Category Archives: Native species

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

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Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

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Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

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September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

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A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

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The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

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Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

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A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

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The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

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The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

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A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

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A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

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A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

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Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

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Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

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Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

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But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

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…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

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The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Twilight in the Tallgrass

“Twilight drops her curtain down and pins it with a star.” — Lucy Maud Montgomery

Come with me. Let’s take a hike on the prairie at twilight.

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See how the slant of sunlight shapes shadows on the leaves.

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How the prairie dock forms a backdrop for wild hyacinths; a contrast of  leather and lace.

 

Soft impressionistic clouds of prairie dropseed light up as the sun slips beyond the horizon.

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At twilight, you notice the beauty of the back of a wild geranium, which looked so ordinary earlier in the day.

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You stand, astonished. And then, one by one, the stars come out, casting their star-shadows…

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You wait, and see a shooting star, or two, or three…

 

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Crazy constellations of flowers twirl across the grasses….

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…and galaxies of petals swirl their pollinating passengers.

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You think about your life, as you contemplate the play of light and dark.

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So much to see and think about, if you hike the tallgrass at twilight.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle,  IL:  trail through the prairie; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); wild geranium (Geranium maculatum); starry Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata); shooting stars, (Dodecatheon meadia); golden Alexander (Zizia aurea); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum).

The opening quote is by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the beloved author of Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels. She did most of her writing at twilight.

Beginnings

Morning dawns on the prairie.

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A lone red-winged blackbird calls. No breeze rustles the brittle, bleached out stands of little bluestem; the dry stalks of prairie switchgrass. The seedpods of of St. John’s wort and other bloomers have long since cracked open and dropped their seeds. There’s the promise of something new ready to germinate.

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Few flames from prescribed burns have touched the tallgrass here in Illinois … yet. But there is the rumor of fire.

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The temperatures have warmed. The wind whispers “it’s time.”

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Time for everything to begin again.

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To burn off the old; to spark something new.

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With the flames will go our memories of a season now past. What waits for us  …

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…will build on what went before, but is still unknown.

There is a sadness in letting go of what we have.

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Yet to not move forward– to shy away from that which that will seemingly destroy the tallgrass– is to set the prairie back. To keep it from reaching its full potential.

So we embrace the fire.

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We accept that things will change.  IMG_7100

 

We realize there will be surprises. Things we don’t expect.

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We strike the match. Say goodbye to ice and snow.

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Watch the prairie go up in flames.

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We wait to see what will appear.

On the other side of the fire.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) sunrise, Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie grasses and Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum pyramidatum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; eastern cottontail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;   prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  twin fawns, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; two-track through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

 

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.

Splendor in the Grasses

They came from the East, a land of trees and streams.

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When the early white settlers  first moved out of the shadows of the woodlands and forests, into the  blinding prairie light and sky…

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…they didn’t know how to respond to what they saw.

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James Monroe, who later went on to become our fifth president, initially disparaged a land full of grass and flowers.

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In 1786, he toured “the west,” which to Easterners, meant places like Illinois. In a letter written to Thomas Jefferson, he said:

“A great part of the territory is miserably poor, especially that near lakes Michigan & Erie & that upon the Mississippi & the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances & will not have a single bush on them, for ages.”

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Little did you know, James Monroe.

While some would find the prairie frightening, and return to the East, shaken and homesick…

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…and others would stay, but try to recreate the woodlands they’d left behind…

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…there would be those who found the prairie perfect: just as it was.

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For these settlers, the prairie grasses moved like waves in the sea.

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…or, like herds of buffalo, “galloping, galloping,” as Willa Cather once imagined.

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There was scope for the imagination in the wide prairie sky and changing tallgrass.

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These prairie settlers saw beyond the comfort of the known. Their ideas of the world expanded in new directions as they crossed the tallgrass and grew to appreciate what it had to offer.

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They were willing to think outside of conventional understandings of what was beautiful.

