Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard

****

Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.

*****

If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.

Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.

And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.

Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).

I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.

Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”

The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.

When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.

How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.

Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.

University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.

A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”

Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.

What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.

I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!

Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!

Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.

The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.

On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.

Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.

Too tired to read?

Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.

If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.

******

There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethic in previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.

Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie 2021

Prairie Literature 101

The Tallgrass Prairie: Annual Books Edition

A Year of Reading Prairie

The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.

Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.

Happy reading!

*****

The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.

*****

Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A Prairie Season on the Brink

“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger

******

Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.

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

The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.

Early morning, first snowfall, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.

Snow on prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), early morning, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…

Celery (Apium graveolens), Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.

Bok choy (Brassica rapa subspecies chinensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.

Rare irruption of common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) in March, 2022, feeding with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Jeff and I counted hundreds of redpolls congregating at a time.

A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…silver…

Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…bronze…

Cream gentian (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…dull aluminum and copper…

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…rust…

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

…steel…

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.

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

Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…looking forward to something new.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.

Sure, they can be rough.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But bring on the change.

Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.

****

The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.

*****

Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

****

Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.

Bison Hike at Kankakee Sands

“Even then, I sensed that the buffalo signaled something profound….”–Dan O’Brien

******

We followed the sandhill cranes south this weekend…

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and sun halo, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

…as we traveled to central Indiana. The morning skies were an ever-changing source of awe, from the moment we started our drive at sunrise…

Sunrise over the interstate, just outside DuPage County, IL (cell phone image).

…to the beautiful morning cloud formations over the corn fields of the northwestern corner of the Hoosier state.

Headed south down Interstate 65 in Indiana. (Cell phone photograph).

And a lunar eclipse! Still to come.

A favorite stop when we travel this way is Kankakee Sands in Indiana’s northwest corner. This past Saturday, we celebrated “National Bison Day” honoring our official United States mammal, so it seemed like a no-brainer to carve out a few extra miles to see if we could get a glimpse of this charismatic megafauna.

Bison viewing area, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Kankakee Sands is a beautiful mosaic of wetlands and prairie, part of a greater conservation effort that includes about 20,000 acres. Within its acres are 86 rare, threatened, and endangered species.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We don’t always see the bison when we stop, but this time, we were in luck.

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

What awe-inspiring creatures! Two young bison stuck close to their mama, while keeping an eye on us.

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

We watched another part of the herd run by in the distance. Bison can attain speeds of up to 35 mph. How can animals that can weigh more than 2,000 pounds move so quickly? What made them hurry to the other end of the prairie?

No idea. But they were fun to watch.

We took a few moments to walk the hiking trail at less-than-bison speed…

Trailhead at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

…and stretched our legs after the long car journey. From the trail, we could observe some of the prairie plants in their full fall glory.

Hiking the trails at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Little bluestem is at its peak.

Little bluestem (Schizachryrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What a glorious grass! Those rust hues. Those seeds, which spark the sunlight! It’s a lovely grass for home plantings, as well as on the larger landscape of the tallgrass prairie. I was reminded that I have three little bluestem plugs still waiting to be planted at home, sitting on my porch. Ha! Better get those in soon.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Tufted thistle swirled its seeds into the wind as we watched.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The wind had also broken off mullein’s tall spikes…

The non-native common or great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

The native—but weedy—seedheads of evening primrose swayed in the breezes.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the hill at the end of the trail, a tall tree, denuded of most of its leaves, loomed in the dying light. Very November-esque.

Tree at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

In the distance, white tailed deer mingled with the bison. They seemed content to share the prairie. Although we didn’t hear birdsong, we saw evidence of birds that were long gone south.

And then suddenly…a northern harrier cannonballed out of the grasses. Wow!

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We watched it soar over the prairie; a fast-moving blur. It was quickly lost in the dying light.

Northern harrier (Circus cyaneus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

While we were startled by the owl-like northern harrier, the mama bison and her young ones placidly grazed in the tallgrass. For them, it was just another part of a normal evening on the prairie.

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

What a peaceful scene, yet full of surprises. I felt myself relax. The prairie has a way of reminding me what contentment feels like.

The most difficult part of going to Kankakee Sands is making the decision to leave, and face the last leg of traffic entering Chicago. So much beautiful prairie here, all around. What an worth-while place to stop for a hike.

