Category Archives: Prairie

A Tallgrass Garden Rain

“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood

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Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.

Torrential rains, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitum) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.

Spider web, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.

Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”

Possibly the transverse banded drone fly (Eristalis transversa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Corrections welcome!

I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.

Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.

I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) on arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.

However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.

Arrow-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum sagittifolium) with sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) in the background, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.

As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.

Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Facebook Page, 9-9-22.

I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and at the nectar feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) having a “where’s Waldo” moment in the neighbor’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.

We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.

Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…

Giant marconi sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum)—-these were all on two plants in one picking. Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.

Black beauty eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Black Beauty’) foreground) and ichiban eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Ichiban’ right), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!

Baba Ganoush and Stonefire Naan rounds.

As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.

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Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!

Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).

In Praise of Prairie Pollinators

“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury

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August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?

Black-and-Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) on White Prairie Clover, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

The patter of tiny insect feet?

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2021)

Bees bumble across the wildflowers.

Rusty-patched Bumblebee (Bombus affiinis) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Big Rock, IL. (2021)

Ambling beetles browse the petals.

Margined Leatherwing Beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Ware Field Prairie Planting, Lisle, IL (2019).

Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…

Orange Sulphur butterflies (Colias eurytheme), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…

Beautiful Wood Nymph moth (Eudryas grata), Crosby’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2019)

…with their beautiful markings.

Possibly Harnessed Tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.

One of the umbrella wasps (Polistes sp.) on aster (Symphyotrichum sp.) , Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!

Snowberry Clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2021)

Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Long may they thrive.

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The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.

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Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

A Moment of Prairie Peace

“When despair for the world grows in me… .” — Wendell Berry

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It’s tough to find words this morning. So—let’s go for a walk.

River jewelwing (Calopteryx aequabilis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

There is solace in watching damselflies. They flaunt and flirt and flutter in the cool July streams…

Ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) and river jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx aequabilis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Their cares are so different than my own. What do they worry about, I wonder?

Springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Perhaps they keep an eye out for darting tree swallows, or a floating frog.

American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Maybe they watch for a ravenous fish, lurking just beneath the stream’s surface. Or even a hungry dragonfly.

Virginia bunch-flower (Melanthium virginicum) and widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

As I walk and look around the prairie, I feel myself become calmer. The bumblebees and honeybees and native bees go about their life’s work of visiting flowers. Not a bad way to live.

Assorted bees on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Invitation”: “It is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.”

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I wade into the stream and watch the damselflies. Some scout for insects. Others perch silently along the shoreline.

River bluet (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Others are busy dancing a tango with a partner…

Springwater dancer damselflies (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…laying groundwork for the future.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) ovipositing, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Today, all I can do is walk in this world. All I can do is look.

Male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Pay attention.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I don’t want to stop feeling. Or stop caring.

Eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on unknown water lily , Lisle, IL.

I never want to be numb to the grief in this world, even when it feels overwhelming.

Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

But it feels like too much sometimes.

And even though the world seems broken beyond repair right now, when I look around me….

Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

… I’m reminded of how beautiful it can be.

Calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa) , Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

What will it take for things to change?

Common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Never give up. We need to leave this world a better place than we found it. Even when putting the pieces back together feels impossible.

I need that reminder today.

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Wendell Berry (1934-) is a writer, environmental activist, novelist, essayist, and farmer. The beginning of his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” opens this blog. You can read the complete poem here. It’s a good one.

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Upcoming Classes and Programs

Learn more about dragonflies and damselflies in Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, a two-part class online and in-person. Join Cindy on Thursday, July 14, for a two-hour Zoom then Friday, July 15 for three hours in the field at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Register here.

A Tallgrass Summer Solstice

“Ah summer! What power you have to make us suffer and like it.” — Russell Baker

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Happy Summer Solstice! The longest day of the year.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

And hello, first day of summer, astronomically speaking. We’re on track for one of the hottest days in the Chicago Region this year. Our local WGN weather bureau forecasts a high of 99 degrees and a heat index in the triple digits. Whew! Not a record, but close enough to make a little shade sound good.

