On a recent trek through Barrington's Flint Creek Savannah, students were on a mission: to spot flowers and grasses that are native to Illinois' rich prairie soil.
Led by college interns spending the summer with Citizens for Conservation, these would-be botanists identified patches of lavender-colored bee balm, purple-spiked pickerel weed and water lilies in bloom.
They also spotted a rare group of orange blossoms of Turk's cap lily, not often found in the 121-acre savanna.
"I think the kids enjoy being outside and getting to see some of the things they learn about in class," said Stephanie LoCasto of Lake Zurich, one of the college interns. "I mean how many times do you get to go out into the prairie?"
It was all part of the "Botany on the Prairie" program, one in a series of hands-on outings for students that immerses them in the CFC's mission of restoring native wetlands and prairies -- and growing the next generation of conservationists.
Supporting college interns is an extension of that mission.
"The interns play an integral part in our restoration efforts," says Tom Crosh of Barrington, one of the group's many volunteers. "We can only lead volunteers in our restoration efforts two times a week, so we really rely on the interns to get a lot of the important work done during the summer months."
Leading students through prairies, searching for native flowers was a welcome break from their hot summer tasks of gathering native seeds, planting, and rooting out nonnative buckthorn.
Last week, they spent one day harvesting shoot star seeds from the savanna and bringing them back to be dried and preserved.
"Sometimes, we're sweating buckets out there," Lo Casto says, pointing to the invasive sweetclover and yellow parsnips they cleared on Saturday, "but it's nice to see the results. We can actually see the difference."
Crosh says this year he drew more than 50 college students who applied for the paid internships. Of those, he accepted four, who all are majoring in environmental science.
Besides LoCasto, an environmental science major at the University of Dubuque; they include Mitchell Groenhof of Carpentersville, who is majoring in forestry ecosystem restoration and management at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point; Joel Rangel of Ingleside, a resource conservation major at the University of Montana; and Katherine Gokey of Owen, Wis., a reclamation major at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville.
"Growing up, I always liked being outdoors," Lo Casto says. "I never knew what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be outside."
Being an environmental science major, she concedes, can take many directions. But spending her summer helping to restore native prairies and wetlands, has helped her narrow her choices.