“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra
Autumn settles in for the long haul. Carmine and gold kiss the green-leaved trees overnight. Overhead, cerulean blue skies dotted with puffs signal mercurial weather.
We wake this weekend to a light, patchy frost.
It zaps my basil and okra in the garden, but the zinnias…
….and the kale don’t seem to mind too much.
The prairie planting shrugs it off.
What’s a little frost? No big deal. It’s all par for the season.
As the weather turns chilly, our hibernation instincts kick in. Put on a jacket and go for a walk? Or curl up with a book on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate? And yet, there are so many reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in October. Here’s a little motivation to get us up off the couch and outside this week.
1. That color! The prairie draws with a full box of crayons in October, everything from blues…
…to golds that glow.
A dash of lime.
You might even discover autumn’s palette in a single leaf.
2. Flights of Fancy. Sure, the pollinator season is winding down. But the prairie still hums with life. Common eastern bumblebees lift off from every wildflower.
Late monarchs still cycle through the prairie and my garden. Hurry! Hurry.
Everything in the season says “It’s late!” An empty nest, invisible during the growing season, signals the transition. I think of an old poem by John Updike, “the year is old, the birds have flown… .” The prairie shifts gear from growth to senescence.
3. Stunning Seeds. Next year’s prairie floats on the breezes.
Other seeds wait to drop into the rich prairie soil.
The late summer prairie wildflowers are caught in the transition; some in seed, some in bloom, some still somewhere in between.
So much change! So much to see. And that’s just a taste of what’s waiting for you…
…when you go for a hike on the October prairie.
The opening quote is from baseball great Yogi Berra (1925-2015), who was known for his “Yogi-isms.” Another one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Join Cindy for a class or program this Autumn!
Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.
Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Click here to see what you can do to help persuade airport officials to preserve this important Illinois prairie remnant.
Beautiful Schulenberg Prairie Photo Exhibit! Local friends—don’t miss the MAPS special exhibit: “Seasons of the Schulenberg Prairie”, commemorating its 60th year. Sponsored by The Morton Arboretum from October 12-16. Free with Arboretum admission. For details, click here.
“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood
Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.
In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.
Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.
In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.
As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”
I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.
Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.
The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.
I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.
No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.
On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.
The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.
However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.
I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.
As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.
Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.
I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….
…and at the nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.
We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.
Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.
We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.
Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…
…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.
I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!
As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.
September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.
Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!
Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).
“We might think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden which is really nurturing us.” –Jenny Uglow
How can it be the end of July?
In my backyard, the first thunderstorms in weeks water the parched prairie patch. Queen of the Prairie has weathered the recent drought amazingly well. It showers with us with pink flowers.
Queen of the Prairie is a great plant for our “subdivision slope” issue. Our backyard is at the confluence of two properties that are higher. Water drains from neighboring yards into ours. Fortunately, Queen of the Prairie helps soak up water run-off, and is deer and rabbit resistant. Next to its pink, lavender Sweet Joe Pye Weed is coming into bloom.
I’m not sure the recent rains are in time for the Cardinal Flowers; none are blooming yet this season. It’s still early, but I wonder. Cardinal Flower is capricious. One year, you see red everywhere, the next, zilch. Just when I think I’ve lost Cardinal Flower for good, however, up it pops. My fingers are crossed.
But I do spot a single scarlet flower in my new front yard prairie pollinator patch, which is coming along nicely for its first season. It’s not Cardinal Flower.
Yes! The Royal Catchfly, in its first year, gives me one bloom. It’s so low to the ground, I almost miss it.
Despite the ongoing battles with the bunnies—and the lack of rainfall until recently— the vegetable garden is thriving. After fencing the raised bed, the chewed-off green bean plants are zipping skyward on their trellis.
The backyard and front yard prairie plantings both soldier on, despite carnage from the neighborhood bunnies’ prodigious appetite. In the new front yard prairie pollinator patch, the Sky Blue Asters, Blazing Star, and Pale Purple Coneflowers have sustained the worst damage. Although nibbled almost to death, they are still viable. If I was starting this planting again, I’d fence it. Too late! Instead I shoo the rabbits away when I water, and hope the foot traffic during the day is a deterrent.
We live in a neighborhood with a lot of walkers and bikers, so the sign and metal butterfly (below) are an important part of conveying what these wildflowers and grasses are all about.
