Seeing shooting stars in the suburban Chicago area’s light-polluted night sky is challenging at best. But on the prairie in May, there’s a universe of shooting stars available 24/7, for anyone who takes time to look.
The May prairie is a panoramic, ever-changing Persian carpet of leaf shapes, textures, blooms, and insects. To really pay attention to it, drop to your knees. Quiet your mind. Most blooms and grasses are still low, from a few inches to about a foot tall. Some of the blooms are hidden under the growing grasses, so you have to pay attention to really see what you’re looking at.
The first thing I find hidden in the grasses is bastard toadflax, whose tiny white flowering stars are in their full glory right now. The seeds were once enjoyed as tasty trail snacks.
Lift your eyes a bit, and little mounds of cream indigo plant with its silvery leaves come into focus, dotted around the prairie. This was a favorite plant of Native Americans, who used the seedpods for baby-pleasing rattles and the mashed up root rubbed into tiny tummies for colic. Early settlers didn’t like it so much. Livestock often died if they ate too much of its toxic foliage.
Eye- popping orange hoary puccoon is also in bloom, as are wild geraniums and the last swirls of wood betony.
But the real show-stoppers are the shooting stars.
Pink. Shading from white-pinks to lavender-pinks. Plus the rosette of leaves, from a birds-eye view, have pleasing streaks of maroon.
In order for shooting stars to reproduce, they must be buzz pollinated. Tomatoes, nightshade, blueberries, potatoes and cranberries require this process for efficient pollination as well. Bumblebees are the main heroes of this performance for which there is no nectar reward. The pollen, deep in the shooting stars’ anthers, is shaken loose when the bumblebee grasps the flower and rapidly moves its thoracic wing muscles. This sets up the vibration.
As the flower vibrates, the pollen is shaken loose. Writer Peter Bernhardt says watching the pollen grains fall from the anthers looks a lot like salt grains falling from a salt shaker. You may also hear this process called sonication.
When you see the big bumblebees, buzzing across the prairie in the mornings, send them a message of gratitude. Without them, our prairies would be missing one of their most welcome May wildflowers.
(All photos by Cindy Crosby. From top to bottom: Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellate), NG; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) The Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) NG; shooting stars, SP; shooting star foilage, NG; shooting stars, NG; shooting stars, NG.)
For more information about sonication or buzz pollination and shooting stars, check out The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt.