Category Archives: chicago botanic garden

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

***

Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

*****

The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Orchids in the Tallgrass

“It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.” –Susan Orlean

***

Even the most loyal prairie lovers may find themselves hungry for a little bright color in February. Sure, there are the russets and silks, still out there until the first licks of flame from a prescribed burn turn them to memories.

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But don’t we always long for that which we don’t have?

If you want a jolt of bright colors in winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show is a pretty good bet. Wander through the greenhouses, and you’re immersed in pink, purple, and orange.

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And ohhh! That smell of humidity and moist earth! If I close my eyes and inhale, I can imagine I’m on the prairie after a July thunderstorm.

Here, at the Chicago Botanic, I learn a few things about the cultural and social significance of the flowers. Orchids, I find, are often a symbol of wealth. Turns out Beyoncé had 10,000 of them flown in for her wedding. On a lesser scale for us mere mortals, perhaps you had an orchid corsage for your high school prom or an Easter outing. The Orchid Show may prompt a flood of these types of orchid-related memories.
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But not all blooms are of the corsage type. There are orchids in simple, clear lemon-colored zen forms…

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…orchids in every possible combination of colors…

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…and many crazy patterns.

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The white orchids are stunningly elegant in their simplicity.

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Beautiful, yes?  Yet, they still fail to delight me like the orchids on the prairie.

Orchids on the prairie? What’s that, you say?

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Illinois has 45 different species of native orchids, I learn at the show, including the small white lady’s slipper in the photo above. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, as their exotic cousins do.

But perhaps the native orchids are prettiest in bright white. Like these nodding ladies’ tresses in the autumn tallgrass.

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Mmmm– that scent! Light and vanilla-ish.

Some of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s exotic orchids are scented, as well. This orchid smells like chocolate.

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There are spectacular non-native pink orchids on display at the Orchid Show.

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Although they are beautiful, I still prefer the pink lady’s slipper orchids, like this one I found up north, around Lake Superior.

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I admire the blooms at the Chicago Botanic’s Orchid Show.  They bring sunshine and a touch of the exotic to my Midwestern winter.

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But, attending a flower show is a different experience than the joy I feel when I find an native wildflower, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid, while out for a hike on the prairie. That feeling can’t be replicated in any hothouse, no matter how beautiful the display.

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Once you know the location of a particular orchid, you follow its existence with a bit of parental anxiety. Sort of like a mom waiting up for her teenager when curfew is long past. Will the orchid bloom again this season? When? Will the weather conditions favor it? What about trampling animals; lack of pollinators?  Will the orchids show up?

Blink–and you’ll miss them.

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Which makes finding native orchids each season a treasured moment. Imagine the happiness I felt when the little patch of  lady’s slipper orchids I’ve watched over like a mother had twelve blooms this spring, instead of six, as they did the year before.

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No floral display –not even one with 10,000 orchids–can replicate the tallgrass prairie landscape with its native orchids, and its attendant serendipities and disappointments from year to year.

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But until spring comes to the prairie, the exotics will stand in. And they are welcome for their color, variety, and scent, just as the natives will be as the weather warms up.

Soon. Very soon.

***

Susan Orlean (1955-, whose quote opens this essay,  is the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998), based on an article she wrote for the New Yorker about Florida orchid growers and poachers. Her book was later made into the movie, Adaptation. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from University of Michigan. Orlean was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) with tiny green pollinator (likely metallic green sweat bee, genus  Agapostemon), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL;  pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) with yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) and Canadian bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Burlington Prairie, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois DNR, Burlington, IL.

Orchids: A Prairie’s Best Kept Secret

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My husband, Jeff, surprised me on Valentine’s Day by taking me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the opening of the Orchid Show. Instead of a dozen roses, I got 10,000 orchids and a little blast of springtime color and scent on a frigid February 14.

There are hybrid blooms of every possible hue, it seems….including some in impossibly bright colors, like this orange orchid and lime green orchid.

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There are crazy patterns, which makes me think of zebras and clowns.

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These hybrids are stunning. But my favorite orchids aren’t coddled and pampered like these orchids under glass. The orchids I prefer are outside, braving the elements on Illinois’ tallgrass prairies.

Illinois is home to around 50 different species of native orchids; a drop in the bucket, really, when you think of the approximately 25,000 natural species worldwide. One of the most eye-catching is this small white lady’s slipper orchid, found in the moist tallgrass in early summer. The white slipper demands your attention, doesn’t it?

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Other native orchids take more patience to discover, such as these ladies’ tresses orchids below. Stand downwind of a drift of blooms on a warm, early autumn day, and you’ll inhale a light sweet scent, evocative of vanilla.

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A native orchid that is #1 on my bucket list to see this season is the threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid, protected under the Endangered Species Act and  at home on the tallgrass prairies of Illinois.

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To stumble across any of these native orchids unexpectedly on the prairie is to discover something magical. You glimpse one bloom half-hidden in the grasses. Stunned, you fall to your knees. You look closer, then all around you. There’s another bloom, and another, and another. These orchids were here, in the tallgrass, all the time. How did you miss them before?

For what seems like minutes — but stretches to an hour — you watch insects work the blossoms, imbibing nectar and ensuring pollination.  When you reluctantly stand to leave, you wonder. What other discoveries are there to be made, here in the tallgrass? You resolve to pay more attention to the world.

Maybe these native orchids are not so spectacular and showy as the hybrid orchids in a conservatory. Perhaps their colors and patterns are not as glamorous and glitzy.

But in their own way, they are more beautiful. They belong here.

One small, miraculous part of the place we call home.

 Photos: Image of eastern prairie fringed orchid used with permission of Bruce Marlin. Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Please check out his website at: http://www.cirrusimage.com/

All other photos are by Cindy Crosby (from top): purple orchids, Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show; orange orchid, CBG;  lime green orchid, CBG; striped orchid, CBG; clown patterned orchid, CBG; small white lady’s slipper, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ladies’ tresses, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.