Chasing Prairie Dragonflies

“Spring comes–the dragonfly is back–on its path.”—Ken Tennessen

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June is halfway over, and what a spectacular show she’s giving us on the prairie! Everywhere you look, pale purple coneflowers bloom in profusion.

Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida).

Spiderwort pairs with northern bedstraw.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) and northern bedstraw (Galium boreale)

Purple milkweed opens, attracting a little green pollinator.

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens).

And sundrops! This year, there is a plethora (or should I say “oenothera?”) of these bright wildflowers splashed across the prairie like spilled sunlight.

Sundrops (Oenothera pilosella).

Butterflies are everywhere among the prairie wildflowers.

Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on non-native red clover (Trifolium pratense).

So many wildflowers! And yet. Where do I find myself on today’s hike? Down in the sluggish, slow-moving prairie stream.

Willoway Brook.

Why?

Willoway Brook reflections.

Today, I’m chasing dragonflies.

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).

The stream is a hotbed of dragonfly and damselfly activity. As I don my hip waders and slosh in, the ebony jewelwing damselflies flutter up around me like black velvet confetti.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata).

It’s understandable if you mistake the ebony jewelwings for black butterflies, as I used to do. Those wings!

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata).

Certainly the American rubyspot damselfly might be mistaken for some otherworldly exotic insect. It’s difficult to believe they are so common here in Illinois streams. They are gorgeous from the front, with their coppery thoraxes and cherry Koolaid-colored wing patch…

American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana).

…or from the back, with the clear focus on their shimmery abdomen and wings, shot with metallic gold.

American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana).

Even though both species are territorial, in today’s crowded stream conditions they seem to have struck a truce.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) and American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana).

I count almost 50 of each species. Even in these numbers, the rubyspots and the jewelwings aren’t as prolific as the stream bluets, which are floating by the dozens like tiny slender blimps across the surface of the stream.

Male and female stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans).

This tandem pair above pauses on a floating leaf mat. “Tandem” means the male uses his claspers to grip the female behind her eyes, part of their mating ritual. From this position, if she’s willing, they will move to the “wheel,” and he will fertilize her eggs. Looks like a heart, doesn’t it?

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagama exsulans) in the wheel position.

I count, and count, and count, and quit at around 80 stream bluets. Everywhere, more damselflies appear in the tallgrass along the shoreline at eye level.

Stream bluet damselfly (Enallagma exsulans).

Over here, a variable dancer—sometimes called “violet dancer” —another abundant member of this prairie stream community.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea).

Ordinary? Maybe. But that purple coloration never fails to delight.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea).

From a nearby rock, a powdered dancer gives me the eye.

Powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta).

So many! Powdered dancers alone; powdered dancer damselflies in tandem. An ancient ritual, ensuring that more damselflies will arrive to fly this stream for years to come.

Male and female powdered dancer damselflies (Argia moesta).

As I’m counting the powdered dancers and stream bluets, I look up to see a solitary dragonfly, perched on a twig in the middle of the stream.

Four-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata).

It’s a four-spotted skimmer! Although I’ve seen them up north, I’ve never seen them here in my 16 years of Illinois dragonfly monitoring. The four-spotted skimmer is a circumpolar dragonfly species, also found in Africa, Japan, and Europe as well as North America. I love the gold threaded through the leading edge of the wings.

Four-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata)

I admire it for a while, then continue counting. On one side of the stream, discovery and delight! On the other, disaster. The much-awaited thunderstorm and downpour Sunday here that helped alleviate severe drought is likely responsible for some of the casualties I see in the water. An ebony jewelwing —one of several damsels—floats in the stream debris.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata).

Danger lurks everywhere for odonates. Other creatures wait in the shallows, hoping to snag an unwary dragon or damsel for a morsel of lunch.

American bullfrog ( Lithobates catesbeianus).

Nature is a tough gig.

