“Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers… .” — Mary Oliver
Rain, rain, rain. As we wake to another cold, wet spring morning in northeastern Illinois—with the promise of more in the forecast—it’s difficult to not get discouraged. Looking back over the past weeks…
…it seems as if the Chicago region is setting records for the wettest spring weather. In fact, as of May 15, this is the 15th wettest in the city of Chicago’s recorded history (since 1871).
Even so. It’s a lot of precipitation.
Whenever the sun makes a surprise appearance, it’s worth a trip to the prairies in my area to soak up every moment. Surprises await. The warmth and light coaxes out the early butterflies. Mourning cloaks emerge from hibernation, nectaring on bladderwort blooms.
In the dappled light of the prairie savanna, a female scarlet tanager perches, her more flamboyant mate nearby. What a pairing—the red and the yellow!
A lone sandhill crane flies over the prairie. Its rattling call seems lonely, without a supporting cast of another dozen or more birds. I wonder. What is it doing all by itself? I usually see the cranes in high-flying flocks. And why is it here so late?
I learn that a few sandhill cranes raise their young locally; as close as Fermilab’s natural areas in Batavia and other welcoming sites here in the Chicago region. It’s a shift from the past, when they summered further up north. I watch until the lone crane disappears, headed west.
At my feet, the cool, wet spring offers its own particular rewards. Jacob’s ladder tumbles across the emerald prairie. I’ve never seen it so prolific. So much blue.
The wild geraniums put in an appearance after what seems like endless delay. That color! They rim the edges of the prairie in pink. Happiest, perhaps, in the woodlands and savanna, where they enjoy more shade. Did you know wild geranium pollen is blue? Something new I learned this spring. I always thought all flower pollen was yellow, but it evidently comes in all the colors of the rainbow, from red to orange to green.
Shooting star reflexes its flowers, with plenty of buds promising more to open. Have you seen the bumblebees working their magic? They’re engaged in sonication.
…commonly called “buzz pollination.” The bumblebees vibrate the blooms with their “buzz” and shake the pollen out on the anthers. Nope, honeybees aren’t strong enough to pollinate these wildflowers. It’s another reason to care about bumblebees, if you need one!
Our local carnival has been in full swing downtown this week, much to the delight of our grandkids. When I see the wood betony on the prairie spiraling upwards, I can’t help but be reminded of those swirling rides: the tilt-a-whirl, the Ferris wheels, and those spinning cylinders that made me so dizzy as a kid. Festive, isn’t it?
Does the plentiful wood betony seem like a cheap thrill? If so, there are more exotic blooms waiting to be discovered. If you’re lucky, on a few of Chicago’s regional prairies, you’ll happen across the small white lady’s slipper in full bloom.
So tiny! Unlike its larger blossomed cousins, the pink lady’s slipper and the yellow.
I fall to my knees in the mud in admiration. Wow.
So perfectly formed. So delicately colored.
A fleeting delight.
But not the only one. The first wild hyacinths spangle open. Their distinctive fragrance and color is a magnet for human visitors. Bees, flies, butterflies and wasps also visit.
Right on schedule, blue-eyed grass (ironically not a grass, and with no blue center), shows up, low, tiny, and delicate.
If you study the blue-eyed grass closely, deep in the muck, you’ll notice other more subtle wildflowers. The bastard toadflax in pearly bloom. Erupting milkweed leaves. A mud-splattered Philadelphia daisy fleabane, unfurling its buds.
The new shoots of big bluestem appear, furred and supple. Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are easy to name, with their mounds of green. Other grass shoots spear their way across the wet prairie, difficult to ID. Switchgrass. Indian grass. Canada wild rye.
Summer wildflowers are leafing out. I reacquaint myself with each one, like seeing old friends. Some are months away from bloom, but already distinct. Culver’s root. The sunflower gang. Compass plant. Occasionally, you find a hybridization between the compass plant and prairie dock. Obviously, some Silphium hanky-panky going on here.
And suddenly, it seems, the starry false Solomon’s seal has opened everywhere; a constellation of knee-high wildflowers in a universe of green.
So much to marvel at. So much to pay attention to.
As I write these words, storm clouds are moving in…again. It’s difficult to remember what a sunny day looks like, after all the gloomy ones.
But after thinking about all of the joys and surprises of this cool, wet spring, I find it tough to complain.
The opening quote is by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver (1935-2019) from her poem, “The Wild Geese.” Watch and listen to her read her beautiful poem here.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby : (top to bottom): white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; storm clouds over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station Area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hybridization between compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; starry false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata or Maianthemum stellatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gloomy day at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. Special thanks to Donna U. for her great talk on wild geraniums and blue pollen.
Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking:
Tonight! Tuesday, May 21, 7-9 pm: Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL: “Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers” — Free and open to the public. St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL.
Thursday, May 23, 6:30-9 p.m.: Part two: “A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie” continues at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
Now through May 27: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online–continues at The Morton Arboretum. Next online class begins June 26. See details and registration information here.
“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free lecture followed by book signing, then a prairie and bison tour with purchase of a book. Seating is limited: Must pre-register here. Only 15 bison tour spots left! Thanks to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands for hosting this event.
“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Thursday, June 6 , 7:30-9 p.m., Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, WI. Bring a picnic basket for the social at 6 p.m. See details here.
“Dragonfly and Damselfly ID“—Friday, June 14, 8-11:30 a.m., The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Sold Out, call to be put on a waiting list.
More classes and programs at http://www.cindycrosby.com