In the backyard, New Jersey Tea, scissored by rabbit teeth, managed to put out a few blooms in early July. It’s now developing seeds for the first time. I feel a real sense of accomplishment, which is difficult to explain to those who haven’t tried growing this prairie shrub in rabbit-ish conditions.
2021 was our “Year of the Native Shrub,” and we attempted to rectify our lack of such in one fell swoop. We planted two Spice Bush, an American Hazelnut, a fall-blooming Witch Hazel , and five bush honeysuckles (the native Diervilla lonicera, not the invasive types). The pair of Spice Bush shrubs went into a sloped flower bed, where they may have to be eventually moved because of their height (ah, well). They are in a prime spot for Spice Bush Butterfly viewing from the patio. None sighted yet, but I live in hope. The Bush Honeysuckle is tough. Despite the lack of rainfall, all five honeysuckles are still alive and kicking.
We also put in a long-desired Button Bush shrub close to the pond last fall, after first ripping out a bird-planted alder. The shrub doesn’t look like much right now….
…but I’m grateful it made it through the winter.
Now, it is putting on growth. Despite the drought. Despite the rabbits. When I see the towering specimens—up to eight feet high in the natural areas where I volunteer—I can dream of what this shrub will eventually look like.
Now I’m trying to decide what shrubs to plant in the deep shade along the front of the house. It currently hosts a few scraggly Japanese Spirea and crowded Hosta plants, all which were here when we purchased our home 24 years ago. Their days are numbered.
Countless hours will pass this summer poring over native plant websites like Possibility Place and Prairie Moon, and planning purchases for next spring’s local native plant sales. Reading these plant sale lists is a welcome respite from the latest news cycle. Gardening is an act of hope.
And—any time in the garden and prairie is time well spent.
Jenny Uglow (1947-) is an English writer and historian, known for her biographies and portrayal of scientific thought. Read more about her here.
One of the best things you can do for a home prairie is to invest in a good sign for your planting. Neighbors will have a better grasp of what you are up to; a few garden pieces (like my metal butterfly shown in the blog post today) also convey meaning without anyone reading a word. The Conservation Foundation has a great certification program with a sign in the Chicago Region; Wild Ones Native Plant groups, and Monarch WayStation signs are all available across the United States. Browse Etsy and online websites for more unique signs. Or make a sign yourself! Good signs are ambassadors for prairie.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Joyful—now there’s a word we haven’t used in a while.” —Louise Glück
Snow! Glorious snow.
The prairie is adrift with powdery snow, underlaid with ice. Sure, it makes it tougher to get around.
But don’t you love how the snow crystals catch in the prairie dock leaves?
Do you delight in how bright the world suddenly seems?
Do you marvel at how the snow freshens the worn-out and weary? Changes your perspective?
The temperatures are plummeting to minus seven. Minus seven! And yet. It doesn’t matter. Because—that snow!
This week, the world still feels out of kilter. Topsy-turvy.
I’ve forgotten what “normal” is.
But today, that’s okay.
Even clearing the driveway to drive to the prairie isn’t so bad, knowing a hike awaits.
It all feels worthwhile. There are still shadows. But the world seems like a more hopeful place.
Full of possibilities. Potential.
Because of the snow.
I’m reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel Prize winning, the you-name-it-she’s-won-it prize-winning poet Louise Glück’s (1943-) latest, Winter Recipes from the Collective. It’s a cold, dark read, with a little bit of hope. Good January poetry. Read more about Glück here.
Join Cindy for a program this winter!
“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Now all online). Register here.
February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world. February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.
March 3–Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.
“I wish you peace, when the cold winds blow….”— Patti Davis and Bernie Leadon
Strange weather. Crazy headlines. The holidays. I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy, turning out cinnamon rolls, Italian Christmas cookies, and bread. Lots of bread. All good—but if I’m going to bake—I need to hike. And nowhere is hiking better than the tallgrass prairie.
What about you? Why not come along? Enjoy a stress-free hour. Blow those stressful headlines out of your mind. On the prairie, your biggest decision is not what size/what color/how much and “will it arrive in time?” Rather, it’s…
Which trail should I take?
Or, Which aster is that?
Take a deep breath. Listen. What’s that sound? Perhaps it’s the ice cracking under your boots.
The hushed whisper of wind stirring the tallgrass.
Or the chick-a-dee-dee-dee song rising from a tiny fluff-ball in the prairie shrubs.
So many wonders are all around, changing from moment to moment. Simple things, like a jet etch-a-sketching its way across the prairie sky, leaving contrails in its wake.
The accordion shape of a December prairie dock leaf.
