“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle
What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.
As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.
How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.
The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.
What an exciting month to go for a hike!
The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.)Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra
Autumn settles in for the long haul. Carmine and gold kiss the green-leaved trees overnight. Overhead, cerulean blue skies dotted with puffs signal mercurial weather.
We wake this weekend to a light, patchy frost.
It zaps my basil and okra in the garden, but the zinnias…
….and the kale don’t seem to mind too much.
The prairie planting shrugs it off.
What’s a little frost? No big deal. It’s all par for the season.
As the weather turns chilly, our hibernation instincts kick in. Put on a jacket and go for a walk? Or curl up with a book on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate? And yet, there are so many reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in October. Here’s a little motivation to get us up off the couch and outside this week.
1. That color! The prairie draws with a full box of crayons in October, everything from blues…
…to golds that glow.
A dash of lime.
You might even discover autumn’s palette in a single leaf.
2. Flights of Fancy. Sure, the pollinator season is winding down. But the prairie still hums with life. Common eastern bumblebees lift off from every wildflower.
Late monarchs still cycle through the prairie and my garden. Hurry! Hurry.
Everything in the season says “It’s late!” An empty nest, invisible during the growing season, signals the transition. I think of an old poem by John Updike, “the year is old, the birds have flown… .” The prairie shifts gear from growth to senescence.
3. Stunning Seeds. Next year’s prairie floats on the breezes.
Other seeds wait to drop into the rich prairie soil.
The late summer prairie wildflowers are caught in the transition; some in seed, some in bloom, some still somewhere in between.
So much change! So much to see. And that’s just a taste of what’s waiting for you…
…when you go for a hike on the October prairie.
The opening quote is from baseball great Yogi Berra (1925-2015), who was known for his “Yogi-isms.” Another one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Join Cindy for a class or program this Autumn!
Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.
Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Click here to see what you can do to help persuade airport officials to preserve this important Illinois prairie remnant.
Beautiful Schulenberg Prairie Photo Exhibit! Local friends—don’t miss the MAPS special exhibit: “Seasons of the Schulenberg Prairie”, commemorating its 60th year. Sponsored by The Morton Arboretum from October 12-16. Free with Arboretum admission. For details, click here.
“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”!
“All we have to do is turn off our phones, use our senses, and take note of the bewitching beauty that turns up on almost every walk, often in the smallest of things—lichen, moss, insects, raindrops. Anyone can cultivate the capacity to marvel.” — Annabel Streets
Freeze warning. Monday evening, I cover the newly-planted violas in light of the forecast. I bought a few six-packs in a fit of enthusiasm a month ago. They’ve given me joy on my sheltered front porch. Flowers! Color. I’ve brought them in most nights, keeping them from the worst of the bitter temperatures. This weekend, the thermometer hit 80 degrees and I planted out one of the six packs as well as some of my spring garden vegetables. Normally, the sugar snap peas, onion sets and other early veggies would have gone in two weeks ago. But it’s just been so darn dreary and cold.
The hot weather this weekend was a nice break from all the rain, rain, rain. Our backyard is wet in the best of times. With the recent rainfall it’s a quagmire. Our knee-high waterproof boots, caked with mud, stand at the ready by the door—necessary for any trip to the compost bin, or to check on the status of new backyard prairie plant shoots. On one trip outside, I pick a bouquet of daffodils and find a sleepy native miner bee snuggled into the flower folds, out of the rain.
My marsh marigolds are relishing the rainfall. When we moved to our tiny suburban yard 24 years ago, one of the first things we did was dig a small pond and plant one marsh marigold on the edge. Yup, just one plant. Two dozen years later, they have spread, a golden necklace that says “spring” to me each season.
Some folks, seeing how rambunctious these marsh marigolds are, are suspicious. “Are you sure they’re not fig buttercup?” they ask, referring to a pernicious invasive plant, sometimes known as “lesser celandine” or even, “pilewort.” Although some sources say this invasive plant isn’t in my Illinois county, we know better. A wet area in the subdivision across the street has a large spread of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna, or if you prefer the old name, Ranunculus ficaria). It looks a lot like my marsh marigolds from a distance, doesn’t it?
Take a closer look. One easy way to tell the invasive lesser celandine from the native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is to flip the blooms over.
See the (somewhat blurry) three green sepals on the back of the lesser celandine on the left (top image)? The back of the marsh marigolds on the right are a solid yellow. There are other differences as well in the leaves and the flowers, but this is a quick and easy method for distinguishing the two. If you want to become better acquainted, grow the marsh marigold in a swampy place in your yard. Their exuberant blooms will cheer you every spring, even in the throes of our exasperating Midwestern swings of weather.
As you hike the prairies and woodlands this week, look for the marsh marigold blooming in the wetter areas. And think of the other wildflowers you’ll see! Hepatica, an early spring woodland favorite, keeps its old leaves through the winter. You can spot their dark maroon and bright green lobed leaves in the lower left-hand side of this image below.
Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.
Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…
…and also, palest pearl.
Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.
False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.
Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.
Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.
The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.
Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.
More wildflowers are in bloom, and many more are on the way. Who knows what else you might see? Daily, the blooms change as new species open and others decline.
As I hike, a burst of tangerine and black distracts me from the wildflowers.
It’s an eastern comma butterfly! It flutters across the woods, then lands in a patch of sunshine. Yes, I know it’s a common Illinois butterfly, but it’s my first butterfly sighting of the year. Delightful if only for this reason.
So many joys! So much to see.
Spring ephemerals, however, are just that….ephemeral. Blink! And they’ll be gone. Why not go for a hike this week and see them while you can? Who knows what marvels you might discover?
The opening quote for today’s blog is from Annabel Streets’“52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” One of my favorite passages is this: “Seek out the work of naturalists and nature writers, who can alert us to the miraculous spots of sublimity we might not otherwise notice. Knowledge doesn’t counter mystery; it enlarges it.” Absolutely.
Join Cindy for a Spring Wildflower Walk at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (woods and prairie, sold out) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.
May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.
May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).
May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Time is running out for our prairie remnants in Illinois. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .
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.