNew Jersey tea. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • At Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, June brings a profusion of pale purple coneflower to this rare remnant prairie. Copyright 2019 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    At Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, June brings a profusion of pale purple coneflower to this rare remnant prairie. Copyright 2019 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, pearl blossoms of foxglove beardtongue catch the morning rays and a new day awakens—one as splendid and picturesque as any place on Earth. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    At Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, pearl blossoms of foxglove beardtongue catch the morning rays and a new day awakens—one as splendid and picturesque as any place on Earth. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • Atop this hill prairie at Shoe Factory Road Prairie, deep-rooted leadplants combine with the happy yellow faces of coreopsis as they shine through the dissipating fog. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    Atop this hill prairie at Shoe Factory Road Prairie, deep-rooted leadplants combine with the happy yellow faces of coreopsis as they shine through the dissipating fog. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • At Wolf Road Prairie in July,the  wildflowers of wild bergamot and Culver's root combine to resemble a fireworks display. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    At Wolf Road Prairie in July,the wildflowers of wild bergamot and Culver's root combine to resemble a fireworks display. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • Gensburg-Markham Prairie is famous for its late July fanfare, when the fields ignite with white sparks of flowering spurge and purple torches of marsh blazing star. Copyright 2000 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    Gensburg-Markham Prairie is famous for its late July fanfare, when the fields ignite with white sparks of flowering spurge and purple torches of marsh blazing star. Copyright 2000 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In July at Spears Woods in Willow Springs, all kinds of flowers bloom in its prairies. Copyright 2006 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In July at Spears Woods in Willow Springs, all kinds of flowers bloom in its prairies. Copyright 2006 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In August at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, soft sunlight, diffused by morning mist, filters across the preserve. Gathered at the base of the kame, fire-resistant bur oaks hover above a colorful caboodle of Joe-Pye weed and tall goldenrod. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In August at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin, soft sunlight, diffused by morning mist, filters across the preserve. Gathered at the base of the kame, fire-resistant bur oaks hover above a colorful caboodle of Joe-Pye weed and tall goldenrod. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In early September, in the dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, feathery plumes of dew-drenched Indian grass steal the show from rough blazing star and goldenrod. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In early September, in the dolomite prairie at Theodore Stone Preserve in Hodgkins, feathery plumes of dew-drenched Indian grass steal the show from rough blazing star and goldenrod. Copyright 2011 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In this September sand prairie along the Lake Michigan shore, morning light kisses the tops of Indian grass, western sunflower, and rough blazing star at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In this September sand prairie along the Lake Michigan shore, morning light kisses the tops of Indian grass, western sunflower, and rough blazing star at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • In early spring, I come to Pilcher Park to play in the mud. Here, skunk cabbage and marsh marigold thrive in a woodland floodplain of inky water and the blackest muck I’ve ever seen. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    In early spring, I come to Pilcher Park to play in the mud. Here, skunk cabbage and marsh marigold thrive in a woodland floodplain of inky water and the blackest muck I’ve ever seen. Copyright 2015 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • Each May, wild hyacinths bloom in woodlands and oak savannas across the Chicago region including, here, at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester. Copyright 2013 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    Each May, wild hyacinths bloom in woodlands and oak savannas across the Chicago region including, here, at Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester. Copyright 2013 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

  • It was a very dry year in Chicago and, here, at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbook. Yet you wouldn’t know it from looking at this scene. The purple plant in this panorama is leadplant, which can search for water 15 feet below the arid surface. Other drought-tolerant species seen here include prairie dropseed and wild quinine, in the front; and farther out, prairie dock, compass plant, and rattlesnake master. Copyright 2013 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

    It was a very dry year in Chicago and, here, at Somme Prairie Grove in Northbook. Yet you wouldn’t know it from looking at this scene. The purple plant in this panorama is leadplant, which can search for water 15 feet below the arid surface. Other drought-tolerant species seen here include prairie dropseed and wild quinine, in the front; and farther out, prairie dock, compass plant, and rattlesnake master. Copyright 2013 Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

MacDonald has created a website to keep us all informed. Chicago Nature Now offers weekly alerts about the best wildflower blooms in the area, plus a lot more information about native plants and protected lands. 

MacDonald says his photography is not just about personal expression.  “I’m here to play matchmaker,” he says. “To connect people with nature in my own way, through photography, public speaking, writing. And then in doing so, hopefully they’ll fall in love with it and contribute in some way.”

One way Chicago nature lovers can contribute is by becoming a volunteer scout for Chicago Nature Now and helping MacDonald keep an eye on the wildflower blooms in the area.


Related stories:

Photographer Captures the ‘Wilds of Chicago’ in New Book

The Wild Life of Nature Photographer Thomas Mangelsen

National Park Photographer Completes His Portfolio with Visit to Indiana Dunes

Newly Discovered Photos Reveal Childhood of Groundbreaking Journalist


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