Category Archives: Prairie

The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL

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.

Compass Plants (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Ruffles of purple meadow rue.

Purple Meadow Rue (Thalyctrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2016)

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

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.” 

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2015)

Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Pasque flower seeds (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

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.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

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!

Animal burrow and remnants of a pasque flower clump, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

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.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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…

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.

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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.

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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. Register 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. 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!

Prairie Fire Season

“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne

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It’s time.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.

Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.

Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.

Feather, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.

Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.

Upright Carrion Flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late figwort disappears into the inferno.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Shadow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire is usually something we fear.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.

*****

Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. 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. Registration 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. Register here.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL.

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

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The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

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Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

5 Reasons to Hike the November Prairie

“November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls”. —Jean Hersey

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November marks a tumultuous halfway point. What a month!

School playgrounds are empty.

Families fear to gather. Headlines promise no quick answers.

Pewter skies. Cold drizzle. Tornado watches. 50-mph winds.

Let’s go look for hope. Peace. Beauty.

Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.

  1. November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.

Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.

Thistles are an exercise in contrast.

Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.

So many seeds.

So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.

2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.

On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.

The skies are misted and vague.

The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.

3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.

Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.

A train blows its mournful whistle.

I listen until the sound fades away.

4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass. Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.

Rattlesnake master masters the curves. I’m reminded of the Olympic ribbon dancers; rhythmic gymnastics performed in taupes and beiges.

Yet these leaves are immobile. Grace and motion frozen in high winds.

Other leaves signal surrender. Tattered and shredded by weather.

I kneel by the compass plant, trying to read its leaves for direction.

It seems as lost as I am.

5. November’s prairie is art in process. What will you see there?

Works by the impressionists.

Echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Modern art?

Perhaps.

The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.

Ready for more?

Let’s go.

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Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.

All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Prairie Migration

“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”

—Maxwell Anderson

*****

They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.

Where are these dragonflies going?

South.

It’s migration season in the Chicago region.

Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?

My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.

In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:

A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.

A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.

These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.

There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.

September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.

Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.

A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.

Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.

Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.

I needed that this week. You, too?

It’s been bird migration time here in the Chicago region; more than 30 million birds were estimated to pass through Illinois in one 12 hour period last week. Jeff and I sit on the back porch and count the nighthawks high overhead; marvel at the hummingbirds that zoom in to fuel up at the feeder.

I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.

But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!

When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.

See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.

*****

The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

****

SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.

Join Cindy for an Online Class or Talk this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“A Tallgrass Conversation”Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

*****

Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.

I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.

In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.

Wildflowers wilt.

We need rain.

I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.

And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.

Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.

A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.

On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.

Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.

Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.

Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.

Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.

As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.

Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.

Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.

There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.

As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.

The road ahead is uncertain.

Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.

Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.

*******

Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.

****

All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

******

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Nachusa Grasslands in August

“There’s so much to discover! So much we don’t know.” — Sharman Apt Russell

******

Be careful what you wish for.

For the past week, I’ve hoped for rain. The garden and prairie have been crisped to a crunch. Now, I’ve added a new word to my vocabulary: Derecho. What a mighty storm passed through the Midwest on Monday! Hope this finds all of you safe and well.

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Hot and muggy August has brought more than storms to this week. Blooms! Butterflies. Bison shenanigans. Let’s go for a hike at Nachusa Grasslands, and see what’s happening.

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The bison bulls are sparring, bellowing, and generally kicking up a fuss. It’s rutting season. The peaceful notes of song sparrows and chirps of crickets and other insects are punctuated by sudden snorts, followed by puffs of dust.

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Bison normally ignore people, but in August, all bets are off. When working in bison units this month, I try to stay as far away from them as possible as bulls battle for mating rights. The mamas are also in a protective mood… nachusabison8520WM

…especially if they feel their babies are threatened.

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Despite their size (males can weight up to 2,000 lbs, females up to 1,100 lbs), bison can move invisibly through the tallgrass. Or so it seems! They can also run up to 40 mph. That’s a combination that demands respect.

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The tallgrass prairie is incomplete without them. Learn more about Nachusa’s bison here.

On the other end of the size spectrum at Nachusa are the springwater dancer damselflies. What they lack in size, they make up for in color. That blue! In bright sunlight, this damselfly is stunning.

SpringwaterDancermaleNG8520WMWM.jpgIn the shaded tallgrass along the creek, I see springwater dancers caught in a frenzy of love; making the mating “heart” or “wheel.”

