Purple Prairie Haze

“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
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There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.

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Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.

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Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.

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After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.

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The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!

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Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.

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No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.

An hour that is always well-spent.

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Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is  a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.”  She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.

Wonderful, Wicked Wildflowers

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” — Shakespeare.
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Woodland and prairie wildflowers are praised in poetry and prose; celebrated in song, and immortalized in art. Those colors! That fragrance! Innocent. Fragile. Such beautiful blooms.

And yet. These lovely blooms have a darker side.

Take a walk through a spring woodland. In the Victorian language of flowers in which blooms symbolized certain sentiments from the giver, anemones were often associated with bad luck, illness and death.

Anemones are also known as “windflowers;”  from the Greek wind God’s name, “Anemos.”  You can see why.

Or look at this colony of trilliums below, edging the prairie.  What name would you suggest? Something pretty, right?

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Nope. They are known in the vernacular as “the bloody nose flower” or “the bloody butcher.” Memorable? Yes. But most of us would rather settle for “red” or “prairie” trillium.

Even this elegant woodland trillium…

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…bears the common name, “drooping trillium.”  Not quite as bad as a bloody nose flower, but not a peppy moniker for something so stunning, either.

On the prairie in early spring, the “common valerian” looks like a sweet little flower. But give it a sniff…

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…and you’re reminded of the smell of dirty socks after a work-out at the gym. Not a repeater.

When wood betony blankets the early spring prairie, you immediately think of snapdragons, yellow fireworks, or even carnival rides that swirl and turn.

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Its other common name is— “lousewort.” This, in the once-mistaken belief it repelled lice on livestock. Could have used some help from marketing, don’t you think?

“Lousewort” might not be the worst name on the prairie, however. When I began volunteering in the tallgrass, this flower was one of the first ones I learned.

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Bastard toadflax. Not a lot to love in that name. But a favorite plant of any school group I take out on a walk in the tallgrass, and one they are sure to remember.

Not far from the bastard toadflax is the ethereal wild hyacinth. Its name is nice, but it is associated with an unfortunate Greek legend that goes somewhat like this: When two gods fought for the love of a Greek boy named “Hyakinthos,” one of the gods murdered the boy in a jealous rage. Where Hyakinthos’ blood was spilled, a flower grew. The “hyacinth.”

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A crime scene? Not what you’d think of when you see something this exquisite, is it?

The delicate trout lily below–also exquisite–is valued for its medicinal qualities, including as a possible cancer-fighter. Too bad its unfortunate side effect is inducing vomiting. Lots of it.

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Who would have thought something so sweet looking could be so nauseating?

And blue cohosh seeds, once used as a coffee substitute, were found to be toxic when not roasted correctly. That’s a bad cup of coffee. Stick to Starbucks.

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These are only a few of the wicked wildflowers and their traits. So many beautiful blooms, both on the prairies and  in the woodlands!

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But don’t be fooled. They’re not just pretty faces.

Which makes them just that much more interesting, doesn’t it?

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright, and widely believed to be one of the greatest writers in the English language. The opening quote in this blog comes from Act 4- Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth.” The phrase has been widely used in a number of other literary works, including as the title of a murder mystery by Agatha Christy (1890-1976) and a book by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

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The information above about wildflowers was sourced from a variety of books and online sites. A few of my favorite resources include “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders; “Native American Ethnobotany” by Daniel E. Moerman;  “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie” by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa; and “Wildflowers of Illinois Woodlands” by Sylvan Runkel. Great books! Go give them a look.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides (older name) ), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) white trout lily, (Erythronium albidum) East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Where the Prairies Begin

“I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.” –Gretel Ehrlich

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Spring comes to the tallgrass prairie with rains that soak and flood the newly-burned earth, urging wildflowers to bloom. Illinois’ state flower, the blue violet, is one of the first to color the prairies and woodlands.

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Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.

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On the wet prairies, marsh marigolds butter the streams and ponds.

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Water is the key to this lush profusion of prairie color. Illinois receives almost 40 inches of rain in a good year, nourishing the wildflowers and giving the grasses and wetlands a boost.

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But the story of prairies and rain begins almost a thousand miles west of Illinois, high in the Rocky Mountains. April here is full of precipitation of a different sort.

 

Mule deer forage in the snow-glazed grasses for something green and nourishing.

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Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.

