October Prairie Wonders

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Sherlock Holmes

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A whisper of frost is in the air, with the hard slam of a freeze not far behind.

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Cold weather’s scythe hangs over the prairie. In response, the tallgrass flings itself into October, showcasing all the delights that autumn has to offer. So much to explore. So much to discover.

Let’s go look.

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The tallgrass hums along, closing up shop, its seed production mostly complete.

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Smooth Solomon’s seal leaves cling to their bright green draining away. Their fruits show the turn of the season.

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Lichens colonize the metal bridge which leads to the prairie, splotching it with color.

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Nodding ladies’ tresses orchids,  latecomers to the seed production party, throw out their final blooms. Their mild fragrance has vanished into the cold.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass stitch the prairie with slender threads of subtle color.

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Pale prairie plantain trims the landscape with seed lace and leaf rickrack.

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Lashes of goldenrod’s foamy seeds decorate the edges.

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Late figwort throws its seed pearls into the mix.

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Little bluestem launches its colorfest; you can find swatches of it patching the prairie in a rust-hued blur.

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Pincushions of pasture thistle send silky seed-notes into the air.

 

 

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Joy in the aggregate; beauty in the singular.

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Dragonfly season is mostly shot. That said, six green darners hover overhead, delayed, perhaps, in joining the migration masses. A lone American rubyspot damselfly clings to reed canary grass over Willoway Brook. Despite the name, this particular insect is mostly colorless on a gray, windy, October day.

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The sounds of the season have gradually changed from summer to autumn in the Chicago region.

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Walking Fermilab’s interpretive trail in high winds this weekend, I hear the scraping of prairie dock leaves, still morphing between juiced and brittle. The hiss of big bluestem and Indian grass; rusting leaves and switchgrass stems rubbing together. The sound is rain patter on a roof, or hot oil in sizzling in a skillet. What do you think?

This prairie dock leaf’s venation stands out like a topo map; all mountains and rivers and ridges.

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Nearby, the rosette galls are October’s last bouquet; beauty in the face of rampant decay.

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Even the Queen Anne’s lace takes on a new persona in October. I hesitate to say it’s “beautiful” as we prairie stewards and volunteers work so hard to eradicate Queen Anne’s lace from our natural areas. And yet…

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Among the lone trees that sprinkle the tallgrass, I hear unaccustomed chirps — the sounds of warblers moving south and sheltering here for a few hours. “Those confusing fall warblers” — an understatement, if ever there was one. Today, a few invasive starlings show up with the warbler crowd. These—at least—are easy to ID.

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Although I’m not much good at identifying fall birds, I can identify a pair of sandhill cranes wading through a nearby wetland at Fermilab. Hard to miss.

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Regal and comical at the same time. Seemingly impervious to the cold winds.

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There’s so much to see in October on the prairie. So much grace and color. So many simple wonders.

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So much to love.

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It’s waiting for you.

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*****

Sherlock Holmes, whose quote kicks off this post, was a fictional detective penned by British physician turned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). “Holmes” first appeared in print in the late 1880’s. Doyle also wrote poetry, science fiction, fantasy, plays, and romance.  Oddly enough, he also dabbled in architecture and designed a golf course and redesigned a hotel. Doyle, who had five children, died at 71; his last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.” Now that’s sweet.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby except photo of children on bridge (courtesy Jennifer Buono): (top to bottom): stormy October skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  exploring the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Jennifer Buono, photographer);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown lichens on the bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Prairie Interpretive Trail in October, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; video of wind on the  Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; goldenrod gall rosette, Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis),  Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus spp.), Interpretive Prairie Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly American hog-peanut vine (Amphicarpaea bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s nature writing class (online and in-person) begins Wednesday, October 16! Tomorrow is the last day to register —check it out here.

See more of Cindy’s speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

The Art of Prairie Attention

“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver

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The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.

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Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstorythey are “dew-betrayed.”

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The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .

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After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person,  a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)

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I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers  prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely. tallcoreopsiswestsideprairieplantingMA93019WM.jpg

After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with  favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.

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Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.

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“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver

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“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” –W.H. Auden
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“These days cry out, as never before, for us to pay attention.” — Anne Lamott

 

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“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz

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“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale

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“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs

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“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras

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“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse

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“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson

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“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer

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“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova

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“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard

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“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil

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“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James

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“The  thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz

 

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“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale

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It’s an imperfect world.

