Fall is a wonderful time to take a guided or self-field trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Children will love to learn about the many shades of fall leaves.
During the summer, tree leaves produce all the pigments we see in fall, but they make so much chlorophyll that the green masks the underlying reds, oranges, and yellows.
In fall, days get shorter and cooler, and trees stop producing chlorophyll. As a result, the green color fades, revealing the vibrant colors we love. Eventually, these colors also fade, and the leaves turn brown, wither, and drop. Then the trees become dormant for winter.
There are four pigments responsible for leaf colors:
Chlorophyll (pronounced KLOR-a-fill) – green
Xanthophyll (pronounced ZAN-tho-fill) – yellow
Carotene (pronounced CARE-a-teen) – gold, orange
Anthocyanin (pronounced an-tho-SIGH-a-nin) – red, violet, can also be bluish
Leaves are brown when there are no more photo-sensitive pigments; only the tannins are left.
Color these leaves according to the pigments they produce:
Leaves turn color early in the season; the lighter carotenes glow warmly against the blue sky and green grass.
The fading chlorophyll, combined with xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin, produce the spectacular show we anticipate every year. Leaves change slowly and over time may be any combination of the four pigments, ending in a brilliant flame of anthocyanin.
The darker anthocyanin hues turn these feathery leaves the color of shadows—fitting for the spooky month of Halloween.
Like the maple, this tree puts on an awe-inspiring display of xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin all together.
Light filtering through the xanthophyll and lighter carotene of these leaves creates an ethereal glow. The ginkgo drops all of its leaves in a day or two.
The anthocyanin in these leaves makes them the color and shape of flames, and appears as fire against the duller colors of the surrounding landscape.
Carotenes recede quickly around the edges of the leaves as they prepare to parachute to the ground.
A pale hint of chlorophyll mixes with xanthophyll and a touch of carotene as this tree shuts down for winter.
This stately tree holds its anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall. The color eventually fades, but the tree holds its pigment-less leaves through the winter.
Plants of Concern volunteers come from many backgrounds, but all share a common denominator: not surprisingly, they are concerned about plants.
So concerned are these citizen scientists, in fact, that they are willing to traipse all over our region of northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana to monitor hundreds of rare, threatened, and endangered species in a variety of habitats. Their findings help plant scientists understand and work to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as encroaching urbanization and invasive species.
Bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in visual arts; master’s degree in religious education from Loyola University. Worked for many years as a director of religious education in the Episcopal church, in the commercial art field for more than a decade, and now as administrator and a lead teacher in a nature-based preschool. Earned a botanical art certificate from the Morton Arboretum. Helped develop the Field Museum’s Common Plant Families of the of the Chicago Region field guide.
I started volunteering with Plants of Concern in 2002. I learned about POC after a chance meeting at the REI store in Oakbrook with Audubon representative and Northeastern Illinois University professor Steve Frankel. Steve told me about POC, and that meeting changed my life in a huge way.
I monitor 25 species at nine different sites, including Grainger Woods in Lake County; Theodore Stone in Cook County; several high-quality prairies in Cook, DuPage, and McHenry Counties; and Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. POC assigned them to me because of my interest in and ability to ID many species of native orchids (there are more than 40 just in the Chicago region). But I monitor other plants besides orchids.
Volunteering for POC differs from most other volunteering positions I’ve held [at the Art Institute and the Field Museum] because there is a lot of independence, and also much more technical training. This citizen science is vital to the sites’ ecologists—most agencies don’t have enough funding to pay staff to collect the valuable, detailed information we do. Volunteers also are highly accountable, and you need to be really sure about your species. That knowledge comes over years of participation, but even if someone just participates once, and goes out with a more experienced monitor, the information collected helps fill gaps in our understanding of our natural areas. And it’s way more fun than playing Pokémon, once you get the hang of it!
My advice for prospective volunteers is to go out first with more experienced monitors. Learn from them—they are better than a digital (or even paper) field guide. Clean your boots off carefully beforehand; don’t track any weed seeds into a high-quality remnant. Observe more than just the monitored plants—look for butterflies, listen for birds, notice the dragonflies and frog calls. Tread lightly and watch your step. Bring extra water and a snack. Use bug spray. Learn what poison ivy is but don’t be afraid of it—just don’t get it on your skin! No matter how hot it is, I wear long trousers, long sleeves, a broad-brimmed hat, and thin leather gloves. Never, ever, go out in the woods alone. Let people know where you are going and when you plan to return. Watch the weather signs. Keep your cell phone charged and with you at all times.
Above all, enjoy this one-of-a-kind experience!
Bachelor’s degree in agriculture technology/animal sciences from Utah State University; master’s degree in food science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trained as a food-science researcher focusing on meat quality. Researched pork quality for a commercial pig farm/processing plant and a pig genetic company.
I have been volunteering with Plants of Concern since 2012. I am interested in nature and enjoying the outdoors, and this is a fantastic program for me. My family always spent time hiking and fishing on weekends. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, where we had easy access to mountains and the ocean—unlike in the Midwest. We also had a container garden on top of our four-story building, and I helped to take care of the plants.
For POC I primarily volunteer at Openlands, which is about 20 minutes from my house. However, I have also volunteered farther away, south to Will County, east to the city of Chicago, and north to Zion.
