“Prairies make level roadways for the soul to walk… .”—William A. Quayle
Woodland and savanna wildflowers have stolen the wildflower show over the past few weeks. Bluebells. Celandine poppies.
Dutchman’s breeches. Great white trillium.
Now, they begin to wither and go to seed.
The trout lilies, like so many of our spring wildflowers, depend on ants for seed dispersal, as do trilliums, violets, and many others. As the spring woodland wildflowers begin their march off of center stage, it’s time for the tallgrass prairie wildflowers to shine.
Let’s go for a hike and take a look.
At a glance, the prairie looks like nothing but green, green, green. But come closer.
Those sunshine swirls of wood betony! Low to the ground with dark red and green crinkly leaves. So unusual.
Also blooming on a prairie near you—golden alexanders.
Be sure and check closely, though. What if the flower is yellow, but has four petals?
It may be yellow rocket, a non-native invasive in Illinois, which is also in bloom.
We pull this invader from the prairie each spring, hoping to slow it down, as we do another member of the mustard family, dame’s rocket. And of course, we pull the garlic mustard—that terror of the woodlands and natural areas. There’s a lot of chatter right now about garlic mustard control. Should we leave garlic mustard alone? Bag it after we pull it? Or wait and hope the garlic mustard aphid shows up to help control the populations? For now, our stewardship group yanks it and piles it. We’ll see what the future holds.
Meanwhile, something is munching the new prairie dock leaves. Two somethings! Interesting.
Nearby, prairie violet is out in full regalia.
The prairie violets are one of several violets native to our tallgrass prairies. Unlike the native common blue violet (Illinois’ state flower), the prairie violet has deeply lobed leaves.
On the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, you’ll see it paired with the native wild strawberry.
The Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove wasn’t burned this spring, so I have to look deep in the grasses to find the violet wood-sorrel.
That color! Such a pale lavender.
The leaves of the violet wood-sorrel are as charming as the flowers.
Blue-eyed grass is another charming prairie wildflower.
Ironically, it is neither blue here, nor is it a grass. It’s in the Iris Family. And look at all those pollinators!
But it’s the hoary puccoon that I can’t stop oohing and aahing over today.
The ants seem to appreciate the hoary puccoon as much as I do.
My old friend, bastard toadflax, has opened.
What a beautiful day!
Wildflowers and grasses on the prairie are waking up!
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925) in The Prairie and the Sea (1905). An excerpt appears in John T. Price’s The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, University of Iowa Press, 2014).
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—Thursday, May 11, 9:30-10:30 a.m. Sponsored by the Hilltop Gardeners Garden Club, Oswego Public Library, Oswego, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information closer to the date, check here.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers of the Garden and Prairie, Tuesday, May 16, 10-11:30 via Zoom with the Garden Club of Decatur, IL (closed event for members). For information on joining the club, visit here.
I’m excited to moderate “In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon!
“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.”—Mary Oliver
August takes its last steamy, stormy breaths.
Tumultuous sunsets send me to the porch each evening to watch the show.
An unexpected health setback means no big hikes for a while. Instead, I go for walks around the yard. There is so much to see.
Look at the determination of this insect, making a beeline for the blazing star.
I like its single-minded focus on what’s in front of it. A reminder to pay attention to what I can do, instead of what I can’t do right now.
And what’s this? A Marine Blue Butterfly sips nectar in the front yard prairie planting. Earlier, I saw one of these “rare strays” to Illinois at Nachusa Grasslands, 90 miles west. But that was on a 4,000 acre mosaic of prairies, woodlands, and wetlands, where you might expect to encounter an unusual insect. I’m stunned to see this butterfly in my small suburban front yard.
Would I have noticed this tiny, nondescript butterfly if I was busy with my normal prairie and dragonfly hikes in the bigger preserves? Probably not. Maybe it’s a reminder that “there’s no place like home.”
My sneezeweed, now in its second year, is covered with winged creatures. I try my phone app iNaturalist on them for identification, but none of my ID’s feel certain. The insect world is so big, and my ID skills are so limited.
As I walk, there’s a loud chatter at the feeders. A downy woodpecker stops mid-peck to see what all the fuss is about.
A noisy goldfinch and furious hummingbird battle over the hummingbird feeder. A water moat keeps ants from plundering the sugar water. The goldfinch seems to think the water moat is his personal watering hole. The hummer wants a nip of nectar.