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Life can be complicated.

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But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.

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Worth paying attention to.

***

Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.  Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom)  fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.

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Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.

Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s upcoming speaking and classes.

The September Prairie’s Greatest Hits

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems–especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” –― Barbara Pym

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Open windows. Cool breezes. That low slant of light. Autumn is here.

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After dragonfly migration is finished, I always feel a bit of a letdown, as you might after the end of a long-anticipated party.  Summer is over.  But it’s impossible to feel too melancholy as the prairie ramps up its fall extravaganza. This year, the Indian grass, big bluestem, Maximilian sunflowers and tall coreopsis loom high, shooting toward the sky. Lush. Lanky. Resplendent. Many tallgrass trails are impassible and choked with thick vegetation. The recent deluge of rain left sunflowers too top-heavy to stand upright. Gold spills into the mowed paths.

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The smell of prairie dropseed and damp earth permeates the air. The soundtrack of goldfinch chirps and blue jay calls is augmented by the insects tuning up each evening, a static that I sometimes don’t notice until it goes silent. The cacophony is already winding down; soon, we’ll lose this chorus altogether. Goldfinches are ravenous. It seems they can’t get their fill. They work over the prairie patch in my backyard like a bus full of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

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An occasional crow inks its way across a mackerel sky, and I’m reminded to be grateful for each bird I see and hear, on the prairies and in my backyard. Bird conservation news has been dismal this week, and birds of the grasslands are faring the worst of all. It’s another reason to encourage establishments of new prairies, and to care for existing remnants and restorations.

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September is arguably one of the most enjoyable months in the tallgrass. Have you been for a hike on the prairie this month? Do you need motivation to go? Consider a few of the September prairie’s “Greatest Hits.” Maybe one of them will give you a push out the door.

Compass Plants and Other Silphiums

As I wandered through my backyard prairie patch this week, I suddenly realized my prairie dock and compass plants failed to flower this season. Why didn’t they flower? I’m not sure.  This flower-less state is not unprecedented, both in my backyard and on the prairie. Some years, they just… don’t flower! Anecdotally, it seems like the compass plants and prairie dock take a “rest” every few years from making flowers and seeds, the production of which is a huge output of energy.

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I missed the tall bloom stalks of compass plant and prairie dock this summer, with the occasional goldfinch or hummingbird resting on top. The hummingbirds that sojourned through my backyard had to settle for the tall zinnias as surveillance platforms instead.

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There are four members of the Silphium genus most prairie stewards concern themselves with: compass plant, prairie dock, rosinweed, and cup plant. (Read more about cup plant in a previous post here.) On Sunday, I went for my first big prairie hike since my surgery six weeks ago, visiting Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove for a half an hour. I compared their compass plants and prairie dock with my own backyard plants. The trails were cut back, making it easy to hike (thank you, Belmont prairie stewards and volunteers!) Woven compass plant leaves ranged from vibrant green to various stages of senesce.

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Some leaves have already turned crisp and brown, curling into base clefs. Or perhaps, chocolate shavings.

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Others were somewhere inbetween “vibrant” and “crunchy.”

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I looked for prairie dock seedheads and came up empty.  I only found desiccated leaves.

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I did find rosinweed—the less showy of the Silphiums—which had flowered and gone to seed.

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Click here and you can see what rosinweed looks like in bloom. Pretty. But I love it in the seed stage, each September seed cluster more intricate than its straightforward bright yellow flowers of summer.

The other three Silphiums are always show-stoppers; in bloom or in seed, or —if blooms fail—just for their changing leaves. Each member of the quartet has its individual charms. Especially this month.

Dazzling Asters and Glorious Goldenrods

September is peak time for asters and goldenrod. Yes—as I wrote last week—aster ID can be frustrating. It’s nice to be on the prairie, where many of the asters are easily identifiable. Tiny leaves help ID the pearly white flowers of heath aster (now with its unwieldy new genus name of Symphyotrichum ericoides).

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The smooth blue asters have—as you’d expect—smooth stems and leaves. Here, they mix with the vibrant and colorful spent stems of flowering spurge. More about that plant in a minute.