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This mating between Odonates—dragonflies or damselflies—is one of the most amazing phenomenons in the natural world. As August slides toward fall, it seems to take on a new importance. The creek where they mate has seen a decline in damselfly species over the past few seasons. The next generations of Odonates depends on these pairings’ success. The springwater dancers give me hope for the future.

Along the creeks and across Nachusa’s prairies, August unfurls her blooms.

Gaura.

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Great blue lobelia, just beginning to open.

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Flowering spurge. So delicate! It seems as if it belongs in a florist’s bouquet. The “baby’s breath” of the prairie.

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Along the trails, another white flower—the whorled milkweed—is in bloom. It’s often overlooked as a milkweed. Those leaves! So different than the common milkweed or the butterfly milkweed.

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And yet. Look at the flowers up close. Yes! They have the unmistakable milkweed floral structure.

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Illinois has 24 species of milkweed; 22, including whorled milkweed, are native. How many have you planted in your yard or your neighborhood? I’ve only five milkweed species in my garden: the common, butterfly milkweed, swamp milkweed, green milkweed, and short milkweed, but it’s a good start.  In my yard and at Nachusa Grasslands, the bees are especially drawn to the swamp milkweed, sometimes called rose or marsh milkweed.

BeeonSwampmilkweedNG8920WM Milkweed has some of the best plant promotional campaigns in the world. (Just Google “Got Milkweed?”  Milkweeds are host to the larvae of the monarch butterfly, a charismatic insect that migrates from Illinois to Mexico each autumn. The first members of the migratory generation of caterpillars are emerging now! Next spring, a new generation of monarchs returns to Illinois in the spring.

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This monarch looks a bit shopworn; doubtless it is at the end of its allotted lifespan. I remember finding monarch caterpillars on my butterfly weed in my prairie garden early this summer.

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I’ve not seen any since, although I’ve seen plenty of the monarch butterflies sail through my prairie patch. And other butterflies, both at home and on the prairie.

One of the highlights of my hike this weekend at Nachusa is three yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, nectaring on Joe Pye weed.

TigerSwallowtailJoePyeNGWMCC8920

I spot the tiger swallowtails fairly frequently, although not always in these numbers. It was more unusual for me to see a half dozen common wood nymphs. They moved quickly from clover to clover. CommonWoodNymphWMNGBluestemBottoms8920.jpg

The eyespots of the common wood nymph—which give it its nickname of “goggle eye” —- are a lovely pale gold. And look at its particular color of grayish brown! I’d love to have a woven scarf made in the same soft hues.

I’m startled by something hopping at my feet and a flash of color. More gold. The bright and glittery gold of the northern leopard frog’s stripes.  I hear them at Nachusa—and see them plop-plop-plop into ponds—but I’ve rarely had time to study one at close range.

NorthernLeopardFrogWMCROSBYPLPondsNG8920

This frog kept me company for a while, then hopped off to a pressing appointment somewhere else. As it disappears into the tallgrass, my spirits lift. August is full of fascinating creatures. There’s so much to see. So much, right in front of me.

August is passing far too quickly.

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Autumn will be here before we know it.AugustNachusaGrasslands8920WM.jpg

 

Why not go see?

******

The opening quote is from Sharman Apt Russell (1954-), the author of An Obsession with Butterflies, Anatomy of a Rose, and Diary of a Citizen Scientist, from which this quote is taken. Russell lives in New Mexico, where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University. Thanks to Lonnie Morris, who shared Diary with me.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless indicated otherwise: (top to bottom)  sunset over Cindy’s home and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); springwater dancer damselflies in the wheel position (Argia plana); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis);  great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitica); flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollatta); whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata); whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) close-up of flowers taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum); common wood nymph butterfly (Cercyonis pegala) on red clover (Trifolium pratense); northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens or Rana pipiens); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); mixed wildflowers (native and non-native) at Nachusa Grasslands in mid-August.

Note: Bison in these photos are farther away than they appear; I use a telephoto lens.

******

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!)

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press, or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Bringing Prairie Home

“But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener.” — Doug Tallamy

*******

I’ve always been glad I planted prairie in my backyard. But perhaps never so much as this summer, when I, like other Illinois residents, am spending a lot more time at home.

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My suburban backyard 20 miles west of Chicago is less than a quarter of an acre, and bordered closely on all sides by some of the 300-plus homes in our subdivision. Our yard lies downslope of two others, and is often wet—if not downright swampy. When Jeff and I moved here, there were giant arborvitae, a few yews, and not much else. Gardening was difficult. After removing most of the Arborvitae and all the yews, we planted a border of prairie plants across the backyard. Their deep roots helped absorb some of the water.