The defeated hummingbird brushes by my head in a whir of wings on his way to the neighbor’s feeder. I follow him with my eyes. And then I see it.
Not a hummingbird—but a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth! Its wings are mostly a blur as it works the zinnias.
One of the reasons I include non-native zinnias in my backyard plant mix is as nectar sources for hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, and bees. I watch this day-flying moth hover over flower after flower for a long time, marveling at its downy body and gorgeous wings.
When it flies away, I check the pond for visitors. Two frogs keep watch.
Kitschy, yup. But they started life in my grandparent’s garden, and now, they attend to mine. It’s a connection to the past that never fails to make me smile.
A wasp nestles into the marsh marigold leaves. For the millionth time, I wish I knew more about wasp ID. Wasps are such a large group of insects! I believe it’s a paper wasp. You can see where the old-fashioned phrase “wasp waisted” comes from.
A Margined Calligrapher—a type of hover fly—rests on Garlic Chive blooms. The chives, much like my pink garden Chives, have popped up all over the garden and close to the pond. Such a delicate insect!
Almost a dozen Great Blue Lobelia blooms are “blue-ming” around the water, and the insects approve.
A carpenter bee seems as enamored of it as I am. The flowers are deep sapphire! So very blue.
Meanwhile, any “blues” I had have passed.
An hour walking through the prairie garden has a way of taking care of that. Even if only for the moment.
The opening quote is by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) from her poem, “Don’t Worry” (Felicity). Although much of her poetry is set in New England and Ohio, her love of nature and ability to connect with the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives through her words transcends geography. Read more here.
***All photos in today’s post are from the Crosby’s prairie plantings and garden in Glen Ellyn, IL.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn
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. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.
The late poet Mary Oliver wrote a poem, Why I Wake Early. She had the right idea, especially this week, in the heat of a Midwest summer. It’s a good poem to begin the morning. Watch now, how I start the day, in happiness, in kindness.
Sue Monk Kidd (1948-), whose quote opens this blog, is known most widely for her bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees (2002). Mary Oliver (1935-2019) whose poem link is included here, was winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I find her poems are solace for difficult times.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
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; join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
If you love the natural world, consider helping “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our Midwestern “landscape of home.”
“Why are wildflowers so important to us who care for flowers? …to encounter them in their natural habitat is an extraordinary aesthetic pleasure… .” — Katharine S. White
Hello, June! I can’t wait to see what you have in store.
In my backyard this week, an eastern blue jay has commandeered the peanut feeder. Jays tend to be, well, a little possessive, so the other songbirds aren’t as delighted as we are about this. The striking sapphire and cerulean blue feathers bring Jeff and me to the kitchen window to watch it, every time.
It’s interesting to note that the “blues” we see are actually brown. The Cornell Lab tells me the brown pigment in the feathers, called melanin, look blue because of “light scattering” (read more here). Who knew? Evidently, the “blue” we see in other birds such as indigo buntings and bluebirds is also an optical illusion. Cool!
I remember when the Corvids were nearly wiped out by West Nile Virus almost two decades ago—and you didn’t see a jay or a crow anywhere. Now, when I hear a blue jay calling from the trees or see one at the backyard feeder I feel my spirits lift. It’s a story with a happy ending. We could use more of those.
Deep in the grasses I spy my first calico pennant dragonfly of the season. I don’t like to say I have favorites, but… how could I not?
So beautiful! Other creatures aren’t quite as flamboyant, like this bee, deep into an investigation of the cream wild indigo.
Or this tiny insect making a “beeline” for prairie alumroot.
I discover another little critter strolling through the prairie phlox blossoms. Can you find it?
And nearby, a carolina saddlebags dragonfly perches on an old plant stalk, soaking up sunlight. We don’t see many of this species here, so it’s always a treat.
Compass plant leaves, backlit by the sun, are a reminder of their towering flowers which will dominate the prairie in July.
Many of the first spring wildflowers are focused on setting seed. Wood betony’s tall stalks remind me of corn on the cob with the kernels gnawed off.
Nearby in the savanna, the snakeroot hums with more insect activity.
Nearby a pasture rose opens, flushed with pink.
What a pleasure it is to hike the prairie in early June!
