Give me some sugar.
That’s my line this month to the squirrels racing around the prairie savanna. Why? They have the keys to the tallgrass candy shop.
Not all my favorite prairie flavors are sweet like candy. Common mountain mint leaves in the late spring are an instant breathe refresher. I can’t pass a patch of these without pulling a leaf, and popping into my mouth. In July, compass plant sap crystalizes in soft beads along the stem; hot and sticky. Native American children chewed it like gum. When I try it, the sap sticks to my teeth like glue. Still, I can’t resist it. Eat your heart out, Wrigley’s Spearmint.
In the late summer and early fall, I chew wild bergamot — bee balm leaves — whenever I’m out on a tallgrass hike. The menthol is numbing in large quantities, so I tear off a small portion of the leaf instead of the whole thing. I have to share the plants with the bees, who buzz around the flower heads for nectar. Easy to see where this prairie plant gets its common name.
But in mid-March, the candy shop is open. Tree sap is running. In the prairie savanna, by the Prairie Visitor Station welcome area, sugar maples drip maple sapsicles, a sweet treat that’s hard to beat. On warm afternoons, squirrels gnaw the tender branches. Slowly, the delicious sap seeps out of the chewed off bark. The cold March nights do the rest.
Each spring, if the weather is just right, I can break off maple sapsicles and suck them like candy. I’ve unintentionally fed enough squirrels in my backyard to find this reciprocation of treats very satisfying. For once, they provide the snack.
I utter two words I never thought I’d say:
(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: Schulenberg Prairie entrance banners, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plants leaves, SP; wild bergamot/bee balm, SP; maple sapsicle, SP; squirrel at author’s backyard bird feeder, Glen Ellyn, IL.)