I fish a few waterlogged damselflies out of the stream to dry, but they are too far gone to survive. Dragonflies and damselflies in my part of the world, no matter how skilled they are at survival, may only fly for a few weeks — or a few minutes, if they are eaten by fish or frogs or drowned like these were. Their lives are short. As ours may be.

12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella).

There are no guarantees. It makes sense, then, to appreciate every minute we have. And to take time to pay attention…

Stream bluet damselfly (Enallagma exsulans).

…even to insects in a June prairie stream.

Why not go for a hike and see the prairie this week?

Who knows what you’ll discover.

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The opening quote is from Kenn Tennessen’s haiku “Spring Comes” from his book with co-author Scott King, Dragonfly Haiku, from Red Dragonfly Press (2016).

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All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy for some fun online dragonfly programs and classes this summer!

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Three Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

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June is underway, throwing curveballs. How about a 90 degree-plus day? A little severe drought, followed by the promise of thunderstorms? The prairie yawns. No problem.

Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) and other species on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is both fragile and resilient; broken and strong. Over years it has almost vanished, but now, with the help of volunteers and stewards, we’re seeing more prairies planted and prairie remnants cared for. Even though we can’t replicate the original remnant prairies we’ve lost, it’s a start. In June, these prairies are full of marvels. As the month unfolds, wonders unfold as well. Here are three reasons to go for a hike this week and see some of these wonders for yourself.

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1) Discover who has been spitting on the prairie plants: You’ve seen it–gobs of gooey bubbles on prairie wildflower stems and leaves. This is not hiker residue! It’s a sign of the spittlebug. As the insect nymph feeds on plant sap, it blows bubbles to form a protective froth that keeps it hidden from predators. The bubbles also serve as insulation against temperature swings and keep the spittlebug moist during times of drought.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In my part of the tallgrass prairie region, I discover, our species is the “meadow spittlebug” Philaenus spumarius. You might also hear folks call them “froghoppers.” The bubbles are composed of air mixed with excess sap, which the nymph blows out its… er…. backside. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison, the tiny insect can blow out as many as 80 bubbles a minute! That’s a lot of bubbles.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

If you don’t want spittlebugs on your garden prairie plants, the Illinois Extension suggests hosing them off. It will slow the little bubble-makers down a little—but of course, they’ll still hang around. . In my backyard prairie patch, I’ve never had enough of them to worry much. I enjoy seeing these “tiny bubbles” (sing it with me!) on the prairie, and thinking about yet another unusual and memorable citizen of the diverse prairie community.

Dewdrop on unknown grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

2) Frequent Fliers are Out: Skippers, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are showing up in larger numbers now on the prairie. I’ve had my Illinois skipper ID book out for the first time this year, trying to ID some orange-tan look-alikes. This one appears to be the “Hobomok Skipper”, although I’m never 100 percent sure with these little critters.

Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok) on red clover (Trifolium pratense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I have more ID confidence with the female common whitetail dragonfly; a frequent sighting on the prairie in June.

Common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ditto for the first calico pennants, one of my favorite prairie fliers.

Calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even though the male eastern forktails are one of the most numerous damselflies in the Chicago region, they always awe me with their bright blue abdominal tip; their vibrant neon green thorax stripes. And those eyes and eyespots! “The better to see you with”—indeed!

Male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

3) New wildflowers open each day: I know I keep saying it each week — but there are so many new blooms on the prairie to discover! Seeing the first pale purple coneflower on my workday June 1 was a great way to usher in the first day of meteorological summer. Have you seen them yet?

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I enjoy the different prairie pairings, such as the way the giant prairie dock leaf mingles with this not-yet-blooming pale purple coneflower.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And I wonder. Why do the stems of the pale purple coneflower twist and turn? One of my prairie volunteers asked me this question—and—I have no idea! But I love the sense of motion they bring to the tallgrass; almost as if they were swaying underwater.

Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They seem to be dancing to some unheard music that only coneflowers can hear. If you picked a song for coneflowers to dance to, what would it be?

