Of whip-poor-wills and sand prairie phlox

By Alyssa Nyberg

Sand Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa) in bloom. Photo courtesy of Illinoiswildflowers.info.
Sand Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa) in bloom. Photo courtesy of Illinoiswildflowers.info.

Tonight, as I make the final edits to this article on sand prairie phlox, a whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) sings softly outside my window. The repetitive song is music of hope to me. Whip-poor-will populations have declined precipitously in the last 50 years, and many folks no longer hear whip-poor-wills singing in their woodlots. We, too, stopped hearing whip-poor-wills in our own woods. After a few years of thinning the shrubs and trees in our woods, we have been hearing whip-poor-wills calling again. Hearing its song gives me hope for the future of whip-poor-wills and for the floral quest I will embark upon in the morning: seeing the sand prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) in bloom.

It’s been a full year since I have enjoyed the glory of the sand prairie phlox and I am eager to see its bloom this spring. Over the past few days I have been searching for it, but without the vibrant pink bloom to catch my eye, I find the plant to be elusive. It’s a slender plant only one to two feet tall. The leaves are long and narrow, roughly three and a half inches long. They grow, sparingly, on opposite sides of the stem.  Both the leaves and stem are covered in soft, fine hairs which sparkle in the sunlight.

The flowers are something to behold. Each individual flower is beauty itself: a fragrant pink or purple flower, roughly half of an inch across, with five petals stretching out from a long floral tube. There are multiple flowers on each flowering stalk and several flowering stalks per plant.  So magnificent and striking are phlox in bloom, that they were given their name from the Greek word meaning “flame.” Luckily, the flowers are long-lasting, so we can enjoy the blooms from May to early August.

Deep inside the center of each flower is sweet nectar that is prized by insects. Only those insects with long tongues like butterflies, moths and long-tongued bees are lucky enough to reach the nectar. The state endangered phlox moth (Schinia Indiana) depends upon the nectar for survival and the flowers too. Its larva feed solely upon the flowers of sand prairie phlox. No sand prairie phlox, no phlox moth. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to see the phlox moth tomorrow too; if so, it will be a first for me. That call of the whip-poor-will tonight is making me ever so hopeful for many things.

Sand prairie phlox grows here in our Northwest Indiana prairies and black oak savannas. At Conrad Station Savanna, Conservancy staff has worked diligently to remove small understory shrubs and saplings to allow more sunlight to reach the ground. The increased sunlight has resulted in fantastic shows of phlox. Inspired by this success, my husband and I cleared honeysuckle and cherry trees from our own woods; the following year we too had phlox and unexpectedly, the whip-poor-will again.

Now at the end of this article and ready to climb into bed, I can still hear the whip-poor-will sing on, as he likely will through the night. For those unaccustomed to a night in the country, his call is a one-way ticket to a sleepless night. But for me, his call in an inspiration that lulls me to sleep with visions and hopes of finding sand prairie phlox in bloom in the morn.


The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.


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