One of the first prairie plants I learned the name of and remembered was the compass plant. It towered over my head in August– unmistakable! Identifying it gave me the confidence to learn the names of other prairie inhabitants.
The compass plant’s name refers to the leaves, which point loosely north and south. It’s an adaptation to help the leaves retain moisture during Illinois droughts. Smart plant.
The tall, old woody stems are a favorite dickcissel perch.
I wouldn’t want to rely on compass plant leaves as a true compass if I needed to get somewhere. But I’m taken with the notion that this plant knows something about finding your way home when you’re lost.
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes about finding a compass plant, Silphium laciniatum, tucked into an unmowed patch of tallgrass in an old cemetery.
He wrote: Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.
It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county.
Leopold continued: What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.
Isn’t it ironic that a compass plant, named for its ability to show the way forward, symbolizes something we’ve lost?
Whenever I see the compass plants, towering over my head in August on the prairie, I’m grateful. Grateful for Aldo Leopold who gave us motivation and direction to move forward with restoration. Grateful we have some of these plants —that once tickled the buffalo bellies— left to admire.
I’m reminded that the compass plant points the way forward: To a future filled with the hope of restoring a wounded and broken world.
No matter how hopeless that effort sometimes seems.
Every small step forward, each action we take toward healing what is broken, makes a difference.
All photos by Cindy Crosby: (Top to bottom: Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaves, SP; dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;compass plant leaf, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant leaf, SP; bison, NG; compass plant leaves, SP; compass plant buds and bloom, compass plant leaf close up, SP; prairie trail with compass plant, SP.)
Quoted text is from Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac (1949).