Insects and spiders have been hard at work, doing June tasks on the prairie. How did this spider capture a golden alexanders plant so completely? I’ve been on this particular prairie for more than two decades, and have never seen a weaving quite like this one.

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

One of the joys of the June prairie is finding the panic grass in full “bloom.”

One of the panic grasses (Dichanathelium sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And these “bugs” and blooms are only a few of the wonders unfolding. The grasses are complex—and already, making their presence felt among the wildflowers.

Squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Spending time on the prairie—walking it in all weathers, touching the leaves, admiring the wildflowers and grasses, marveling at the spiders and insects — is a way to come into relationship with a small part of the natural world. As one of many volunteers who love and care for this prairie through acts of restoration, I feel satisfaction helping heal a system that has been broken.

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus),Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And, as I hike, I find that the prairie helps heal some of what has been broken in me.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Good reasons—all of them—to go for a hike on the June prairie.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer (1953-) is the author of the bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass. My favorite of her books is Gathering Moss. If you haven’t read both books, you’re in for a treat.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, to poetry, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden witnew eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST–Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies:Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

The Prairie in Early June

When the soul lies down in that grass; the world is too full to talk about.” — Rumi

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Hello, June!! By the meteorological calendar, June 1 is also the first day of summer, although many of us will hold out for the “astronomical summer” date or solstice, June 20.

Bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

By any reckoning, it’s a new season on the prairie. Aldo Leopold wrote, “In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” I want to “heed” them all! But how to choose what to see? A hundred species—animal, vegetable, mineral—clamor for attention. The bumblebee pushing its way into the American vetch blossom over here….

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on American vetch (Vicia americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…or the tiny immature female eastern forktail damselfly, clinging to a grass blade…

Immature female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…or the insect hiding in the spiderwort. Sort of ironic. (Even if spiders aren’t insects.)

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) with unknown insect, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You can’t miss the red-winged blackbird, its wing tattooed with floral shadows.

Redwinged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What a racket he makes! No doubt a nest is nearby. Nearly everyone has a story about being dive-bombed by a protective red-winged “daddy” bird. I give him plenty of space.

Blooms, blooms. It’s a wildflower extravaganza.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Marvel at the architecture of stem, leaf, and flower.

Possibly upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Each bloom is a wonder.

Pasture rose (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The colorless wildflowers…

Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…are no less beautiful than the colorful ones.

Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look for the unusual, in structure and hue.

Late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), sometimes called wild coffee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In each stage of bud and bloom is the opportunity to see a familiar wildflower with new eyes.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The buds may seem more intriguing than the blooms.

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many wildflowers are easy to miss. Unless you slow down and pay attention.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I love the infinite variety of wildflowers just past their prime; the tension between what has been, and what is yet to come.

Shooting star (Dodacatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The transitions are as delightful as the blooms themselves…and sometimes more so.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Watch for the flowers to go to seed, ready to set sail on the slightest puff of wind.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just think! Each seed holds the secrets of next year’s prairie.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum) with shadow of prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Change is happening, so fast that I can’t keep up with it.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Standing on the threshold of June, anything seems possible.

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Rumi (1207-1273) was a scholar, poet, and theologian born in what is today known as Afghanistan. The opening quote is from his poem, “A Great Wagon.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

Plant a Little Prairie

“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy

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You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.

I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.

Summer in the backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.

Raised flower and vegetable bed, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.

I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) growing up through the prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.

Great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.

Great blue lobelia (Cardinalis siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper butterfly (Polites peckius), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bullfrogs like it, too.

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) or beebalm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.

Poppies (Papaver orientale), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis sp.), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.

We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.

I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.

12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.

One plant at a time.

*****

Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

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Join Cindy for a program or a class online!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

The Many May Delights of Prairie and Woods

“Let all thy joys be as the month of May”—Francis Quarles

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Is there a more beautiful time in the Midwest than mid-May?

It’s been a week for the birds. Migrating birds, that is. In the woods, the great crested flycatcher calls. Such a distinctive voice!

Great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

I’ve read that the great crested flycatcher weaves unusual items into its nest: snakeskin, cellophane, plastic wrappers. Wouldn’t I love to spot one of those nests! This is the first great crested flycatcher I’ve ever seen. How did I miss it all these years? Likely I was busy looking down, not up: at the wildflowers.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphyllagone) with seed capsule, Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Seeing the flycatcher is one of the wonderful benefits of hiking with knowledgeable birding friends. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been looking at wildflowers, and likely missed it.

Probably white baneberry or doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

In his poem The May Magnificant, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Question: What is Spring–Growth in everything–Flesh and fleece; fur and feather; Grass and green world altogether… .” As we hike through the green, green, green woods, we discover a single, random feather. Our birding friends tell us it may be a young owlet’s. I would love to know how it came to be here along the trail.

Young owlet feather, Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

High in a tree, an indigo bunting surprises us. I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description of the bunting; “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), Norris Woods Nature Preseve, St. Charles, IL.

Most of the “blues” I see in the bird world belong to the blue jays that stop by my feeder. This past week, there’s been the color orange as well—the Baltimore orioles who love the grape jelly and orange halves we put out for them.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This weekend, while I listened to the birds at the feeders, I dug newly-purchased prairie seedlings into my prairie patch. White wild indigo.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meadow rue.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie coreopsis. Great angelica. Prairie smoke. Anise hyssop. So many plants! When I ordered earlier this season, where did I imagine I could put them all? At the end of the day—a lonnnnng planting day—every plant had a seat in the prairie. Now it’s up to them and the weather.

As I turned on the hose to wash the dirt from my hands, I heard the first American toad of the year in our little pond. I turned the water back off to listen. Have you ever heard the American toad? No? You can hear it here. At night, when we crack open our bedroom window for the breeze, the sound can be deafening. In the forest preserve wetlands, lakes, and ponds, the American toad trillllllllll is a warm weather soundtrack for our hikes.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Birds! Toads. Plants. Wildflowers. The writer Ellis Peters wrote, “Every spring is a perpetual astonishment.” It’s difficult to know where to look. So much is happening on the prairies and in the woodlands. How can I choose where to hike? And so much is happening, right under my nose, here in my yard!

Near my prairie patch, the pawpaw tree is in bloom. Such an unusual flower color! That brownish-maroon reminds me of wild ginger blooms. For fun, I try to match the flower color to a lipstick shade. The closest I find is “Cherry Cocoa” or maybe, “Love in Maroon.” What do you think?

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) tree in bloom, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterflies pass me as I examine the pawpaw flowers. Cabbage white butterflies showed up early this spring, stopping to lay a few eggs on my overwintered kale and kohlrabi. I don’t grudge them a few leaves. Especially since this year’s overwintered crop is a bonus. A gift to share.

Overwintered kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group) and kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea, Gongylodes group) going to seed, Cindy’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I saw my first tiger swallowtail last week, and a few friends have reported monarchs. Pearl crescent butterflies pass through the prairies and savannas, taking a moment to pause and let me admire their bright colors. They’re a common sight, and will continue to be throughout the summer. But no less delightful, for being so ubiquitous.

Pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

The pearl crescent butterflies enjoy a wide variety of flowers. There are plenty of blooms to choose from in the middle of May. Wild geraniums are still going strong on the prairies and in the woodlands. Is it my imagination, or are they lingering longer this year? Maybe it’s the cool weather?

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2017)

I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Prairie, woodland, and savanna spring wildflowers are best seen up close.

Examining the wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then, when something unusual comes along, you’ll have a ringside seat.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) on wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

And—you’ll thank your lucky stars—so grateful and glad that you went for a hike in the middle of May.

*****

The opening quote is by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), an English poet. One of his descendants was the poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a celebrated poet and author.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to Tricia Lowery and John Heneghan for the afternoon hike, the gift of the prairie plants, and help with spotting wonderful flying critters this week.

