“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle
March is all about transition. As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.
Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!
Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.
Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.
Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?
At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.
Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.
Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.
Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream. Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.
Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…
…we have five seedlings to show for it.
Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.
This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions. Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.
Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds. On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.
It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.
The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox, the first day of astronomical spring.
Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.
William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!
My fingers are crossed too! Long live the Pasque Flower thanks to folks like you…
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It’s a big team effort, Cathy — from the natural resources staff to the greenhouse folks to the volunteers who care for the prairie. Love that wildflower! Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Fingers crossed for the pasque flower this season!
The Pasque Flower in my Albany NY suburban garden has come back for 10 years, arriving marginally bigger each time, but still shy of shouting. I welcome its reminding me of other places far away. Thanks for your lovely vision, Cindy.
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Awww, I love that “just shy of shouting!” Thank you for sharing, for reading, and for appreciating this beautiful wildflower, Sandy.
Curious what you think is the cause of the decline in pasque flowers in the prairie you steward. Is something eating them? Is there too much competition from tall grasses? Something else? I know voles will eat them (they did in my garden), but it may be that competition from vigorous grasses like big bluestem could be affecting their growth too. For example, have you tried cutting the grass around them during the growing season to see if that helps? I notice in my prairie they favor sites with less big bluestem, especially in areas with false toadflax, which I understand is hemiparasitic on some grasses. Just some thoughts.
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Great question: might be location (erosion), could be voles (we have both prairie and meadow on our site) but competition isn’t too bad where they are located. We do have a lot of bastard toadflax, but not close by the pasque flowers. My thought has been erosion (exposing roots) –and the voles are another possibility I hadn’t considered! Thank you SO much! I appreciate your thoughts, and I also appreciate you taking time to read and to comment. Come on, pasque flowers! Grow!
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I am in the western Chicago burbs. Looking for the skunk cabbage. Not finding any. Has anyone seen it yet this year in the Chicago area?
This should be a good week for it — try The Morton Arboretum, in Lisle, IL, by Lake Marmo. Good luck!