Dusk at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

On the drive home, closing out our Sunday, we watched an almost-full moon rise over the 34-acre Biesecker Prairie as we waited at a stoplight for the light to change in St. John, Indiana. The prairie is right at the intersection.

Almost-full moon rise over Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN (cell phone photo).

It was a sneak preview of the moon marvels ahead. Early this Tuesday morning, before we headed out to vote, we watched the “Beaver Blood Full Moon Total Lunar Eclipse” .

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse, 4:09 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It was worth setting the alarm for. Pretty spectacular.

Full Beaver Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse with stars, 4:58 am, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Bison. A lunar eclipse. Prairies. What a wonderful way to begin the week. Who knows what other treats are in store?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is from Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O’Brien (1966-). The New York Times notes O’Brien has a “keen and poetic eye” as he writes about his struggles to raise bison on a Black Hills ranch. Read more about his life and work here.

*****

Close out 2022 by Joining Cindy for a Class or Program

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. In-person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the garden club’s website here.


Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A very happy birthday to Trevor Dean Edmonson, site manager at Kankakee Sands, whose birthday is today! Thank you for the work you do!

November Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle

*****

What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.

Unknowns insects catch the light like snowflakes, with the native but aggressive Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) in the foreground, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairie ponds are our own version of Monet’s “Water Lily Pond.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

What an autumnal palette!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Subtle shadings in the grasses.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Bright pops of unexpected color.

Sulphur butterfly (Colias sp.) on the non-native red clover (Trifolium pratense), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

A few surprising fliers, late in the season.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So many different ways to see gold.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

An endless procession of color; from lemon to ochre to rust.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

You can see the season’s lateness in the skeletal trees, the lone bird’s nest devoid of its occupants.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Everywhere, seeds spill.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The last wildflowers are in bloom.

Asters (probably Symphyotrichum pilosum or lanceolatum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You might hear the red-winged blackbirds singing, high above the grasses.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

October passed in a blur.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.

What an exciting month to go for a hike!

***

The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

Those Spellbinding Tallgrass Trails

“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow

*******

It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL. Note the squiggly marks left by a leaf miner (possibly Stigmella intermedia or Caloptillia rhoifoliella), which becomes a moth at maturity.

Let’s go for hike and see.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.

Prairie kame (on the right), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.

Prairie kame, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.

Prairie kame interpretive sign, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.

Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…Indian grass…

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in foreground; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in background, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Bewitching big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.

Wildflowers, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…and be haunted by the memories…

Sugar maple leaves (Acer saccharum) on the prairie kame trail, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.

*****

The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.

*****

Upcoming Programs and Classes

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

Autumn on the Tallgrass Prairie

“But what pencil has wandered over the grander scenes of the North American prairie? …I have gazed upon all the varied loveliness of my own, fair, native land, from the rising sun to its setting, and in vain have tasked my fancy to imagine a fairer. — Edmund Flagg

******

Gray clouds slide across the sky. Low temperatures send us to our closets, looking for heavy sweaters and winter jackets.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’m tempted to stay inside. Duck out of any hiking.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But! Autumn is in full swing.

Native prairie and pollinator neighborhood planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Who would want to miss it?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

October loves to surprise us. One day, it’s all sunshine and warmth, the next, there’s a hint of the Midwest winter to come.

College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie this month, it’s all about the seeds. Fluffy seeds.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seeds in crackly coats.

Tall cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seeds soft as silk.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seeds with the promise of a new generation.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sure, there are still wildflowers in bloom.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And leaves full of color.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), College of DuPage Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Some leaves more beautiful than the flowers.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Forget the trees. The prairie stars in October’s fall color show.

College of DuPage, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a beautiful season to hike the tallgrass!

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), neighborhood planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Why not go see?

******

The opening quote is from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John T. Price (University of Iowa Press), from Edmund Flagg, who wrote about the Illinois prairie in 1838.

*****

Upcoming Programs and Classes

Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, Illinois. Closed event for members. For information on joining this garden club, please visit their website here.

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am)Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. Cindy will be broadcasting from Illinois. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

Three Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra

*****

Autumn settles in for the long haul. Carmine and gold kiss the green-leaved trees overnight. Overhead, cerulean blue skies dotted with puffs signal mercurial weather.

Mackerel sky, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We wake this weekend to a light, patchy frost.

Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioense) with frost on Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It zaps my basil and okra in the garden, but the zinnias…

Zinnias (Zinnia elegans ‘Cut and Come Again’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….and the kale don’t seem to mind too much.

Mixed kale (Brassica oleracea sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie planting shrugs it off.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What’s a little frost? No big deal. It’s all par for the season.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As the weather turns chilly, our hibernation instincts kick in. Put on a jacket and go for a walk? Or curl up with a book on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate? And yet, there are so many reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in October. Here’s a little motivation to get us up off the couch and outside this week.

1. That color! The prairie draws with a full box of crayons in October, everything from blues…

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…to golds that glow.

Carrion flower (Smilax sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A dash of lime.

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You might even discover autumn’s palette in a single leaf.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

2. Flights of Fancy. Sure, the pollinator season is winding down. But the prairie still hums with life. Common eastern bumblebees lift off from every wildflower.

Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late monarchs still cycle through the prairie and my garden. Hurry! Hurry.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum (2021).

Everything in the season says “It’s late!” An empty nest, invisible during the growing season, signals the transition. I think of an old poem by John Updike, “the year is old, the birds have flown… .” The prairie shifts gear from growth to senescence.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

3. Stunning Seeds. Next year’s prairie floats on the breezes.

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Other seeds wait to drop into the rich prairie soil.

Cream gentian (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The late summer prairie wildflowers are caught in the transition; some in seed, some in bloom, some still somewhere in between.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) with sky blue asters (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So much change! So much to see. And that’s just a taste of what’s waiting for you…

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…when you go for a hike on the October prairie.

******

The opening quote is from baseball great Yogi Berra (1925-2015), who was known for his “Yogi-isms.” Another one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”

*******

Join Cindy for a class or program this Autumn!

Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.

Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.

******

Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Click here to see what you can do to help persuade airport officials to preserve this important Illinois prairie remnant.

Beautiful Schulenberg Prairie Photo Exhibit! Local friends—don’t miss the MAPS special exhibit: “Seasons of the Schulenberg Prairie”, commemorating its 60th year. Sponsored by The Morton Arboretum from October 12-16. Free with Arboretum admission. For details, click here.

A Short Hike on a Prairie Kame

“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.” — Laurence Sterne

*****

Say “dry gravel prairie” and it doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But a visit to the Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve in October is a reminder of just how beautiful these gravel prairies can be.

Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

On arrival, I spend a few moments reading about the site.

Interpretive sign, Sauer Family Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

The hill is about 30 feet high, and according to the forest preserve, is “situated on the leading edge of the great glaciers that moved through and retreated from this area” more than 10,000 years ago. It’s a stunning interruption of the flat prairies and cornfields all around.

Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Listen! Crickets sing. Big bluestem and Indian grass sieve the wind.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

A “marsh hawk”—also known as the northern harrier—flies over, looking for mice.

Northern harrier (Circus hudsonius), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Planes from a nearby regional airport soar over too, their pilots looking for an afternoon’s adventure in the sky.

Plane over Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Other fliers hang out low in the tallgrass.

Eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Showy goldenrod bumps blooms with Canada goldenrod.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Sauer Family Prairie Kame/Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

The prairie brims with fresh flowers…

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

…and wildflowers going to seed.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

And such seeds!

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Watch out for rattlesnake master, with its bristling globes that prick inquisitive fingers.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Listen for white wild indigo, rattling its seedpods. What, no seeds inside? Tap a pod and watch the weevils spill out.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Crush the gray-headed coneflower seedheads. Inhale the lemony fragrance. Mmmm.

Gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

A broad-headed bug patrols the bush clover.

Broad-headed bug (iNaturalist suggests it is Alydus eurinus ) on round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame, Sugar Grove, IL.

Leadplant’s leaves catch the light, showing off the silvery hairs that give this plant its name.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

It’s my first prairie hike since I was unexpectedly sidelined six weeks ago. What a wonderful feeling, to be out on a tallgrass trail! What a gorgeous day to be outside.

Sky blue aster (Symphiotrichum oolentangiense), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

What a beautiful day to be alive.

******


Laurence Stern (1713-1768), whose quote opens today’s post, was a novelist and cleric whose work was included in 18th Century anti-slavery literature. He struggled with tuberculosis or “consumption” most of his life.


Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Gravel prairies are rare in Illinois. It’s not too late to Save Bell Bowl Prairie, an important gravel prairie remnant in Rockford slated for demolition by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Click here for simple things you can do to help protect this prairie from demolition.