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Katharine S. White (1892-1977) from her only book, Onward and Upward in the Garden. White began working at The New Yorker in 1925, where she served as editor for 34 years. She shaped the magazine in a way that is still felt today.She married E.B. White, a writer at the magazine, who wrote many books including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web; he was also the co-author of Elements of Style. Katharine’s book includes some lively critique of 1950’s seed and garden catalogs–fun reading.
Join Cindy for a Program or Event
Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.:The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members; to become a member visit them here ).
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Note: This event may be moved inside if inclement weather makes it advisable; participants will be notified).
If you love the natural world, consider helping “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our Midwestern “landscape of home”!
“No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants.” —Henry Mitchell
There’s nothing quite like finding two of the six branches of your pricey New Jersey Tea plant neatly clipped off. I’ve been babying my native shrub along this spring; bringing it pitchers of water and keeping my fingers crossed that it would leaf out. And it did. Only to be heavily barbered this morning.
I think I know who the culprit is.
Just the other day, Jeff and I saw her (him?) foraging along the fence line among some weeds. Awwwwww. So cute! Ah well. Looks like I need to protect my shrub with some defensive packaging. Wildlife friendly gardens are sometimes a bit…too friendly.
A week of rain and storm followed by days of wind and heat are turning the garden lush and green. Meteorological summer has arrived, and with it, a rush to get the last plastic pots of vegetable seedlings and native plant plugs into the ground.
It looks like sugar snap pea season is a no-go this year; I’m not sure what happened to my neat circle of seeds around the trellis planted a month ago. One day there were seedlings. The next? Gone.
I can hazard a guess.
Meanwhile, the Illinois prairies seem to be handling onslaughts of weather, “wascally wabbits”, and uneven warmth by flowering magnificently. While collecting dragonfly data at Nachusa Grasslands this week, my monitoring route took me through a surprise surplus of Golden Alexanders. I’ve walked this route many times over the past nine years, but never seen it like this.
It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.
Wild lupine is also in bloom…
…and colonies of meadow anemone.
The oh-so-pretty-in-pink wild geranium is in full flower, a reminder that I meant to purchase this at some of the native plant sales this spring for the yard. Next year!
As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.
The wings are so fresh! Teneral dragonflies are vulnerable to predation until the wings harden (which may taken an hour or so). Nearby I find two tiny damselflies. I think they are sedge sprites, but the eye color doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it is a teneral? I’ll have to browse the field guides at home to be sure.
Always new things to learn!
As I hike, the bison are grazing in the distance. I like to keep plenty of space between us, especially during baby bison season.
Less of a concern—but with a big impact— are the beavers. They’ve been busy as…well, you know….on some of my routes. In one area, they’ve constructed a new dam which turned my monitoring stream to a pond.
On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.
Beaver activity changes water habitat. Moving streams and still ponds usually host different types of Odonata species. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here over the summer, and if site management leaves the beaver dams and lodgings in place. Lots of suspense! Stay tuned.
May is migration month, and the soundtrack to my monitoring work is a lesson in listening. A flycatcher lands on a nearby branch. Is it the alder flycatcher? Or the great-crested flycatcher? Or? I’m not sure.
It buzzes a few chirpy notes, then vacates the branch for an eastern kingbird. I try to get the kingbird in focus behind the branch, but finally give up and just enjoy watching it.
That’s a busy little branch.
Wind gusts pick up, and clouds cover the sky. It’s time to wrap up my dragonfly monitoring work.
So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.
Just imagine what June has in store for us. I can’t wait.
Henry Mitchell, whose quote opens this post, wrote several enjoyable garden books which I re-read each year. Mitchell (1924-1993), a Washington Post weekly garden columnist for almost 25 years, is by turns funny, cynical, and reflective. He isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, which is one of the many reasons I love to read him (even if he does extoll the joys of the barberry bush!) The opening quote quote is from Mitchell’s book, One Man’s Garden.
Join Cindy for an event!
Sunday,June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Covid restrictions may apply. Click here for more information.
Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.:The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members).
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Rain date is Thursday, June 9).
If you love the natural world, consider helping to “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our “landscape of home”!
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” —Leo Tolstoy
I thought I’d missed the rare white lady’s slipper orchids as I’ve hiked the prairies in Illinois this spring. Turns out, they were just running fashionably late.
Aha! Here you are. Welcome back.
