Outdoors Adviser

Let your wildflower appreciation bloom

A nature photographer tells where to find them in the Chicago area -- and how to shoot them


Carol Freeman, nature photographer, photographs early spring wildflowers at the Morton Arboretum, Wednesday, April 14, 2010 in Lisle. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / April 13, 2010)

Happy Earth Day, everybody.

Today is the 40th annual love-your-planet observation, and not to get all baby boomer nostalgic on you, but I worked the first one. OK, it's not Woodstock, but surely I should get some tree-hugger street cred for staffing a table in New York for a group called Environment! and roller skating down closed-to-traffic Fifth Avenue.

Those were the world-changing days, kids. Remind me to tell you about the time I picketed the GM building in midtown Manhattan wearing a long, black robe and a gas mask (laugh if you will, but did cars stop using leaded gasoline? You're welcome).

But I digress. Earth Day lives on, an invitation to help save the planet and to appreciate its natural beauty. And on this patch of the planet at this time of year, that means spring wildflowers.

Carol Freeman is already on the job. A professional photographer of Chicago-area nature, Freeman spends her days exploring forest preserves and prairies in search of pictures that capture the diversity and beauty of local plant and animal life. She knows where the wildflowers are.

"Any healthy woodland," she said. "That's the key; it's got to be healthy."

If it is choked with non-native buckthorn and garlic mustard, those invasive plants will block the sun from hitting the forest floor so that the wildflowers can bloom. That's why you can't just pop into any nearby forest preserve.

"A lot of them are overgrown," she said. "That discourages people. They'll go to the forest preserve and they'll walk around and see bare dirt. Nothing's growing. It's not very pretty."

If you want pretty, you have to go to a woodland that is being actively managed — where the buckthorn and garlic mustard have been removed.

Such as?

"Places like the Chicago Botanic Garden and Morton Arboretum are excellent places to see native wildflowers," she said. "The Botanic Garden has a lovely wooded area most people probably don't know about. It's just off the parking lot — McDonald Woods."

Near her home in Glenview, she likes Harms Woods; from the parking lot, cross the bridge, take the path and just look around.

"On the south side, there's Black Partridge Woods — just an amazing display of wildflowers," she said. Elsewhere, "Waterfall Glen is a wonderful place. And Ryerson Woods has just beautiful carpets of phlox, sedges and May apples."

She has her own more challenging search going on: Since 2004, she has been on a quest to photograph every endangered or threatened species — plants, animals, insects, birds, fish, reptiles and snakes — in Illinois. There are 483 of them; she has photographed 115.

"They are extremely rare and really hard to find," she said. To find the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly, for example, she went out looking along the Des Plaines River near Lockport every other week during the summer flight season. It took her three years.

As for plants, "they're out in the middle of nowhere, sometimes just a handful of plants," she said. She locates them with the help of organizations such as the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plants of Concern, which, in return, get to use her photos for education and advocacy. And she does not publicly reveal the plants' location, lest people steal them for their home gardens.

But a flower doesn't have to be rare to be beautiful. The other day at the Morton Arboretum's ground cover garden, where you can see wildflowers along paved, wheelchair-accessible paths, Freeman got down on the ground to photograph bright yellow woodland poppies, Virginia bluebells and the upside-down trumpet-shaped flowers of trout lilies.

Paying such close attention has added to her sense of wonderment at the beauty and variety of flowers.

"It's fascinating," she said. "How did they evolve? Why is this flower shaped this way?"

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