Upcoming Programs this Autumn

Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.

Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.

Thanks to John Heneghan for the Northern Harrier identification in this week’s post.

Farewell, September Prairie

“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich

*******

September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) and Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!

Sundog, Crosby’s house, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) with an unidentified insect (possibly Neortholomus scolopax), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Surely not. And yet. Who knows?

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…

Sungold cherry tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum ‘Sungold’), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.

Mixed kale (Brassica oleracea), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.

Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.

Rosemary (Salvius marinus), Crosby’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bumblebees are nuts about it.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with three common eastern bumblebees (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Transitions are never easy.

Butterfly Milkweed or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But there are so many wonders still to come.

******

The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

Autumn Arrives on the Prairie

“Shorter and shorter now the twilight clips; The days, as though the sunset gates they crowd; and Summer from her golden collar slips… .”—Alice Cary

******

It’s here.

Thursday, September 22, is the first day of astronomical autumn; the autumn equinox. The signs are everywhere. Migrating monarchs are on the move.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

They linger in twos and threes in my backyard, sipping nectar from the garden zinnias and floating over the goldenrods and asters.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hey—little monarch! Yes, you. Watch out for the Chinese mantis. It likes to snatch unwary butterflies.

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Safe travels, monarchs.

Meanwhile, the goldfinches pluck zinnia and hyssop seeds from the plants around my patio. The flower petals litter the garden like confetti.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Breeding season is past, and the males have traded their lemon-colored wardrobe for more somber olive oil-hued duds. It’s molting season. The goldfinches pause by the water dish to rest from time to time, and to catch each other up on neighborhood news. I watch them through the kitchen window as I wash dishes, feeling content.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cleared by the doctor to go for longer walks this week, I venture out of my backyard to a nearby park with beautiful prairie plantings and a nicely-paved trail.

Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s a great name for a park, isn’t it? “Dragonfly” and “Prairie”—two natural wonders. I slowly stroll the paved path that circles the pond. Autumn washes the prairie plantings with golds and purples.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The low slant of the sun backlights the grasses and wildflowers. There’s a bit of a cool tease in the wind.

Prairie plantings at Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

I’m here, Autumn whispers. Ready or not.

Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Something tiny hovers over the path, then lands.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s the appropriately-named Autumn Meadowhawk, looking for a snack. I love that sassy scarlet chassis; those pale, hairy legs which are its signature ID mark. By November, most dragonflies will be gone in the Midwest. I feel my spirits lift. A dragonfly! What an auspicious sighting.

There are other bright dabs of color on the common milkweed plants. The large milkweed bugs always remind me of the monarch butterflies. These orange-and-blacks are tethered to earth, instead of sky.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with large milkweed bug ( Oncopeltus fasciatus), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

As the path curves close to a cluster of trees, white snakeroot lies like snowdrifts across the shade.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

This beautiful wildflower has some deadly stories to tell. Supposedly, when cows eat white snakeroot, it turns their milk and meat toxic. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of “milk sickness”, which we now know was caused by this pretty plant. Such a lovely wildflower, with such a dismal back story.

Close by is the beautiful pale jewelweed with a more inspiring spiel.

Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Poison ivy and jewelweed are often found growing together, and jewelweed has long been considered an antidote to poison ivy when mashed up and applied to an affected part of the skin. However, modern medicine tends to debunk these claims. Medicinal or not, I love the jewelweed for its attractiveness to hummingbirds, and the way it brightens up the shade. It’s a fun plant, too! When you touch a ripened seed pod, it pops, scattering seeds everywhere. This gives the plant another name, “touch-me-not.”

September brings with it prairie grasses gone to seed.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Autumn wildflowers in bloom. A change in temperature, and an opportunity to see the natural world in new ways. Constellations of asters.

Asters (Symphyotrichum sp., possibly pilosum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Glittering golds.

Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Russets.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Striking scarlet rose hips, ripened and wrinkling.

Rose hips (possibly Rosa carolina), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There’s so much to see in only a short stroll. Welcome, Autumn.

What a splendid time to be alive.

*****

The opening quote in this blog post is from Alice Cary’s (1820-1871) poem “Autumn.” Alice and her sister Phoebe grew up on a farm in Ohio, then, both moved to New York City where they were active in the early women’s rights movement.

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend the day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, times, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).

Friday 10-11 am, October 14, 2022—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.