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September is the month for the eye-popping purple haze of the familiar New England asters , which to me signals the prairie bloom season’s grand finale.

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The yellows of goldenrod are a worthy pairing for the asters. Ask any quilt maker, and they’ll tell you purple and yellow are complementary colors, great for contrast. The prairie liberally juxtaposes the two in September. What a show!

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I’m imagining the faces of some of the prairie stewards and volunteers reading this right now. Goldenrod is a pain in the neck! you might say, shaking your head. I know, I know. When I began volunteering in natural areas almost 20 years ago, my first question to the steward was: “I should pull all this goldenrod, right?” I was surprised when the answer was “No!”, and to learn goldenrod was native to the Midwest.

If you spend time on a prairie or create a prairie in your backyard as I have, you may find goldenrod is—shall we say—a bit rambunctious.  Sure, you might end up weeding out some of this native plant that is also a take-over specialist to make room for more diversity. But think of the nectar goldenrod provides for bees and butterflies!  I became a goldenrod enthusiast when Jeff and I visited Kankakee Sands‘ prairies in September a few years ago, and we happened upon a monarch migration in progress. The butterflies were fueling up on stiff goldenrod.

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Not convinced about goldenrod? A short visit to Belmont Prairie this month is enough to convert even the staunchest goldenrod hater.

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Like all good things, goldenrod is perhaps best in moderation. But the insects love it. Which brings us to…

A Sweet Buzz

The bees are still with us. Bumble bees. Honey bees. Native bees in all patterns, sizes, and colors. In Illinois alone, there are 400-500 species of native bees!  Hiking the September prairie, or standing in my backyard prairie patch, it’s difficult to imagine that in a few short months, the buzz will go mostly silent.

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This week, I was reading a novel by British writer Barbara Pym when  I ran across the phrase, “Tell the bees… .” What was this?  I turned to Wiki for more information. Evidently, a European beekeeping custom is to let your bees know when important life events such as births, marriages, and deaths happen. If you fail to do so, so the folklore goes, the bees may leave their hive or fall into decline. You might also drape your bee hives in black if someone dies, or leave a slice of wedding cake next to the hives when a marriage takes place in the family.  John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) wrote a melancholy poem about this tradition, “Telling the Bees.”

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I’m considering what I might “tell the prairie bees” this week. Be strong. Multiply. We need you to keep our prairies healthy. Thank you.

Skipper Fiesta

The fiery skippers have thrown themselves into September with a zeal I’ve not experienced before. They hang out around the prairie patch; perch and nectar on the zinnias in the garden.

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The best way to see the skippers, I’ve discovered, is to sit somewhere close to a nectar source and pay attention.  Not rocket science, is it? But how often I seem to be too busy to just sit and look! In September, the skippers are a reminder to do just that.

Unexpected Prairie Fall Color

Who needs autumn leaves when you have the prairie? The golds of Indian grass, the wine-blue Andropogon gerardii—big bluestem, the copper-colored little bluestem. Together, they make the September prairie breathtaking. I also anticipate the flowering spurge’s post-bloom color each year; the leaves and stems are every bit as pretty as the sugar maple’s leaves.

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You can find these bright spots all across the tallgrass.

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From a distance, they look almost pink. A startling color, in September.

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Color. Textures. Buzz. Blooms. These are only a few of the September prairie’s greatest hits. What are your favorite sightings on the September prairie? Drop me a note, and let me know.

There is so much to enjoy on the prairie in September. So much to marvel about. The month is sliding to a close.

Why not go see?

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Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose quote opens this week’s post, was a British writer referred to as “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another great quote from Pym; ““Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”  I also love, “Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.” Pym died of breast cancer at 67.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in September, Downer’s Grove, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) enjoying evening primrose seeds, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; mackerel sky over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant in bloom (Silphium lacinatum), Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (from 2018); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceaum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrafolia), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL; heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sky blue asters, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) with New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (previously taken); monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) at Kankakee Sands in September 2017, Kankakee Sands Preserve, The Nature Conservancy Indiana, Newton, IN; asters and goldenrods in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.) with honeybee (Apis mellifera) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) on New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for a speaking event or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com to learn more.

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

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A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

They like my zinnias as well.Monarch Backyard GE 9219WM.jpg

Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

Eastern-tailed blue 2014 SPWM

Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.