Over the years, we’ve added numerous raised beds for vegetable gardening…

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…a small pond, and a mixture of native plants and favorite non-natives. I confess to a passion for zinnias; the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds go crazy over them.

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Our goal has become one suggested by University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy: plant at least 70% of your yard (by biomass) with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses native to your area. Why? It will nourish wildlife. When we plant, we try to keep insects and wildlife in mind. What plants are good nectar sources? How might we attract more butterflies? Which plants have good seeds for birds? Which plants are host plants for moth caterpillars?

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Diversity. We try to think about different plant heights, bloom times, and mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and bloom sizes in the yard. July is a good month to step outside and sit on the patio for a while. Observe. See what is working. What’s not working. Let’s take a look.

Currently, queen of the prairie at the back of the yard is a showstopper. That pink! And so tall—over six feet. Although the flowers have no nectar, they offer pollen to flies and beetles.QueenofthePrairieGEBackyardBestWM71920

A pawpaw tree behind the prairie patch is a host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

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I’ve not observed either of these in our yard, but I’m on the lookout! Meanwhile, it’s the eastern black swallowtails I see, drawn to the blazing star blooms by the patio.

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Culver’s root lights its flower candles in the prairie patch each July—the white so bright against the green! Bees of all kinds love it, as do moths, wasps, and butterflies.

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Nearby are the velvet flame-petals of cardinal flowers. Their bright scarlet screams across the yard.  Look at us! We can’t tear our eyes away. Red is an unusual color for prairie plants, and I watch for these in July, fingers crossed.  Sometimes they jump from place to place in the yard. Some years they’ve disappeared altogether. A few weeks ago I wondered if they were still around. And then—here they are.

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The hummingbirds love cardinal flowers. So do the swallowtails. And, when the cardinal flowers bloom, I begin anticipating the great blue lobelia, another favorite, which blooms a few weeks later.

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Each lobelia, a close relative of cardinal flower, is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. They mingle together along the edges of my small pond.

Cupplant just popped into bloom this week; sunny yellow flowers towering over my head. The plants’ joined leaves hold moisture and create a favorite watering hole for goldfinches after a rain or a particularly dewy morning.

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We have a saying in our prairie group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plant!” It’s such an aggressive plant in the right garden conditions, spreading every which way and dominating the prairie patch. Then, I see a bright goldfinch drinking from the cupped leaves in the summer or enjoying the seeds in the fall. It quenches my resolve to dig them up.

Today, I spy a monarch, nectaring on the blooms. Yes. I think I’ll keep cup plants around.

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Near the cup plants are masses of joe pye weed, which hint at the promise of a flower show in August. The blooms will be a big draw for the yellow tiger swallowtails that wing their way through our backyard.

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Wild bergamot—both the native Monarda fistulosa in lavender….

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…and an unknown species — likely a close relative of Monarda didyma--given to me by a friend, lure the hummingbird moths at dusk.

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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By the patio, the gray-headed coneflowers mingle with a wild asparagus plant, the ferny leaves shooting over my head.

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The asparagus came up wild; likely from a seed dropped by the birds at our eight bird feeding stations.  Or maybe we should call them squirrel feeding stations? These bird feeders, plus the native plants with their maturing seedheads in the fall, the water in our small pond, and heated birdbath in winter are a big draw for birds.

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The pond is a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies, including this great spreadwing damselfly sighted last season. I’d never seen it on the larger prairies where I monitor dragonflies, so what a delight to find it—right here, in my own small backyard.

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I’m on the lookout for it this month, but so far, it has eluded me. I commit to spending more time, sitting by the pond, just quietly looking.

Along the edges of the patio, well-behaved prairie dropseed forms beautiful clumps next to the second-year new jersey tea shrub. In August, the prairie dropseed sends up sprays of seeds that smell of buttered popcorn. It’s not a smell to everyone’s taste, but I love it.

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You can see my backyard is a little bit messy, a jumble of natives and non-natives, lawn and prairie. Weeds? You bet. Our lawn is a mix of species, from clover to violets to oregono and wild strawberries. The rabbits approve. But not everyone in my neighborhood understands.