Wild and Wonderful Prairie Wildflowers

“I perhaps owe having becoming a painter to flowers.” –Claude Monet

*****

Everywhere you look on the prairies and savannas in mid-May, there’s magic.

Starry false Solomon’s seal (Smileacina stellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So many wild and wonderful wildflowers.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Let’s go for a hike and take a look.

The shooting star are scattered across the prairie, pretty in pink.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You might find a better way to spend an hour than to sit and watch the shooting star gently bowing in the breeze. Maybe.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018).

Or maybe not. Even the leaves are worth a second look.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The wild hyacinth opens its blooms from the bottom up.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Its light scent is difficult to catch. Unless you get down on your knees and inhale.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Try it. You might want to stay there for a while, just enjoying the view.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schuleniberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

For fragrance, consider the common valerian. Native Americans cooked the tap root as a vegetable, which supposedly has “a strong and remarkably peculiar taste and odor.”

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I enjoy it for the bands of silver hairs that outline the leaves like a very sharp, white pencil.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Its neighbor on the prairie, wood betony, was once valued as a love charm. It spins its blooms across the prairie; a dizzy showstopper.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wood betony’s newly emerged deep red and green leaves are almost as pretty as the flowers, and were eaten by certain Native American tribes. I love discovering wood betony paired with hoary puccoon.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Those bright citrus-y colors! Eye-popping.

In some years, when you’re lucky enough to see the small white lady’s slipper orchid…

Small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region, Illinois.

… you are astonished. And then you ask yourself—How many other wildflower marvels are waiting to be discovered that we’ve missed? Often, right under our noses.

Large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

So many unusual prairie wildflowers. Even the smallest and least colorful are tiny packages of wonder.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

They’ll be gone soon.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Why not go look now?

Experience the magic for yourself.

*****

Claude Monet (1840-1926), whose quote begins this post, was a French painter and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. He valued “impressions” of nature, and turned the art world upside down with his paintings incorporating loose brush strokes and a feeling of light. Check out his series of water lilies paintings here.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class online!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Three Reasons to Hike the May Prairie

“…And life revives, and blossoms once again.” —Emily Pauline Johnson

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How can you describe the prairie in early May? So much is happening! New wildflowers open every minute. A different insect emerges. Bumblebees buzz. Rain falls. Strong winds ripple the new grass blades and foliage. A few dragonflies cruise by, sampling the warmer air and looking for love along the prairie streams and pond edges.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

The prairie is awake. So much jazz and motion and life! Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairies and prairie savannas this month and see what’s unfolding.

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  1. Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers: The spring prairie wildflowers have arrived. Look around the savanna and the prairie edges, and you’ll spot the prairie trillium. The deep wine petals are unmistakable.
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, Il.

Maybe you learned this trillium by a different name, such as “wake robin” or “bloody butcher” or even “bloody noses” (as one of my friends tells me he called it as a child). By any name, it’s one of the touchstones of spring. The dappled leaves are camouflage against deer, which eat the leaves and flowers. It’s a common wildflower which occurs in every Illinois county.

It’s tougher to spot the jack in the pulpit; sometimes pale green, sometimes reddish green. Can you find “Jack” under the spathe or hood (the “pulpit?”)

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The 20th century modernist Georgia O’Keeffe created a series of six paintings based on this unusual plant, although she is better known for her work with flowers, animal skulls, skyscrapers, and the landscape of the American southwest. What a great way to immortalize this curious flower!

Not far away in the open sunshine, a single pussytoes plant reminds me of a bundle of Q-tips. It is striking when seen alone…

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…or in a small colony.

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2020).

