Category Archives: tallgras prairie

June Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“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

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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.

Eastern blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Out on the prairie, a field sparrow sways on a new white wild indigo spear, singing its accelerating series of notes. I have trouble telling sparrows apart, so hearing the song always helps.

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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?

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

So beautiful! Other creatures aren’t quite as flamboyant, like this bee, deep into an investigation of the cream wild indigo.

Unknown bee on cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Or this tiny insect making a “beeline” for prairie alumroot.

Tiny insect (unknown) headed for prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I discover another little critter strolling through the prairie phlox blossoms. Can you find it?

Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) with a critter, possibly the obscure plant bug (Plagiognathus obscurus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Compass plant leaves, backlit by the sun, are a reminder of their towering flowers which will dominate the prairie in July.

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

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.

Wood betony (Pendicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. Plus a tiny ant! Species unknown.

Nearby in the savanna, the snakeroot hums with more insect activity.

Common black snakeroot (Sanicula odorata) with one of the mining bees (Andrena sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Nearby a pasture rose opens, flushed with pink.

Pasture rose (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

What a pleasure it is to hike the prairie in early June!

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see?

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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.

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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).

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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”!

Showers of Wildflowers

“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

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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.

Rainy day at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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.

Mason bee (Osmia sp.) on daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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?

Lesser celandine, or fig buttercup (Ficaria verna), Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna, left) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris, right), Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and also, palest pearl.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.

False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.

Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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?

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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.

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Upcoming Events and Programs (more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

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).

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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 .