Plants of Concern involves many aspects of science: identifying target plants and knowing the plants surrounding them, locating target populations, and using statistical methods to measure populations. For me, the most fun thing is learning new things each time I come out to the field. Maybe it’s a new plant that I have never seen before, or a new hiking route. The most frustrating times are when it’s hard to find the target plant because the population is low.
The advice I have for prospective volunteers is to keep your curiosity alive!
Bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; master’s degree in botany from the University of Minnesota. Has taught botany at Harper College since 1987.
I have been interested in plants since I can remember. My father loved to hike, and my mother was a gardener. Instead of moving furniture around, my mother moved plants. We spent a lot of time outside.
I have volunteered with Plants of Concern since its beginning. I monitored white-fringed prairie orchids with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other plants with the Nature Conservancy even before then. I knew people (still do) at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and I heard about the program from them, so it was sort of a transfer. I remember that when POC started, we worked in forest preserves. I understood why there was a desire to work in protected lands, but I said we needed to include other properties. And the program expanded beyond the preserves!
I actively monitor for POC at Illinois Beach State Park (IBSP) and also help out at Openlands when I have time. The forays are great fun. That’s my favorite thing: getting out there and being with other people and learning about new plants. At IBSP, visitors are expected to stay on the trail. Of course, most plants don’t grow right on it, but you can usually spot them. Once I was looking around for plants and saw this guy sort of thrashing around in the cattails. I reported him since he looked so bizarre out there, and it turns out he was a skipper [butterfly] expert taking samples for the Karner blue butterfly project. I met him later…a really nice guy, it turns out!
What makes Plants of Concern special is that it is so well run. The staff is quick on feedback and offers lots of help. The training programs are excellent. I’ve heard some terrific speakers, too. Other organizations sometimes don’t seem to have quite the staff or funding for their programs, which can make volunteering challenging. If I had to identify the biggest challenge as a POC volunteer, it would be the paperwork. With POC you can do the entry online, which helps. But filling out forms remains my least favorite thing to do…I just filled out a form [in August] for data collecting I did in May.
My advice to new Plants of Concern volunteers is to go to the workshops—even if you think you know the stuff. It’s amazing what you can learn. And when you first go out, it can be hard just to find the plants, even using a GPS, much less to know what to do when you find them. So go with experienced people!
Students at Harper College have volunteer workdays, and when mine return to the classroom after volunteering with POC groups, they always talk about how knowledgeable and interesting the volunteers are—and these are college environmental science students. It’s great that people can get together and share not just their knowledge but their enthusiasm through Plants of Concern.
Join the ranks of the dedicated people of Plants of Concern: volunteer today.
Plants of Concern is made possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands, Nature Conservancy Volunteer Stewardship Network, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Chicago Park District.
When someone first hears the name of the red-bellied woodpecker, it doesn’t make sense. The bird has a bright red crown and nape, but where’s the red belly? Actually, there is a small pinkish tinge on the bird’s stomach, but it’s difficult to see unless you look for it with binoculars (and if it’s not covered with gray feathers).
Unfortunately, the name “red-headed woodpecker” was already taken by another bird—incidentally, much rarer in northern Illinois—so ornithologists named this common, year-round bird the red-bellied woodpecker.
The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has creamy-to-white underparts, and a black-and-white, zebra-patterned back. The male’s forehead is red; the female’s is creamy white. (By contrast, the red-headed woodpecker’s entire head is blood red, and its back is solid black with white patches on the wings.) The red-bellied woodpecker’s preferred year-round habitat is woodlands, and the oak, pine hardwood, and maple forests of the eastern United States. Occasionally, it can be found in wooded suburban neighborhoods.
Woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues. A woodpecker’s tongue is so long that when it is not extending it to grab a meal deep within a crevice, it pulls it in, and wraps it around the inside back wall of its skull, almost to its nostril holes. Because they can get food from deep within a tree instead of relying on what is readily available, they are well-suited to spend winter in northern Illinois, when other insect-eating birds need to move south.
If a red-bellied woodpecker visits your yard, you may be able to observe some interesting behavior: the woodpecker puts a nut into the crevice of tree bark, then hits the nut with its beak to get to the yummy morsel inside. It also may store the food there to eat later.
The woodpecker makes its presence known in woodlands and yards or at feeders by calling “querr” or “cherr-cherr” several times, or giving various chattering sounds. Its boisterous noises and colorful plumage add cheer to a cold winter’s day.
In February or March, the male red-bellied woodpecker begins seeking places to excavate cylindrical cavities—in dead trees or dead limbs of trees—and enticing a female to mate and lay eggs, which happens in late March and early April.
As with many birds, red-bellied woodpeckers will nest in the same location year after year. The male typically builds a new cavity—often in the same tree, near the old one—each season. The nest cavity is from 10 to 14 inches deep and usually built on a limb (as opposed to the trunk). The female lays four to five white eggs each season, and both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days and take care of the nestlings, which fledge in another 24 to 27 days.
Numbers of this beautiful, common bird have grown across most of its range over the past 50 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Once most common and found mostly in central and southern Illinois, it has expanded its range northward in the state in the past century, including into northern Illinois, where it had been decidedly rare in the early twentieth century.