“The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath
First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.
Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.
In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?
Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.
1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.
Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”
New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.
2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.
Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.
Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.
Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.
3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?
Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.
Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.
4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.
There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.
The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.
But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.
5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.
Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.
Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.
Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?
I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…
… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.
Want more prairie? 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.