If you look at Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s amazing reference guide, Flora of the Chicago Region’s entry for the orchid, the blooms aren’t late at all. Their entry notes that this orchid may flower between April 23 and June 2. So “late” is relative—just my own experience. White lady’s slipper orchids are so tiny; not like their bigger cousins, so they are also easy to overlook.
In some regions of Illinois, these little orchids are visited by small native halictid bees. The scientific name, Cypripedium is from the Greek, meaning “Aphrodite,” the goddess of love and beauty. The specific epithet, candidum, means “shining white.” Appropriate for this unusual wildflower.
The legal status of the small white lady’s slipper is “threatened” in Illinois; it is also ranked as “rare.” White lady’s slippers are also monitored as Plants of Concern through the Chicago Botanic Garden to continually assess their health and abundance in Illinois. (Visit them to see how you can help!) These orchids are jewels of the moist sunny prairies, and don’t handle shade well. When prairie remnants are neglected and left unburned, shrubs and trees take over and reduce the amount of habitat for this wildflower. It’s another reason for us to manage and care for our irreplaceable tallgrass prairies.
These lovely orchids are also great ambassadors for conservation. While most folks won’t get too excited about other high-quality plants flowering now, such as bastard toadflax…
…. or hairy beardtongue, just about to bloom…
…or the common valerian…
…all ranked “eight” or higher in Flora of the Chicago Region’s co-efficiency of conservatism, they will get excited about lady’s slippers (a “10”–of course!). Orchids bring out the desire to protect and save prairies in Illinois. While the various prairie photo locations in today’s blog are left undivulged (for the protection of these lovely wildflowers), knowing the orchids continue to grow and thrive are a delight to our collective imagination. As “wow wildflower ambassadors,” they also help communities preserve prairies where less charismatic critters live, like the tiger moth caterpillars…
…or the eastern wood-pewee, which hangs out along the prairie edges…
…and other creatures which need healthy natural areas to survive. Finding the orchids alive and thriving this spring makes me feel optimistic for the future of the tallgrass prairie.
Note to the reader: No locations are given for today’s blog because of the conservation status of the orchid. The photographs above are from several different Illinois prairies.
The opening quote is from Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His writing on non-violent resistant influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature many times and also, the Noble Peace Prize, but never won; these decisions continue to be controversial today.
Join Cindy for a program or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more upcoming events, and updates on any Covid changes or requirements for in-person gatherings.
Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.
Sunday,June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made it such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here.
If you love the natural world, consider acting on behalf of Save Bell Bowl Prairie. Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for prairies!
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to mind?
Is it prescribed fire, decimating the old, and encouraging the new?
Is it the sweep of the charred land, with a whisper of green?
Is it the prairie in springtime, covered with shooting star?
Or do you imagine the summer prairie, spangled with blooms?
Is it the smell of prairie dropseed, tickling your nose in the fall? Mmmm. That hot buttered popcorn smell, tinged with something undefinable.
Or do you see prairie limned with snow, in its winter colors?
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to your mind?
Is it the call of dickcissel?
Is it a butterfly that you see in your mind’s eye?
Or is it bison, claiming the Midwest tallgrass as their own?
What comes to your mind when you think of prairie?
It isn’t as important what you think of when you imagine prairie as this: That you think of prairie at all.
And then, make it your own.
Here, in the prairie state.
Our landscape of home.
The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s (1947-2004) wonderful book, Journal of a Prairie Year. The full quote reads: . “The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.” Gruchow’s legacy of love for the prairie continues to connect and engage people’s hearts and minds with the tallgrass.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Just moved ONLINE: September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information.
ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.
“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.
Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.
The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:
“Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.“
I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.
Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.
Why not go see?
The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
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 pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock
Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…
…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.
Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.
1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.
Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.
Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.
After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:
The maples flare among the spruces, The bursting foxgrape spills its juices, The gentians lift their sapphire fringes On roadways rich with golden tenges, The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers, The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers, The squirrels scurry, never stopping, For all they hear is apples dropping And walnuts plumping fast and faster; The bee weighs down the purple aster — Yes, hive your honey, little hummer, The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”
I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!
And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.
2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.
Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.
Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.
Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.
This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.
I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?
Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.
I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.
So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.
What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…
3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.
In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.
This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…
…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.
I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.
August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.
You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?
The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
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 pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
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.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.