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As the storms move over the Rockies, snow and rain water the western slopes.

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As storms move west to east over the mountain range, the eastern or leeward side is in the “rain shadow.” Simply put, a “rain shadow” means less precipitation falls here. The prairie grasses on this side of the mountains adapted to drier conditions.

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As the weather systems move further east…

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…more precipitation falls across the Great Plains, eventually with help from the moist Gulf of Mexico air.

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Mixed grass prairies grow where there is increased rain, taller and more robust than the shortgrass prairies in the rain shadow. As rains become more abundant, they help nurture the rich tallgrass prairies of the Midwest.

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These tallgrass prairies seem a long way from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

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So different. So separate.

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Yet, they’re connected. Mountains and tallgrass. For it is here, in the snow-capped Rockies,  that we begin to understand what shapes our prairies.

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The opening quote is from “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light by Gretel Ehrlich (1946-). Her book, “Solace of Open Spaces,” movingly chronicles her life on the rural Wyoming prairie.

All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) blue violet (Viola sororia) plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; April snowstorm video clip, Divide, CO; mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in spring snowstorm, Divide, Colorado; mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Divide, Colorado; storm coming in over Divide, Colorado; rescue grass (Bromus catharticus), Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Wyoming ground squirrel (Urocitellus elegans), Divide, Colorado; Pike’s Peak, Divide, Colorado. 

Spring’s Contrasts on the Prairie

“April golden, April cloudy, Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy...”–Ogden Nash.

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Spring on the prairie is a showcase of contrasts at the end of April.

Jacob’s ladder.

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Sand phlox. So small! Like a paper snowflake carefully cut out with scissors.

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Tiny blooms. Balanced by rough-and-tumble bison, the heavyweight champs of the prairie.

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Delicate spreadwing damselflies emerge from ponds to tremble in the sun.

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Furry beavers coast by, on their way to ongoing construction projects.

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There’s evidence of egrets. Their pale feathers a contrast to…

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…the bright buttery sunshine of marsh marigolds, with a lipstick red beetle.

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The beetle seems minuscule until a spider wanders into the scene. The line it throws is deceptively fragile looking. Yet, it’s strong enough to capture supper.

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There is life high above, in the flight of a blue heron scared up from the fen.

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While below, tossed carelessly in the grasses, are souvenirs of death.

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Life cut short.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side-by-side.

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But the stars still come out –shooting stars! Make a wish.

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Life, death, rebirth. It’s all here…

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…at the end of April on the prairie.

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The opening quote is from the poet (Frederic) Ogden Nash (1902-71) and his poem, “Always Marry an April Girl.” Nash is known for his humorous rhyming verse, and his nonsensical words. An example: “If called by a panther/don’t anther.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom): Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), sand phlox (Phlox bifida bifida); bison (Bison bison); possibly sweetflag spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) (ID uncertain); beaver (Castor canadensis); egret feather (Ardea alba); marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) with an unknown beetle;  unknown spider; blue heron (Ardea herodias); bones in the grasses;  possibly red-winged blackbird egg (Agelaius phoeniceus) in nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with an unknown pollinator. Thanks to Bernie Buchholz for showing me the sand phlox, and John Heneghan, for help with the nest ID.

A Walk on the Wild Side

“The earth laughs in flowers.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Come hike with me in April as the gray days of winter recede.

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On the prairie, in the savanna, and deep in the woodlands, birds sing the wildflowers up into the sunshine. Christmas fern fiddleheads jostle for space among the striped spring beauties.

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A small ensemble of hepatica nudge aside a fallen log.

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Virginia bluebells, aided by pollinators, chime in quietly at first…

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… then in full chorus.

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White dogtooth violets, sometimes called adder’s tongue or trout lilies…

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…join with the yellow to throw their flowery stars across the woodlands and savanna.

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Their sheer numbers threaten to distract us from the more timid spring blooms. Look closely. See the subtle notes of bishop’s cap? Such tiny, intricate flowers! They dazzle in their own quiet way.

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Other blooms clamor for attention. The false rue anemones sway in the breeze; little wind instruments.

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A single wild geranium appears. You’re early!  But it cannot be repressed. More are on the way. Soon. Very soon.

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On the prairie, the first wood betony swirls into a whirlwind of yellow and russet.

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A nice foil for the pussytoes blooming nearby, antennae-like on their silvery stalks.