Look for its soul-sister, compass plant,aging gracefully nearby.
Go ahead. Look. Really look. Let it soak in.
Admire the prairie in its December garb, from a single leaf…
…to its chorus of spent wildflowers…
…to the reflections in a prairie stream.
Then, find some milkweed floss.
Thank the plant for its service to monarchs this year. Pluck a single seed, make a wish, and send that seed on its way.
As it travels on the wind, let your worries and stresses go with it.
Then, pause. Tuck away this memory for later, when you need a good one.
Here’s wishing for a peaceful week ahead for you. Enjoy the hike.
The opening quote is from Patti Davis’ and Bernie Leadon’s song, “I Wish You Peace,” sung by the Eagles on their album, One of These Nights. Disagreement over including the song on that album is said to be one of the last straws that led to Bernie leaving the group; he was replaced by Joe Walsh. Oddly enough, Patti Davis is the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, which was said to be another part of the dispute. An interesting story about how she came to write a song for the Eagles can be found here. “I Wish You Peace” is often dismissed as a “trite and smarmy” song, but Jeff and I had it sung at our wedding, almost 40 years ago. Still love it.
Seven years ago, I penned “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” for the first time and invited you to come along for a hike each week. Where did the time go? Thanks for reading, and thanks for your love of the natural world. And thank you for sharing prairie, and keeping the tallgrass alive in people’s hearts and minds. I’m grateful.
Join me in 2022 for a prairie program! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for current class and program listings. Need a speaker for your event, class, or program? See the website for more information.
“I started with surprise and delight. I was in the midst of a prairie! A world of grass and flowers stretched around me… .” — Eliza Steele
The summer speeds by. Where did June go?
Each day in June on the tallgrass prairie is another exercise in wonder.
The last days of June seem determined to bombard us with blooms.
Pearls of wild quinine wash across the prairie.
Pale pink Kankakee mallows spike through cordgrass. My, what big leaves you have!
Bright white candles of Culver’s root light up the tallgrass.
Purple sparklers of leadplant, ready for the Fourth of July.
And, tumbling across the prairie in drifts: Scurfy pea. What a great name!
June dazzles us with unexpected delights.
June puzzles us with stranger-than-strange creatures.
June wows us with wildflowers.
Even the late June skies are full of marvels from moment to moment; from storm to storm.
This month, so much vies for our attention. Each flower seems to have a tiny pollinator in residence.
Or two. Or three. Or more!
Looking back on June, it was a wonderful month to hike the tallgrass prairie.
How will July on the prairie ever measure up to June?
Impossible for July to do so, it seems. The past weeks have been so beautiful. And yet.
I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.
The opening quote is from Eliza Steele’s journal, written in 1840 as she rode to Peoria by stagecoach from Chicago. Her journal was later published as the book, A Summer Journey in the West in 1841. Interested in learning more about her journey? Check out Midewin Tallgrass Prairie’s webinar “On the Trail of Eliza Steele” July 7, 6-7 p.m. CDT, by calling 815-423-6370.
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
“The month of June trembled like a butterfly.” —Pablo Neruda
Mother Nature ushered in the summer solstice Sunday with plenty of drama; severe drought here in my part of Illinois, followed later that night by wicked thunderstorms and a tornado touchdown nine miles from our house. If it was March, we’d say the solstice “came in like a lion.” Our hearts go out to those affected by the storm.
Weather aside, it’s been a week full of wonders in the tallgrass.
While chasing dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I spotted a dozen or so regal fritillary butterflies, flying through the pale purple coneflowers, prairie coreopsis, and white wild indigo.
And almost always—a dragonfly. Seeing them is often the stated motivation for so many of my summer prairie hikes.
But even when I’m monitoring, clipboard in hand, my prairie hikes are about so much more than counting dragonflies. I go for the solace I feel under a wide-open prairie sky.
The joy of discovery. The delight of the unexpected.
My body is tuned to “prairie time.” The signs of summer are there to be read in the opening of wildflowers, the arrival of birds, the explosion of insects, the shifts of weather. The prairie tells us we are closing in on the Fourth of July. How? Lead plant lights its floral fireworks.
The orderly unfolding of summer on the prairie is a reassurance in a time where we crave normalcy. The tallgrass is a spendthrift; it keeps on giving. Brimming with bugs, overflowing with wildflowers.
There is so much to take in.
So much to be grateful for.
The opening quote is from the poem “The Month of June” by Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1971) and is known for his passionate love poems.
Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. You will then put your skills to work outside on your own during the following week in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join us on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer
June is underway, throwing curveballs. How about a 90 degree-plus day? A little severe drought, followed by the promise of thunderstorms? The prairie yawns. No problem.
The prairie is both fragile and resilient; broken and strong. Over years it has almost vanished, but now, with the help of volunteers and stewards, we’re seeing more prairies planted and prairie remnants cared for. Even though we can’t replicate the original remnant prairies we’ve lost, it’s a start. In June, these prairies are full of marvels. As the month unfolds, wonders unfold as well. Here are three reasons to go for a hike this week and see some of these wonders for yourself.
1) Discover who has been spitting on the prairie plants: You’ve seen it–gobs of gooey bubbles on prairie wildflower stems and leaves. This is not hiker residue! It’s a sign of the spittlebug. As the insect nymph feeds on plant sap, it blows bubbles to form a protective froth that keeps it hidden from predators. The bubbles also serve as insulation against temperature swings and keep the spittlebug moist during times of drought.
In my part of the tallgrass prairie region, I discover, our species is the “meadow spittlebug” Philaenus spumarius. You might also hear folks call them “froghoppers.” The bubbles are composed of air mixed with excess sap, which the nymph blows out its… er…. backside. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison, the tiny insect can blow out as many as 80 bubbles a minute! That’s a lot of bubbles.
If you don’t want spittlebugs on your garden prairie plants, the Illinois Extension suggests hosing them off. It will slow the little bubble-makers down a little—but of course, they’ll still hang around. . In my backyard prairie patch, I’ve never had enough of them to worry much. I enjoy seeing these “tiny bubbles” (sing it with me!) on the prairie, and thinking about yet another unusual and memorable citizen of the diverse prairie community.
2) Frequent Fliers are Out: Skippers, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are showing up in larger numbers now on the prairie. I’ve had my Illinois skipper ID book out for the first time this year, trying to ID some orange-tan look-alikes. This one appears to be the “Hobomok Skipper”, although I’m never 100 percent sure with these little critters.
I have more ID confidence with the female common whitetail dragonfly; a frequent sighting on the prairie in June.
Ditto for the first calico pennants, one of my favorite prairie fliers.
Even though the male eastern forktails are one of the most numerous damselflies in the Chicago region, they always awe me with their bright blue abdominal tip; their vibrant neon green thorax stripes. And those eyes and eyespots! “The better to see you with”—indeed!
3) New wildflowers open each day: I know I keep saying it each week — but there are so many new blooms on the prairie to discover! Seeing the first pale purple coneflower on my workday June 1 was a great way to usher in the first day of meteorological summer. Have you seen them yet?
I enjoy the different prairie pairings, such as the way the giant prairie dock leaf mingles with this not-yet-blooming pale purple coneflower.
And I wonder. Why do the stems of the pale purple coneflower twist and turn? One of my prairie volunteers asked me this question—and—I have no idea! But I love the sense of motion they bring to the tallgrass; almost as if they were swaying underwater.
They seem to be dancing to some unheard music that only coneflowers can hear. If you picked a song for coneflowers to dance to, what would it be?
Insects and spiders have been hard at work, doing June tasks on the prairie. How did this spider capture a golden alexanders plant so completely? I’ve been on this particular prairie for more than two decades, and have never seen a weaving quite like this one.
One of the joys of the June prairie is finding the panic grass in full “bloom.”
And these “bugs” and blooms are only a few of the wonders unfolding. The grasses are complex—and already, making their presence felt among the wildflowers.
Spending time on the prairie—walking it in all weathers, touching the leaves, admiring the wildflowers and grasses, marveling at the spiders and insects — is a way to come into relationship with a small part of the natural world. As one of many volunteers who love and care for this prairie through acts of restoration, I feel satisfaction helping heal a system that has been broken.
And, as I hike, I find that the prairie helps heal some of what has been broken in me.
Good reasons—all of them—to go for a hike on the June prairie.
Robin Wall Kimmerer (1953-) is the author of the bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass. My favorite of her books is Gathering Moss. If you haven’t read both books, you’re in for a treat.
Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, to poetry, 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST–Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies:Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.
It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.
Ruffles of purple meadow rue.
These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.
Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.
When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.
The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.
I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer “Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.”
On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.
Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.
I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…
…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.
There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.
In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.
Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.
By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.
In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!
An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.
During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.
More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.
Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.
We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.
Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…
No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Registerhere.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.
***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.