Such strange little flowers, with their feathery antenna-like “blooms!” Another white wildflower, Comandra umbellata, may not be as strange looking, but its common name “bastard toadflax” always gets the attention of my wildflower students.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

Bastard toadflax is the only plant in its genus, and it has a certain nostalgia for me. When I first began volunteering on the prairie more than two decades ago, I saw this tiny flower while I was bent over weeding. Puzzled, I asked Marj, an older volunteer, for the ID. She laughed. “Oh that!” Then she told me the name, and made me laugh. Marj is gone now, but I always think of her mentoring a newbie volunteer whenever the toadflax blooms.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

These tiny wildflowers are just a hint of what’s out there. And so much more is on the way!

2. Signs of Bird Life: Mornings in May are all about birdsong. In the dawn light, I wake to robins chattering their joy, looking forward to the hours ahead. The first oriole showed up at my backyard feeder this morning, and the juncos-–those somber yet jaunty northerly birds, cloaked in nun-like colors–have disappeared, doubtless to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada.

On the newly greening prairie, killdeer find the perfect nesting spots in the exposed gravel after the burn. Their signature calls are a soundtrack for any hike in May.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Have you seen them? No? Seeing the killdeer and listening to its heart-tugging, high-pitched cry is reason enough to get outside on the prairie. There is something elemental; something primal, about this particular bird call that always makes me think “spring!”

Other birds leave clues to their presence. Some feathers are breathtakingly soft, subtle.

Unknown feather (perhaps red-tailed hawk? (Buteo jamaicensis)) or something big!), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This feather is a startling shaft of bright color.

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) feather, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I leave the feathers where I find them, even as I wonder what stories they hold. Imagine a bird’s-eye view of the life of the prairie. Supposedly, northern flickers may live up to nine years; red-tailed hawks may live up to 15 years in the wild. What glorious years those must be, spent so high in the sky!

3. The Fragrance of Spring Prairie: I don’t wear perfume, but if you could bottle the smell of the prairie in May, it’s a scent I’d gladly wear. The prairie in May smells like the drifts of wild blue phlox edging the savanna…

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

…a sweet scent, but not cloyingly so. Fresh. Light.

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.(2017)

The fragrance of phlox mixes with the green chlorophyll scent of countless numbers of growing prairie plants and their cradle of damp earth. Inhale. That smell! It’s life itself. Can you feel your heart expand? Do you feel your spirits suddenly lift?

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So much joy. You want to shout!

This is spring.

You are on the prairie.

Sunset, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Isn’t it a wonder to be alive?

******

The opening quote is from a poem, “Fire-Flowers” by Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who also published under her Mohawk name Tekahionwake. Born on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West, she was an artist, performer, and poet who authored three collections of poetry, including Flint and Feather (1912). Grateful thanks to Dan Haase who introduced me to this poet.

******

Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to John Heneghan for his help with bird feather ID this week!

A Tallgrass Prairie Morning

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit

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High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.

Nachusa Grasslands at the end of April, Franklin Grove, IL.

Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.

Sand phlox (Phlox bifida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.

New growth on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?

Unknown bee covered with pollen, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.

Possibly an Andrena bee, or miner’s bee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.

Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).

If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?

A trout lily (Erythronium albidum) with an insect visitor, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, LIsle, IL.

A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.

Wild coffee or horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Time to head home and pour a mug.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, at the end of April.

A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.

Compass Plants (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Ruffles of purple meadow rue.

Purple Meadow Rue (Thalyctrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.

Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.” 

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2015)

Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.

In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!

Animal burrow and remnants of a pasque flower clump, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.

During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.

Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.

Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.

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Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.

***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

A Prairie Hike at Kankakee Sands

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs

******

Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!

We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.

Rainy day at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.

Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.

Hiking trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.

Bison viewing directions, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.

Bison overlook trail, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.

Road through Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And then, there they are.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.

But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.

Driving through the rain near Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.

Entrance to Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.

Trail through Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.

Cleft phlox (Phlox bifida), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.

Unknown lichen, Conrad Station Nature Preserve, Morocco, IN.

The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Conrad Station Savanna, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.

An afternoon well spent.

*****

John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.

*****

Join Cindy for an upcoming program!

Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick LookThursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.