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Vast swaths of bloodroot strike chords of impermanence; here one morning and then gone seemingly overnight. Did we dream them?

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The prairies, savannas, and woodlands flood the world with blooms. Orchestrating spring.

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All we have to do to see them is make time to look.

Let’s go!

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose quote opens this post, was a transcendental poet and essayist who made his living as a lecturer. He published his first essay, “Nature,” anonymously in 1836. Emerson famously asked Henry David Thoreau, “Do you keep a journal?” in 1837. This simple query became a life-long inspiration for Thoreau,  perhaps, sparking Thoreau’s writing of Walden.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Christmas fern fiddleheads (Polystichum acrostichoides) with spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL;  hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; white trout lily (Erythronium albidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bishop’s cap (Mitella diphylla), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; false rue anemones (Enemion biternatum), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fiddlehead ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides), wood anemone leaves (Anemone quinquefolia), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), and wild geranium leaves (Geranium maculatum) at Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL. Special thanks to Susan Kleiman for the walk in the woods at Franklin Creek State Natural Area and pointing out the bishop’s cap.

Fire and Rain

“I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain… .” –James Taylor

Those relentless March rains! Now it’s April—pushing the envelope for fire.

The prairie waits.

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Wildflowers and grasses, urged to life by spring showers, push up through the damp earth. Oblivious to the fire still to come.

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The prescribed burn crew gathers. Light the match! The drip torch ignites.  A crackle and pop… the dry grasses catch.

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Smoke rises; smudges the sun.

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Trees are cast into sharp relief;  wraith-like shadows haunt the grasses.

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Flames devour the prairie; lick the savanna. Whispering. Growing closer.

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Listen. Can you hear the fire advancing? A sound like rain.

 

Last year’s prairie vanishes in moments. Becomes only memories.

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More rain falls. The prairie fizzes over, all chocolates and emeralds.

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Life-giving fire. Life-giving rain.

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The beginnings of something new emerge.

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Hope. Anticipation. Wonder. So much is on the way. Right around the corner.

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James Taylor (1948-) is a five-time Grammy Award winner who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His albums have sold more than 100 million copies. Although it only went to #3 on pop charts (1970), his single, “Fire and Rain,” is considered Taylor’s breakthrough song.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie in my side view mirror, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset over Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A Prairie Kaleidoscope

“Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.” –-Gavin Pretor-Pinney
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If April showers bring May flowers, my little corner of Illinois is going to be a blaze of blooms next month. So much rain! The skies have been gray more than blue.

The western chorus frogs at Nachusa Grasslands are one of my favorite soundtracks to gray, drizzly days like these. Can you see the bison in the distance in the video  above? They don’t mind the rain much. And look! Scattered among the bison dung are…

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…pasque flowers! Wildflowers are beginning to pop up on the prairie, creating pastel spots of color.

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When you think of a prairie, you may imagine colorful flowers like these, tallgrass, and perhaps a herd of bison grazing.

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Bison and wildflowers are two prairie showstoppers. But what you may not think about is this. Look at the photo above again. One of the joys of a prairie is the seemingly unlimited view overhead. The prairie sky! It’s a kaleidoscope; a constant amazement of color, motion, sound, and of course—clouds.

Sometimes the sky seems dabbed with cotton batting.

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Contrails made by jets are teased out into thumbprinted fuzzy ribbons.

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Other afternoons, the sky is scoured clean of clouds and contrails and burnished to an achingly bright blue.

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You can’t help but think of the color of old pots and pans when the clouds boil over in a summer storm.

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Look up! The prairie sky is full of wonders. Scrawls of sandhill cranes by day…

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… the moon by turns a silver scimitar or golden globe at night.

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You may catch amazing light shows like sun haloes…

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Or sun dogs…

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The changeable prairie sky offers something new to view each moment.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

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Gavin Pretor-Pinney, whose quote opens this blog post, is the  author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook. He writes with wry British humor and a love for all things cloud-like.  In 2004, Pretor-Pinney founded “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/) to “fight the banality of blue sky thinking.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): western chorus frogs singing (Pseudacris triseriata) with bison (Bison bison) in the distance, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) and bison (Bison bison) dung, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cloudy with a chance of bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fermilab prairie, Batavia, IL; summer storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie; full moon over author’s backyard prairie; sun halo and sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sundog over Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor, MI; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.