Confused Eusarca Moth (Eusarca confusaria), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We need rain. Despite this, the prairies overflow with flowers.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

As I hike three prairies across two states this week, I chant the wildflower names to refresh my memory. Scurfy pea.

Scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Northern bedstraw.

Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Leadplant.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Bumblebees work the white wild indigo as the air hums with humidity.

Black and gold bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ants explore goat rue.

Unknown ant on goat rue (Tephrosia virginiana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

There are so many insects associated with these prairie wildflowers! So many insects unfamiliar to me. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.

Lance-leaved (sand) coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) with unknown insects, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I pause to admire a dragonfly, performing his balancing act.

Twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I love the male twelve-spotted skimmer; one of the easiest dragonflies to remember. It looks just as you’d expect from the name. As I get older, and my recall is less reliable, I’ll take any low hanging fruit I can get.

And don’t get me started on the juvenile birds…

Immature Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

…which may look different than their parents.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I spot my first buckeye butterfly of the season. Those rich colors!

Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Then I puzzle over some wildflowers whose name I struggle to remember. I snap a photo with iNaturalist, my phone app.

Wild four o’clocks (Mirabilis nyctaginea), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Wild four o’clocks! A non-native in Illinois. And this one?

Clasping (or “common”) Venus’ looking glass (Triodanis perfoliata), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I have to look it up with my app, then revisit Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region when I return home. Venus’ looking glass is a weedy native, but no less pretty for that.

Well, at least I can identify these mammals without an app. No problem with the scientific name, either.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I love the juxtaposition of the bison against the semis on the highway. A reminder of the power of restoration.

All these wonders under June skies.

Half moon, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much waiting to be discovered.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Hello, summer. Welcome back!

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Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a columnist for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Growing Up. He also followed Alistair Cooke as the host of Masterpiece Theater.

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Month

Wednesdays, June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here (only a few spots left!); join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.

Wild and Wonderful March Prairie

“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt

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Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.

It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.

Crocus (Crocus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!

Daffodils (Narcissus sp.) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…

Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.

Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.

Crosby’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.

Buttonbush ( Cephalanthus occidentalis) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Other natives like prairie smoke….

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re one week into the month of March.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.

View from the prairie, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?

Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.

I can’t wait.

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The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

March 8, 7-8:30pm — Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers in the Garden at Twig and Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. More information here.

March 9, 1-2:30 pm— Illinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park, IL (Open to the public). Details here.

March 26, 10-11:30 amIllinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Brookfield Garden Club, Brookfield, IL. (Closed event for members only)

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL. Contact the club here for details.

A Tallgrass New Year

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland

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And so 2021 comes to a close.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is stripped to bare essence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”

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

2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.

Ball gall, Lyman Woods prairie kame, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ve learned we are fragile.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.

Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.

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

Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Random tree creation found in Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) in late December, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy New Year!

*****

Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for The New York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.

****

Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.

*****

Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022. Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

******

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

******

Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.

B is for Bison at Nachusa Grasslands

“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella

******

Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”

Bison (Bison bison).

I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…

Common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia).

…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.

Bison (Bison bison) herd.

When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!

Bison (Bison bison).

Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.

Bison calf (Bison bison).

They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.

Young green frog (Lithobates clamitans).

I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.

Bison (Bison bison).

I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.

Bison (Bison bison).

I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.

Bison calf (Bison bison).

Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.

I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…

After the bison came through.

…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.

Chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria)).

Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.

Blazing star (Liatris spp.).

Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!

Summer at Nachusa Grasslands.

With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…

Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens).

…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….

Short-horned grasshopper (Family Acrididae).

… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.

Summer at Nachusa Grasslands.

The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!

Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).

*****

All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.

New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction is available from your favorite independent bookseller.

The Promise of Prairie Pasque Flowers

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

*******

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

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.

*******

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

*******

Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. 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

*****

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.

*****

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.