October Golden-leaved Plant Community

 A group of unusual plants  grows along the south end of the  savanna in Potawatomi Park that is located between the  parkbuilding and the Fox River.  Shaded by a gigantic Linden or Basswood (Tilia americana) tree, the low ground never completely dries out.

PawPaw at a distance

Paw Paw at a distance

pawpaw 3

The Paw Paw  (Asimina triloba) trees are  the most exotic looking of the unusual grouping.  A small tree, it grows up to 20’ tall.   While It will grow in mesic or wet woods, in deep moist alluvial soils it will form large colonies.  Its stupendous leaves turn a luminous gold in fall, ravishing  when seen against the dark coffee brown bark of the trunk and branches.

I must admit I have never seen it in flower in May or fruit in August, but I understand  both events are spectacular.  I will put it on my calendar for next year.  How many of you have seen these phenomena?

The Chicago area is the northern range of PawPaw.  Further south, it is grown for its fruit production.

Arailia racemosa

Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) appears to be a shrub–it grows up to 6‘ tall and around–but it is an herbaceous plant.  Rare in the wild, it is found in rich, springy woods.  It blooms profusely  in July, followed by striking clusters of berries in August and September.  The dazzling golden fall foliage in October lasts into November, giving Spikenard star power for three seasons.

Underplant these plants with Wild Ginger, Solomon’s Seal, Blue-stemmed Goldenrod,  Big Merrybells, and Carex sprengellii.



Spicebush  (Lindera benzoin) is marginally hardy west of Chicago away from the lake.  i planted one many years ago;  the top half winter-killed the first winter–the second winter finished it off.  In nature, it is found with the above mentioned plants in the well-shaded understory of wet to mesic woods.

Spectacular in its golden fall dress, it has other seasonal attributes, as well.  In earliest spring, in April, dense clusters of tiny yellow blossoms appear before the leaves; then in mid-September, profuse shiny red berries appear, a favorite of myriad birds.  It will grow up to 10’ tall and around.

palm sedge

Plant Carex muskingumensis at its feet or nearby.  A  bed of Ostrich Fern (Pteretis pensylvanica) grows nearby, also; but they turn brown at the first frost.  .

Another small tree with golden leaves awaits us in the savanna on higher ground.

witch hazel 10

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is an open, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, up to 18’ tall.  Its rounded, oblong leaves turn to a luminous gold in the fall, while a stunning surprise waits for us in November. (stay tuned)   It is common in the high dune area, in rich woods, and the slopes of ravines on the west side of Lake Michigan.   it’s easily obtainable in commerce.

golden solomon's seal

The golden autumn leaves of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum)  add charm and grace to the floor of the savanna.

All these plants are native to mesic or wet woods.  Do any of them grow near you or do you grow any of them yourselves?  Please share.



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  1. Pat Glen October 30, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    Pat, you are such an inspiration to those of us who have read your blog, attended your class at ECC and love your book. It is wonderful to learn of this recognition.. AND it will allow you to reach many more would be native plant gardeners.

    I am learning much about the flora and fauna of northern Door Co and loving it, but I do miss the prairies.


    • Pat Hill October 30, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

      Thank you so much, Pat.

      I hope I can hitch a ride with June sometime to visit you in Door County–one of my favorite places, ever.

  2. Suzanne Massion October 30, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    I adore my Witch Hazel shrubs. Some are yellow leaved right now, some have already turned brownish and some have that November surprise you mention. (I won’t give it away here) I used to envy the Solomon’s Seal growing on farmer Duchaj’s side of the fence. A few years back it jumped the fence (with my help) and I find it everywhere. Those big yellow leaves, oh my!

  3. Mary Alice Masonick October 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    Beautiful images and descriptions, Pat!

  4. Jason October 31, 2015 at 10:40 am #

    Glad to say I have all of these except the paw paw. I’ll make a point of watching my witch hazel in November. It’s in an out of the way spot and I sometimes forget that it’s there.

    • PatHill November 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

      I planted Witch hazel twice–it didn’t thrive either time. I gave them away and they did fine in a new environment. I think that they were not compatible with the Black Walnut.

  5. Pat November 8, 2015 at 7:35 am #

    My neighbor’s Paw Paw’s fruited this year which I understand is unusual, due to a longer season of growth. There is a fairly large Paw Paw patch in Hoover Forest Preserve near Yorkville. Usually I see them in heavily shaded moist areas forming colonies, no fruit of course due to the shade. How they get there always seems a mystery.

    It is a joy for me to see plants – like Witchhazel – in their natural environments. It is quite common in many places I trail ride such as Mattheisson, Kickapoo Valley Reserve and the Shawnee in southern Illinois.

  6. Pat November 8, 2015 at 7:40 am #

    I first spotted Spicebush trail riding in the Ozarks – how exciting that was! The fruit was unmistakable and the lovely golden leaves gave it away in low lying areas along creeks. I have never seen it in northern Illinois.

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