Category Archives: aster

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

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A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

October’s Prairie Astronomy

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”– John Burroughs

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October has arrived on the prairie, bringing drizzly skies, a metallic palette of color, and a last flush of flying insects.

 

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When the gray sky clears over the prairie, it often turns to impossible blue. Contrails and cumulus clouds sketch their weather thoughts.

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October has come to my backyard as well, touching the tomatoes with rot. Fungi unfold their umbrellas against the damp in unexpected places, and the garden and prairie patch are crisped with brittleness. Colored with a brown crayon. When I walk out to the prairie patch in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, the mush of mud under my feet contrasts with the crunch of decaying leaves.

Goldfinches and cardinals, sifting the bird feeders for the choicest fare, must have let a few sunflower seeds drop, leaving bright spots in the yard. Such welcome color! Makes me happy I let the weeding chores go this fall.  The bees are pleased.

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In my backyard prairie patch and on the prairie, the Silphiums—prairie dock, cup plant, compass plant, and rosin weed—are perhaps most intriguing in October. Without the competition of so much summer wildflower jazz, I can focus on the plant leaf patterns and textures. Rosin weed on the prairie shows its variable-ness of leaf arrangement by going for a whorl.

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Close to my backyard prairie patch, the moonflower vine finally decides October is show-time. The seed packet description warned me—120 days until bloom–but what is four months when you’re standing in the plant nursery back in the raw month of March and thinking about the delights of the garden to come? Anything seemed possible then. But my moonflower vine has been unhappy in Illinois. It longs for the tropics of the south, like so many Chicago folks, and it doesn’t much care for the hot, long days of July or August, either. Suddenly, in October’s cool nights and shorter days, it flourishes. It’s an equinox aficionado, setting bud and bloom best when days are close to equal length. As they are right now.

I walk out on the back patio early one morning this week and BAM! Eight moonflowers  had twirled open overnight, each one bigger than my hand.

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Moonflower, a night-blooming morning glory (ironically named, isn’t it?) would be perennial in Mexico or Florida. But here in the Chicago region, I’m lucky to get it to bloom as an annual.  The first touch of frost will be the end of the vine.  I count the buds, imagine what could be, and keep my fingers crossed.

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As the sun disperses the mist and gray and touches the flowers with light, the vanilla-scented blooms will slowly crumple. Taking with them their delicious fragrance. By the time I go outside again at 11 a.m., they’re a memory.

My backyard prairie patch and the prairies I visit don’t have any moonflowers, of course. But the prairie does have the “stars.”

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“Astronomy” comes from the Greek word astronomia, meaning “star regulating.” The word “aster” is also from the Greek, and means “star.” Constellations of asters cover the prairies and also, my backyard; a little starry universe in this suburban sprawl. The green bottle flies use the asters as launching pads for their adventures in corruption.

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The bumble bees work the asters, seeing their future in these stars.

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My goldenrods have now gone to seed, closing up nectar shop. But the blurry blizzards of asters spend themselves profligately, as if there is no tomorrow.

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The butterflies, like this cabbage white below, gorge themselves on “starshine” before the last blooms disappear in the cold. Where will these butterflies go in the winter? Check out this fascinating blog post by Dr. Doug Taron, Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, here to find out. Meanwhile, I enjoy the butterflies of October, counting down the days until the prairies will be emptier for their absence of color and motion.

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I also soak up as much of this “starshine”—this blizzard of asters—as I can. Temperatures threaten to drop into the low thirties by the end of the week. Fall flowers won’t linger much longer. As the evenings turn colder, night skies come into focus. The new moon will sliver its way to full on the 24th. Orion stalks the night sky, staking his claim for a new season. Soon, it will be time to trade some of my prairie and backyard “astronomy”—with its own versions of sun, stars and moon—for the winter constellations overhead.

Bittersweet.

