Category Archives: milkweed

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

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What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Much Ado About Milkweed

“A fallen blossom–returning to the bough, I thought…But no, a butterfly.”

–Arakida Moritake

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What’s all the fuss about milkweed?  Well…what’s not to love?

There’s butterfly milkweed’s day-glo orange. Grab your sunglasses.

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Get a pop of prairie color—with a pollinator—from purple milkweed.

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Enjoy the pretty-in-pink of prairie milkweed, sometimes called Sullivant’s milkweed.

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In the fall, the milkweeds smoke silks into the autumn air, sending seeds aloft.

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When the milkweed’s seeds are spent, the canoe-like seedpods are endless vehicles for creativity and imagination.

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Other than the visual and tactile pleasure the blooms give us, our 19 native Illinois species of milkweed are a veritable Noah’s Ark for monarch butterflies. Although monarchs sip nectar from a variety of plants like the bee balm below, they lay their eggs only on milkweed.

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When the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) hatch, they munch on milkweed. Without the milkweeds, there would be no monarchs.

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Scientists at Cornell University tell us to pair milkweeds with fall blooming, nectar-rich plants such as goldenrods. Why?  Goldenrod and other fall nectar plants provide food for the monarch butterfly’s epic migration to Mexico in the fall.  Evidently, goldenrod is an important life-giving flower for monarchs.

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But it all begins with milkweed. Such a simple act of hope—to plant a flower.

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After all, how often can we help save a species while, in the process, make the world more beautiful?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii),Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed silks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed pod with snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  monarch caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  monarch butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago canedensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca) with false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), whose words begins this essay, was a Japanese poet who wrote about the natural world.

Setting Sail on a Sea of Grass

The forests are ablaze at the end of October;

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The stained glass of trees

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Melts into the last smoldering embers of color.

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The prairie becomes a vast sea of grass:

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waves and waves and waves of grass

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you long to throw yourself into it; feel the seed spray

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even as you wonder over the last green and gold leaves; like anemones in the liquid air; sprouted from the prairie floor

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You know this green will crumble into what is inevitable

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Change

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A transition we can accept with grace, or rebel against it

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We set a brave face against the coming cold

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and yet, we forget

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what we are given is gold.

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The wind blows, whipping up whitecaps from horizon to horizon

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the froth of a hundred thousand prairie flowers gone to seed

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that crest and foam against

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those few rocky islands, which float through the grasses

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and even as the turn of seasons brings a kind of melancholy

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we bravely set sail for what we can’t yet see

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but believe is there, just over the horizon line.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  First sixteen photos from The Morton Arboretum and its Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; road through the sumac, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; island of trees on the prairie, Franklin Creek Grist Mill prairie, Franklin Grove, IL;  barn and boat, just outside Ashton, IL.

A Jingle for Gentians

Blue ones

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cream ones

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some are sort of pink.

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Deep in the tallgrass

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they’re gone in just a blink.

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Unlike some other blooms

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They may be a tight squeeze

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That’s why gentian pollinators

tend toward bumblebees.

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Amazing diversity

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bison, butterflies, and flowers,

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One of the reasons why the

prairie’s where I spend my hours.

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If you haven’t been out yet

in the tallgrass  this season

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I hope you’ll find that gentians

give you a reason.

***(Cream ones blooming now….. blue and pink ones in bloom soon…)

All photos by Cindy Crosby: Top to bottom: prairie gentian, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum (Gentiana puberulenta); cream or yellowish gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP; stiff gentian (pink) (Gentiana quinquefolia), SP;  bottle gentian, Nachusa Grasslands (Gentiana andrewsii); cream gentian fading, SP;, tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), SP; bumblebee in cream gentian, SP; bumblebee outside of cream gentian, SP; bison, NG; monarch on rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), SP; woman working on prairie, SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and tallgrass, NG.

Got Milkweed?

I can’t fix the economy. I can’t create more jobs. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d never untangle the prolific muddle that is the current slate of presidential candidates.

World hunger? Seems overwhelming. Climate change? Ditto.

But there is one small thing I can do to make a difference this summer: Plant milkweed.

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If you missed the news, monarch butterflies are losing numbers. Big numbers. Agricultural land use, pesticides, and loss of habitat have decimated their populations. Monarchs are tattered. Fragile. Barely holding on.

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What can we do?

