“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.” — Josephine W. Johnson
Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.
The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.
Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails. I should have brought my kayak.
On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…
…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.
This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.
Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.
Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.
Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color. I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?
The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.
May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.
Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.
Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.
All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail; blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.
Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:
Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).
Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here.
Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)
Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL 8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).
Find more at cindycrosby.com