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It’s important to me that my neighbors see our intentions for the yard—and not just see it as a jumble of plants. I want to woo them away from their drug rugs (as conservationists like my neighbor Jerry Wilhelm calls chemically treated lawns) and toward a more healthy yard. For this reason, we have several signs, including a Monarch Way Station from Monarch Watch and a Conservation at Home sign from The Conservation Foundation. I hope when they see the signs, and the butterflies, birds, and blooms, they’ll be a little curious. What’s going on over there?

I want them to know: Prairies are one of the most fragile, nuanced, and diverse places on earth. Full of amazing creatures and interesting plants.

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Every year, our yard moves a little closer to being more healthy. We’ve still got a long way to go. But the journey of bringing prairie home is a marvelous adventure, full of beautiful surprises.

It all starts with a single plant.

*****

The opening quote is from Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Wild Ones Native Landscapers recently put on a webinar with Tallamy that emphasized the need for at least 70% biomass of native plants in yards in order to sustain insects, birds, and the natural world. We’re still working on our yard—and we still have a long way to go. You, too?

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL , unless designated otherwise (top to bottom):  red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax ), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raised garden beds (thanks to John Heneghan, carpenter extraordinaire!); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on zinnias (Zinniz elegans) (photo from 2019); backyard planting mix of natives and non-natives; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) with a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) behind it;  eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) on blazing star (Liatris spp.); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) (photo from August 2019);  cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus);  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum);  mixed natives and non-natives; unknown monarda, received as a gift (possibly Monarda didyma?) with hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.); grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); author’s backyard pond; great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), photo from 2019); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum); July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m grateful to the Wild Ones Native Landscapers for their work with homeowners and native plant gardening in suburban yards, and The Conservation Foundation for helping gardeners  make our yards healthier and more wildlife-friendly. Thanks also to John Ayres for the cardinal flower seeds that helped me increase my population. Thank you to Tricia Lowery for the liatris and unknown monarda. Both are pollinator magnets!

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Discover “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Chasing (Prairie) Dragonflies

“Diversity creates the biological tensioning that makes life in general vigorous and sustainable….The loss of diversity, on the other hand, threatens all life with extinction.”–Barry Lopez

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Wendell Berry writes about “the peace of wild things.” I always need that peace, but this summer, I need it more than ever. You too?

Let’s go for a prairie hike.

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The prairie skies are full of beautiful clouds. How could anyone ever say they are bored, when there are skies like these to be marveled at? I could spend a whole morning, just laying on my back, watching the clouds form and re-form in different patterns.

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Sit up. Look around. So many beautiful wildflowers. They are opening so fast, it’s difficult to take them all in. Leadplant, with its tiny beetles.

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Common milkweed, with its incredibly fragrant globes.

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And Culver’s root, its candles of white flame flowers alight with tiny black bugs.

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So many amazing insects are flying! As I’m admiring some rattlesnake master coming into bloom…

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… I spy something different on the plant. See if you can spot it.

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Look who is holding on to one of the yucca-like leaves! A tiger moth!

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It’s one of so many moths on the prairie today. As I hike through the tallgrass off-trail, they fly up at my feet. Many of them are barely visible, hiding from the bright sunlight under the grasses.

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Butterflies, too. A monarch jazzes up the shadows under a little grove of wild plum.

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Pretty pearl crescent butterflies flutter everywhere.

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Mountain mint is covered with bees, flies, wasps, all humming and buzzing and sipping and tasting. A buckeye butterfly delicately samples some nectar.

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Then I see another brown flier (below). Moth? or butterfly? Take a guess.

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At first, I think it’s a moth. The coloration seems…well…”mothy!” But notice its clubbed antennae? That’s a good tip-off, I discover, that it’s a butterfly. If it was a moth, its antennae would be feathery or edged like a sawtooth. My skipper book tells me it is likely a duskywing skipper—possibly an indigo duskywing.  Nice!

A red-winged blackbird, sitting on top of just-about-to-bloom ironweed, warns me away from his nest area. I swerve aside. I’m not looking for any stressful encounters this morning. Just peace.

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Although I’m enjoying the beetles and butterflies and moths I see today, I’m looking for non-pollinators: dragonflies and damselflies. And I’m not disappointed.  Everywhere I turn on the prairie, there they are.

Halloween Pennants.HalloweenPennantSPMA71120WM.jpg

Widow Skimmers.WidowSkimmerFemaleSPMAWM71120

Eastern Amberwing males…EasternAmberwingMaleWFMA71320WM

…and Eastern Amberwing females, too!FemaleeasternamberwingfrontviewWMSPMA71120

Those long, bristly legs! Check them out. When flying, the legs can form a sort of “basket” for catching smaller insects as prey. Dragonflies perch, but most can’t walk. Amazing, that an insect which can fly so adeptly, doesn’t have this simple power.