Plant flowers. Milkweed, to be specific. Here in Illinois, we have more than a dozen native milkweeds. Some are the familiar common pink, sweetly-scented globe-shaped blooms. Others are quite different, such as this whorled milkweed.

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I love the bright orange butterfly weed, also in the milkweed family. Think how pretty it would look in the garden! With a little purple prairie clover.

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All these milkweeds have one thing in common: They are the host plants for monarch butterfly eggs. Once the caterpillars hatch, milkweed plants provide them with life-giving nourishment.

Munch, munch.

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The math is simple.

No milkweed = No monarchs.

Don’t have a backyard, you say? Help restore a prairie or plant a butterfly garden with milkweed in a city park, and you’re helping the monarch butterflies.

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I know, I know. Restoring a prairie or planting milkweed in our backyards and neighborhoods  is not going to solve some of the big problems that our world faces. But each milkweed plant is one small step toward hope. One way to make a tangible difference where we live.

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One tiny spark that can ignite a sky full of butterflies. Do we want to passively accept another loss of something fleeting and lovely?

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Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love. The small changes we can make give us hope for greater changes we can’t make alone.

If only all the solutions to our problems began with planting more flowers.

What a beautiful world it would be.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): bee on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) , SP; butterfly weed, SP; monarch butterfly caterpillar on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) , SP; volunteer restoring tallgrass prairie, SP; monarch butterfly on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), NG; monarch butterfly on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), SP.

“Do small things with great love” quote is adapted from Mother Teresa (1910-1997).

A Wing and a Prayer

Do you know that Illinois has a state insect? No, not the mosquito. The monarch butterfly.

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Monarchs are familiar to those of us who spend time on tallgrass prairies, and probably the most familiar butterfly to people in general. Yet, at a recent class I taught, only about half of a group of 40 adults could name the monarch butterfly when I showed them a photo.

Hmmm.

I was surprised. As a kid with a butterfly net, these frequent fliers were the first butterfly name I learned. They were fairly unmistakable, although the viceroy butterfly is very similar.

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But the size (monarchs are bigger) and wing pattern (viceroy’s have black lines toward the bottom of the wing that are different) help distinguish them both. Look at the two photos. See the difference in the wing markings?

Monarchs, unlike viceroys, are known for their wanderlust. Every fall, they leave the snow and frigid temps of Chicago and head to Mexico, where they overwinter. Their offspring wing their way back to Illinois in the spring. How do they find their way home? No one knows. It’s a mystery of the best sort, a reminder that we haven’t figured out everything.

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It’s no secret to prairie lovers that the monarch butterfly is losing numbers. Big numbers. So much, in fact, that butterfly aficionados recently requested that it be given endangered species protection. It appears that the monarch hasn’t got a prayer when up against pesticides, used in agriculture. Why?

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Monarchs lay eggs. And not just anywhere. They look for plants in the milkweed family. When the caterpillar, or larvae emerges, it munches on milkweed leaves until it’s time for it to form a chrysalis. It eventually appears as a black and orange butterfly. But the milkweeds —which are treated by us as, well, weeds — are vanishing. And with the milkweeds go the monarchs. Imagine how we’d feel if our grocery stores vanished overnight! Monarchs are in trouble.

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With this in mind, the big news in Illinois is that state authorities will plant milkweed along tollways. This should establish more habitat for the monarch butterflies. Although I wonder about the juxtaposition of butterflies with semis racing along at 80 mph, I like the good intention. Hundreds of miles of asphalt tollway could be flanked by milkweed blooms.

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The plight of the monarch is a reminder of the importance of tallgrass prairies, which in Illinois, may contain up to 19 species of native milkweed. Prairies and monarchs are like peanut butter and jelly. They belong together. This spring, I’ll plant more milkweed in my garden. It adds beauty and interest, and I’ll lend a helping hand to a species in trouble at the same time. I’ll also volunteer more restoration hours on my local prairies; maintaining small life rafts of milkweed for the monarchs.

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I had to update my I-Pass at the Tollway Authority offices this month. I confess, as I waited in line to straighten out my account, I grumbled a bit less. I felt a little warmer toward this state governmental agency, thinking about the monarch butterflies.

( All photos by Cindy Crosby. From top to bottom: monarch, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; viceroy on mountain mint, Big Woods Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL; butterfly milkweed, SP/MA; milkweed pod, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn,IL: monarch on aster, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; West Chicago Prairie in March, West Chicago, IL)