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They recognized the splendor in the grasses.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; SP; horses at Autumn on the Prairie Event, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Tellabs Unit, NG;  preying mantis, SP; prairie and two-track at NG;  spotted Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; grasshopper, SP;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), SP; prairie, NG; sumac (Rhus glabra) and grasses, NG; bison, NG; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) in autumn, SP; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), SP.

Bison reference is from Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

The Language of (Prairie) Flowers

If a friend gave you a bouquet of Jacob’s ladder blooms, would it be a compliment?  Or not? To find out, it’s necessary to consider the Victorian language of flowers and their messages.

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I looked at the language of flowers with my wildflower ethnobotany class this week, as we hiked the woodlands and prairie, thinking about way people have viewed blooms throughout history: medicinal, edible, and ceremonial. The idea of attaching meanings to flowers, then sending these messages to your friend or lover by including specific blooms in a bouquet, first began in the early 1800s. Today, floral dictionaries proliferate. The meanings of flowers may vary from guide to guide. The  meanings people attach to each species often tell us something about the blooms themselves.

If you sent your love a bouquet of asters, you asked her for patience. Not surprising that asters were chosen for this sentiment, as they are the last blasts of color at the end of a long prairie growing season.

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Give someone a buttercup?  “You’re acting childish!” 

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Wild geraniums celebrated your piety.

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A lady’s slipper orchid told that special someone– you’re beautiful. Not difficult to see how this bloom got its assigned meaning! Knowing how rare these beauties are — and how long they take to bloom from seed –is to realize that  a wild orchid in a bouquet would be a travesty. Much better to admire them in their secret prairie places.

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Blazing star? –Try, try again. The disks or “blooms” along the stem open in sequence, one after the other, from the top down.

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To add a wildflower to your bouquet from the mustard family, such as the weedy yellow rocket, was to say, You hurt me! Our conservation group pulls this weedy invasive from the prairie; it’s an unwelcome intruder. We put the hurt on it!

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Marsh marigold –Let’s get rich! And wow –look at all that gold! The best possible kind of riches.

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Woodland phlox, or wild blue phlox –our souls are one. The sweet fragrance of these blooms is one of the signature smells of spring.

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In summer, the pale purple coneflower sends the perfect get-well message– wishing you good health and strength.  Below it is shown blooming with coreopsis (you’re always cheerful!) and butterfly milkweed (hope). Viewing these beautiful flowers together is a good cure for the blues, if nothing else.

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Trillium is considered a tribute to modest beauty. Hmmmm. Not sure how someone would receive that. But how beautiful this spring wildflower is, modest or not.

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Violets are a compliment about someone’s worthiness. The violet is also Illinois’ state flower. Although — 1908 lawmakers neglected to tell us exactly which of the eight species of violet in Illinois was chosen!

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And –oh yes — those Jacob ladder blooms mentioned at the beginning. The language of flowers tells us their presence in a bouquet was to ask the receiver to  let go of your pride.

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Guess you’d have to choose the right moment to give that bouquet!

Of course, the best (and only!) way to share the message of flowers today is to leave them blooming on their conservation sites. A spring morning spent discovering “bouquets” in place, or different species  with your friend or loved one, then looking at your photos or a field guide over a cup of coffee, reminds us that the value of these blooms is far more than what we immediately see or any messages we contrive to send through them. Rather, we celebrate not only their beauty but also, their struggle for survival, and their persistence in the face of all the odds. They teach us the vocabulary of careful conservation. They encourage us through their presence to preserve what  is left. Through these flowers, we learn the language of  paying attention.

And perhaps, that’s the best message of all.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby: From top: Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Curtis Prairie, University of Wisconsin- Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; swamp buttercup (Ranunculus septentrionalis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum), NG; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), MA; blazing star (Liatris species), NG; yellow rocket (Vulgaris arcuata), MA; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), NG; phlox, MA; Schulenberg Prairie summer flowers, MA; white trillium (Trillium flexipes), MA; striped white violet (Viola striata), MA; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), NG.)

Links to read more about the Victorian language of flowers include: Random House: www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/features/vanessa_diffenbaugh/flower-dictionary/ and Victorian Bazaar: http://www.victorianbazaar.com/meanings.html. There are many more to explore!