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I love the female Blue Dashers, and their intricate patterns.

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The female Eastern Pondhawk is unmistakable. That vivid green!

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Whereas, the meadowhawk dragonflies are endlessly confusing, so I’m always grateful to see a pearly face. It’s the White-Faced Meadowhawk! The face is a helpful field mark.

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Damselflies are also out and about on these hot summer days.  This one looks like a female Slender Spreadwing. See how she’s holding her wings at a 45-degree angle? That’s a spreadwing tip-off. But females of this species can be easily confused with some other female spreadwings. Slender Spreadwing females  usually have pale veining at the wing tips, and I think I can see that here.

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I watch her for a while, marveling at the light on her prism-like wings. Then, she turns and gazes at me for a bit.

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Turnabout is fair play.

July is such a beautiful time on the prairie to marvel over clouds and wildflowers; butterflies and moths; dragonflies and damselflies. Why not be there and see them for yourself?

Bee on white prairie cloverWM71120SPMA

Come on—let’s go chase a few.

******

Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote kicks off this blog post, is the author of the recent Horizon (2019), as well as many other books. He won the John Burroughs Medal for Of Wolves and Men (1978) and the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams (my favorite of his books). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in March 2020.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless marked otherwise (top to bottom): the prairie in July; Ware Field prairie planting and wetland, The  Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; leadplant (Amorpha canescens); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); Rattlesnake master 2016 photo (Eryngium yuccafolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); possibly a virgin or phyllira tiger moth (Grammia spp.); unknown moth; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly a wild indigo duskywing skipper (Erynnis baptisiae); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata); Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) ; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis); female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly  (Sympetrum obtrusum), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on white prairie clover (Dalea candida).

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Join Cindy for online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

10 Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“In June, as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.”
— Aldo Leopold

*****

Almost cloudless skies, with a few swirls of cirrus.  Cool breezes. Warm sunshine.

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This past week has been near perfect weather-wise here in Illinois—about as beautiful a June as we could wish for. A good time to hike the tallgrass prairie. Why? Here are 10 good reasons to consider getting out there.

10. Butterflies. Tiger swallowtails, red-spotted purples, and even friendly little cabbage whites are aloft now, often flying tantalizing just out of reach. The meadow fritillary (below) gets its name, appropriately, from the meadows it likes to inhabit. It’s a regular visitor to the prairies in Illinois. This adult is nectaring on white clover.

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Viceroy butterflies are often mistaken for monarchs, but are smaller with a different wing pattern. They occasionally hybridize with the red-spotted purple butterfly, with stunning results — click here to read more about this interesting phenomenon. This viceroy is soaking up a little sunshine on a cool afternoon.

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The numbers and diversity of butterflies will accelerate this month, just as the prairie explodes into bloom. Which brings us to…

9. Wildflowers on the prairie are spectacular this month as referenced by Aldo Leopold’s quote that opens this post. You may see the first pale purple coneflowers, barely opened…

Pale purple coneflowerWM Belmont Prairie 620

…or wild quinine, its pearled flowers bright in the sunshine…

Wild Quinine NG61420WM

…or white wild indigo, unfurling its asparagus-like stalk into those blooms so characteristic of legumes…

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…. or indigo bush, sometimes called “false indigo,” abuzz with bees.

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June is the month when the prairie continues its crescendo toward July fourth, known as the height of bloom time on the tallgrass prairie. Difficult to believe that holiday is only a few weeks away! There is so much to look forward to.

8. A Prairie Wetland Serenade –that’s what the frogs and birds give us in June. Listen. Can you hear the “broken banjo string” sound of the green frogs?

So many layers of sound! Try to find a frog, and you’ll hear “plop-plop-plop” as they disappear in the water ahead of you with only a ring left on the water as evidence they were sunning themselves on the edge moments before.

7. Bison.  When you are lucky enough to visit a tallgrass preserve that has bison, you get a sense of what prairies once were, long ago. And why they seem incomplete without these shaggy behemoths and their little mini-mes.

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Although the Illinois tallgrass prairie didn’t have vast herds of bison, as the Great Plains once did, bison still performed critical functions such as wallowing, grazing, and leaving fertilizing dung on the prairie. By the early 1800s, bison had mostly vanished from the state. Their restoration today, such as the ones shown at Nachusa Grasslands, is a triumph for species. conservation.

