May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

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It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

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In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

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…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

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Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

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Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

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Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

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And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

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Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

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Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

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Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

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Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

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This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

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“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

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At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

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As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

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Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

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There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

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I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

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…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

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Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

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A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

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Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

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The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

9 responses to “May on the Prairie

  1. Thank you Cindy… the pictures of the Orioles are beautiful. I think that is as closeup as I-have ever seen one in action!
    I also covered again last night with various colored pots that seem to be hiding in my shed until the threat of frost is mentioned. I think my annual flower purchase will be at an all time low this year.
    Thank you for opening my eyes to new and exciting adventures in nature.
    Mary Joan M.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Mary Joan, how wonderful to hear from you! Are you reading while quarantining? I’d love to know what you’re up to. Thank you for the lovely comment, and for reading the blog this week. Hackers Glenbard Gardens is open and has touch-free delivery — I just ordered my garden plants from them, paid by phone, and they loaded it into my back hatch. Anything for veggies and flowers! Take care, and hope we are back at the Arb soon. Hugs! Cindy 🙂

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  2. I love the interesting purple meadow rue seedheads! I envy you that New Jersey tea — I’ve had no luck getting them established in my yard.

    And thanks for using that L.M. Montgomery quote. You’ve reminded me to get back to reading the rest of the Anne of Green Gables books I never finished. I could use a little Anne in my life right now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Kim —
      We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the New Jersey tea likes its new spot! I just had to move it for a new garden bed. Thank you for reading, and for all you do for the natural world. I love following your blog! — Cindy 🙂

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  3. A shark siting? Flying over Belmont Prairie? That’s a first!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have white-crowned sparrows hanging around my house too. However, I don’t have any orioles. I don’t feed the birds beyond what is in my garden. My yard must not have what the orioles need.

    Hoary puccoon is not as hard to grow as people might tell you. I grew over a hundred plugs of it. They ended up at Citizen’s for Conservation’s seed garden, the Deer Grove East prairie restoration, and a memorial prairie planting near a high school.

    I wish you could see the violet wood sorrel in my garden. I grew them to collect seed, which I give to local restoration efforts. I planted violet wood sorrel all along the walkway to my front door. It grows so vigorously it has formed mounds in my garden. Some of the mounds are almost a foot wide and completely covered in flowers. It makes an unusual, but gorgeous, edging plant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those white-crowned sparrows are pretty beautiful, aren’t they? I just love them. It’s great to hear your hoary puccoon story. I’m glad to know that you had such good luck with it. I only hope I will have a chance to try propagating it — we have it on the Schulenberg Prairie, and it should be blooming now. I love violet wood sorrel — I could visualize how your walk looked — how beautiful! Wow. Thank you for reading, and especially sharing your experiences and your knowledge. Grateful. — Cindy 🙂

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  5. I think the problem people have had propagating hoary puccoon is they collect dead seed. The healthy seed is ejected. The seed that remains is under developed or has been eaten by weevils. To collect healthy seed, I make little bags out of chiffon fabric and place them over the plant. The seed then germinates after being sown outside after a winter or two. I have seedlings pop up in my garden from the one plant I kept from my propagation efforts. I dig up these seedlings and transplant them to a native plant garden at Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary.

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