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John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a writer, naturalist, and activist in the conservation movement.  His close friend was Walt Whitman, and Burroughs was a contemporary of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. The book, Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams is a fascinating account of Burroughs’ expedition to Alaska with railroad magnate Edward Harriman, George Bird Grinnell, Muir, and other naturalists of the time. A few favorite Burroughs’ quotes: “I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey;” “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday;” and “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” The John Burroughs Medal is given each April to a distinguished Natural History book. Check out the winners here; it’s a thoughtful reading list for curling up with a good read during the colder months ahead.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): 250-plus year old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparasio, IN; trail through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, Strong City, Kansas; common sunflower (Helianthus sp.) with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) with garden roses and salvia, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; unknown aster, possibly Short’s (Symphyotrichum shortii) with green bottle fly/blow fly (Calliphoridae, Lucilia sp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with male bumblebee, either the common eastern (Bombus impatiens) or the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus); blurred heath asters (Aster ericoides), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to Kristian Williams of FaceBook Group “Insect ID”  for the help on the bumblebee identification and Kristian, Benjamin Coulter, and the other good folks of “Insects and Spiders of Illinois FB Group” for the green bottle fly/blow fly ID. Grateful. 

Finding Peace in Wild Things

So much fear in the world right now.

It’s catching. I find myself jumpy, anxious. Feeling like nothing will change. Up against a wall of doubt.

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When the world seems like an impossible place, I go to the prairie. This time, instead of going alone, I go with friends. I need the reminder of how much we need each other.  A reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

The late summer and early autumn greens and reds of the grasses are draining away, creating a new palette of rusts, tans, and browns.

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It’s quiet here.

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Until, suddenly, pheasants fly up – two, three – six! One lands in a tree.

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I admire their vibrant colors — that scarlet head — even while acknowledging that pheasants aren’t native to this place. But there’s room here for them.

We have so much.

A Cooper’s hawk settles in near the black plastic mulched plant nursery, where plants are going to seed, which will be used for future restoration efforts. I love the plant nursery, with its sturdy rows of prairie plants. It’s a visual reminder of how we deliberately cultivate hope for change in the future.

The hawk stares me down. Even when we think we’ve got the way forward all figured out and organized, there’s always a wild card.

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Look! Just around the corner,  a herd of bison spill over the grassy two track.

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One blocks our way.

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We keep a respectful distance. The bison stay together, tolerating our presence.

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I admire their shaggy chocolate coats; their heft and muscle. Their coats gleam and shine in the late afternoon light.

They know where the juiciest grasses are, even now.

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We watch them for a long time before we move away.

The slant of the November sun backlights the prairie like a false frost.

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The milk-washed sky brightens; the smell of old grass and decaying chlorophyll  lifts in the autumn chill. I inhale. Exhale. The autumn prairie is changing, seemingly dying.

It’s not the end. Just a transition to the next season.

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Fur and feathers…and a sea of grass. My fears are not gone, but they begin to dissolve in the late afternoon light. There is so much to be grateful for.

So much in this world that gives us reason to hope.

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All photos by Cindy Crosby from Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy) 

There is a beautiful (copyrighted!) poem by Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, that I find a good antidote to difficult times. Find it at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171140.

Stardust

I wander through a universe of flowers.

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Asters, that is. The stars of the October prairie.

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Literally. The name, aster, from the Latin and the Greek, means “star.” It’s an apt reference to the constellations of flowers clustered across the tallgrass; too many to count.

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But the name “aster” is deceptively simple these days. Scientists changed the classifications and names of many of the asters. Restorationists and prairie lovers still struggle to ID them, and give them their proper names.

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Some call the reclassification “the aster disaster.” Take the New England aster, as one example, which once had the friendly scientific moniker, Aster novae-angliae.

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New name? Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. So many syllables! It’s enough to make you swear off asters for good. These unwieldy names are the “fault in our stars” — the last straw for many of us in our desire to learn to ID a few fall prairie plants.

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And yet. We plow through an impossible black hole of endlessly difficult aster names in pursuit of knowing the seemingly unknowable. The starfields of deep purples, blues, and whites of the asters draw us in. They woo us. They dazzle us. Delight us.

They are the perfect foil for the goldenrods, which sun-shower the prairie with brightness.

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And so. Every October, I stroll through this temporary universe, field guide in hand, trying to decipher a smooth blue aster from a sky blue aster. A panicled aster from a side-flowering aster. Hairy aster? Or? I attempt to pronounce those unpronounceable scientific names their proud parents, the botanists, dubbed them with. And find it all worthwhile, no matter how frustrating it becomes.

Because a stroll through a grassland galaxy, twinkling with asters, is one of the joys of October. As I walk, I wish upon a star or two.  An aster. Who knows what might happen?

All aster photos above are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum by Cindy Crosby.