Not too long ago, curled-up flower buds bore the burden of snow. These buds held the promise of better things to come.
When the long-awaited sun finally came out, the unfurling of one particular kind of flower was the definitive declaration of spring -- the wild geranium.
Wild geranium is one of the highlights of the woodland flora right now, in full bloom in many forest preserves. It grows in neat clumps interspersed with violets, bloodroot, trillium, and waterleaf.
It's important to note that the wild geranium is not your grandma-variety geranium. It's a distant cousin of the typical potted geraniums sold in garden stores. The latter are technically called Pelargonium, and they originally hail from South Africa. The wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) is a native Illinois wildflower of open woods and savannas.
The distinctive leaves set wild geranium apart from its woodland neighbors. The leaves are from four to six inches across and deeply divided. Overall, the shape is like the palm of your hand. The foliage is bold but not overbearing.
Each geranium flower is a work of art. You can spot the splashes of lavender born on long flower stalks. Each bouquet is made of perfectly symmetrical, five-petaled flowers. The intricate, delicate blossoms are well worth getting on your hands and knees to examine. Close up, you'll see that the light purple to lavender petals are lined with darker purple streaks, or veins. In the middle of the circle of petals there's a thick, central green stalk surrounded by a ring of plate-like structures atop translucent stalks. The stalk in the middle is the female part of the plant. The top of this curls open in three parts which receives pollen. The ring of surrounding structures comprises the male parts, which produce pollen.
The symmetry, the sculpture, and the colors of the wild geranium are breathtakingly beautiful. While aesthetically pleasing to us, the whole shebang ultimately serves to attract insects. Why attract insects? To move the all-important pollen around.
Out of curiosity, I parked myself near a cluster of wild geranium on a sunny day last week to watch the pollinators. I waited and watched, and waited some more. A tiny hover fly arrived. It tarried for a few quick seconds before it was displaced by an enormous bumblebee who grappled with the petals in a clumsy attempt to hang on. The bumblebee buzzed off, and in the course of a few minutes several other species of native bees stopped by. Each and every one paused just long enough for a geranium julep -- which seemed like an attractive treat to me in that hot sun. The insects didn't stay long, and off they went on their appointed rounds, dizzy with drink and powdered with pollen.
The goal of pollination, of course, is to produce seeds for the next generation of wildflowers. In the case of wild geranium, the seeds are packaged in an elongated fruit that looks remotely like a bird's beak. Hence, one of the common names for this plant is crane's-bill. The one-inch long structure is hygroscopic, which means that it's sensitive to changes in humidity. Alternating moisture and dryness causes the fruit to split open, curl back, and release tiny seeds.
Wild geranium was well known by indigenous people who put it to good use as a medicinal plant. The plant endured in folk medicine after European settlement. Different forms of the plant were used as a mouth wash for oral sores and toothaches. Wild geranium was also known to have astringent properties. Poultices and decoctions of the roots were used to improve the digestive system and to "clean out the innards," according to Robert Moerman in his book, "Native American Ethnobotany."
The most curious use I've read is that of the Iroquois. Moerman wrote that the Iroquois put wild geranium root " in victim's tea to counteract a love medicine."
Aphrodisiac, anti-aphrodisiac or just plain pretty, wild geranium is a plant of multiple qualities. It's a native wildflower you definitely should see in person to appreciate. Walk any of the wooded trails in the forest preserves and you're sure to find it.
For a map of the forest preserves and a list of upcoming nature walks, visit kaneforest.com.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.