6. Tiny critters, in contrast to the thousand-plus pound bison, aren’t always as noticeable on a prairie.

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And yet, without these little creatures—many whose names I’ll never learn—the prairie would not function as a healthy system. Easy to overlook. But no less important than bison.

5. Dragonflies  depend on many of these little creatures for food, and how can anyone fail to miss them? Common green darners fill the skies. Black saddlebags fly up out of the grasses at our approach. Sparkling gems everywhere, perched on twigs and branches. This male calico pennant has a row of tiny hearts on his abdomen.

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The female repeats the pattern, only in gold.

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This common white-tail (below) basks in the sunshine on a cool afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-70s F. Dragonflies practice thermoregulation, so rely on a combination of body and wing positions to keep their temperature warmer or cooler.

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4. Damselflies, the kissing cousins of dragonflies, are often overlooked…but why? They are glamour writ miniature. The ebony jewelwing damselflies are some of my favorites — the first damselfly name I learned was this one. This male (below), lounging by a stream, is resplendent in the sunshine. A showstopper worthy of his name.Ebony Jewelwing Beaver Pond NG61420

The female is similar, except it appears someone touched her wing with white-out.

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Variable dancer damselflies are smaller, but no less spectacular when seen up close. The male has an unmistakable violet coloration.

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Think of how many other damselflies, with their unusual markings and gorgeous coloration, are waiting for you to notice them!  Stop as you walk and peer into the grasses by the side of the trail. Sit quietly by a stream or pond. Damselflies are smaller than you might think. But watch patiently. You’ll see them.

3.  Trails through the prairie are an invitation to adventure. Do you feel your heart lift as you set off to stride down a familiar path? Do you anticipate what wonders are waiting?

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You never come back from a prairie hike unchanged. Perhaps it’s a new plant  you see, or the sight of an indigo bunting shattering all that green with its bright blue. The trail is your free ticket to the unknown.

2. Moths are not something we think about on a prairie hike so much, as many of them are creatures of the night. And yet a few of them are day-trippers. Stumble across a reversed haploa moth (yes, that’s really its name) and tell me you don’t have an extra few minutes to stop, and to marvel.Reversed Haploa Moth SpMA61520WM

This celery looper moth (below), barely visible in the shade of stiff goldenrod leaves, hints at a mostly hidden world; a world we have to show up at night to really see.

Celery Looper Moth SPMA61520WM Yet another dimension of prairie to be discovered.

1. Rest and Reflection are always part of being on the prairie. And yet. As I chased dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands this weekend, I stumbled across this carnage.

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Four dragonfly wings, doubtless the remains of a bird’s breakfast. The wings glittered with morning dew. Gently, I picked one up. It was clear, likely belonging to a luckless teneral dragonfly whose wings were pumped full of hemolymph, but wasn’t yet strong enough to fly. I see many of these teneral dragonflies and damselflies as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes. They are almost ready to fly; the coloration is not quite fully complete.Teneral Dragonfly NG61420WM

So fragile. Such brief lives! After emergence from the water, dragonflies may live a few minutes (which may have been the fate of the owner of the snipped off wings) or in some parts of the world, several months. Here in Illinois, a long-lived adult dragonfly marks time as a matter of weeks. Yet dragonflies are survivors, still around in much the same form as they were hundreds of millions of years ago. I find solace in that thought.

Time spent on a prairie is one way to make room for reflection. It’s a time to rest and unplug.Jeff at NG 61420WM

A time to explore. A time to discover. A walk on the prairie is a reminder that the world is a complex and beautiful place.

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All we have to do is make time to be there. Then, pay attention.

Why not go see?

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is the author of A Sand County Almanac; his environmental ethics articulated in this book helped frame the Wilderness Act in 1964 after his death. His book has sold more than 2 million copies.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): skies, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona) on white clover, a non-native (Trifolium repens); viceroy (Limenitis archippus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); false indigo or indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa); video of wetlands in June; bison and calves (Bison bison, photo from 2017); unknown insect on foxglove penstemon (Penstemon digitalis); male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia); male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); female ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); male variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reverse haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; celery looper moth (Anagrapha falcifera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; teneral dragonfly wings (unknown species); teneral dragonfly; reading and relaxing on the tallgrass prairie; June at Nachusa Grasslands.

Join Cindy for her online upcoming book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes!

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Pre-order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.