Category Archives: the nature conservancy

Tea in the Tallgrass

It’s been a wet year so far on the Illinois prairie, and at least one tallgrass plant seems to be enjoying the drippy conditions. Wild bergamot. Or, as many of us call it, “bee balm.”

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It’s this perennial’s pretty lavender blooms, shading to pink or white, that add a little pastel color to prairies in Illinois, July through September. Butterflies, hummingbirds, sphinx moths and —- you guessed it — bees —find bee balm irresistible.

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And oh! The delicious smell of the leaves. Crush one between your fingertips and mmmmmmmm. Minty? Maybe oregano-ish? Or thyme? I’ve heard all of these scents from sniffing prairie visitors and natural history students. Bee balm is in the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has the square stem to prove it. Many people think the smell of wild bergamot is the smell of the tallgrass prairie. I do.

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Tear off a leaf of wild bergamot — Monarda fistulosa — and chew it. Feel your mouth tingle? It’s considered astringent, and the taste can be very strong.

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Native Americans liked to brew a tea or make infusions from the leafy foliage and flower heads as a cure for everything from a fever to a headache.

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Today, you’ll still find people drinking wild bergamot tea as an herbal remedy.  I find it refreshing. A few wild bergamot leaves, some red clover heads for a sweetener, and presto — delicious foraged tea!

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One misconception I had when first was introduced to wild bergamot was that it was an ingredient in Earl Grey tea.  After all, the plant smells like Earl Grey tea, doesn’t it? Further confusion: If you look at the label of Earl Grey or Lady Grey tea you’ll see bergamot listed as an ingredient. But in this case, bergamot refers to a citrus fruit, the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), not our familiar prairie plant. Earl Grey tea contains some of the essence of the bergamot orange’s peel. Our native flower shares that same citrusy-minty fragrance and so is believed to take its common name, wild bergamot, from the orange.

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You’ll find lots of different bee balms in gardens, including a pink variation, like this unknown species given to me by a generous friend.

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Another bee balm you might find in Illinois gardens is Monarda didyma, or the scarlet bee balm. It’s sometimes called by the common name, “Oswego Tea.”

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I grow the native, pink, and scarlet bee balms in my backyard. The hummingbirds seem to prefer the scarlet color of Monarda didyma. 

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But although scarlet bee balm  is native to the Northeastern United States, many naturalists consider it non-native in Illinois and thus, unwelcome on the Illinois tallgrass prairie. It’s also a rapid spreader, and can become invasive. Oops!

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Ah, well. It looks pretty in the garden, doesn’t it?  A little compromise might be in order.

I’ll just keep it out of my prairie patch.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on wild bergamot, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot and false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide), SP;  silver skipper on wild bergamot, NG; wild bergamot, SP; foraged tea party, TMA;  wild bergamot, SP; pink bee balm (species unknown), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; hummingbird feeder and scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), GE; scarlet bee balm, GE.

Disclaimer: Always ask permission before you gather any wild plants. Before you make bergamot tea or any foraged tea, be sure you have the correct plant and have read about possible interactions and allergies.  Then make your decision about consumption. Web MD is a good source for this: http://www.webmd.com/

Information on wild bergamot and other bee balms was taken from many sources, including the  Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=MOFI and Illinois Wildflowers: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/; and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman.

Seeing Prairie

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I took a friend of mine, a professor, to see the tallgrass prairie where I volunteer as a steward. He listened as I enthusiastically chattered about the amazing array of plants, the value of diversity, the use of prescribed fire, and the excitement of preserving and restoring native landscape. As I spoke, he was silent. Finally, I quit talking and waited to hear what he thought.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s nothing but weeds.”

How do you see prairie?

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For Native Americans, the prairie was a grocery store, full of good things to eat. Bastard toadflax seeds were a tasty snack, the young shoots of many prairie plants tasted like asparagus. It was also a pharmacy, with plants that were believed to have potential to heal anything that ailed you, from snakebite to colic. The prairie contained roots used as  love charms and fire-starters; leaves to smoke during ceremonies or — if you knew their secrets — plants you could use in concoctions to eliminate your worst enemy.

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Early settlers saw the prairie as a place to conquer. The deep, interlocking root system of prairie plants, which evolved to withstand drought, were almost impenetrable to farmers until the invention of the John Deere plow in 1837.

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For those who had made the long trek out to Illinois from the woodlands of the east, the Midwestern tallgrass prairie seemed lonely and barren. James Monroe, our fifth president, reported in 1786 on what is now Illinois with these words, “A great part of the territory is miserably poor… .”

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Others, like pioneer Eliza Steele, saw the Illinois prairie and were instantly enchanted. They had imagination to see the beauty of the treeless tallgrass that stretched from horizon to horizon.

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Developers or farmers might look at a prairie today and see wasted land — land that is a bare canvas, waiting for something useful to be done with it. They see potential. And dollar signs.

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Others, like myself, see the prairie through a kaleidoscope lens. It’s a place to preserve for the future through maintaining a vanishing landscape of plants, animals, insects, birds, and amphibians.  It’s a place of perspiration — we invest in it through the sweat equity we build when we pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds, and set prescribed burns. It’s a place of inspiration: for poetry, art, photography, and music.

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Some people argue the prairie has only the value we assign to it; that it has no intrinsic value of its own. I believe there is inherent value in the prairie, no matter what value we assign to it for ourselves.

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But unless we take time to really look at prairie, spend time on prairie, and attempt to understand what makes prairie something different and special, we’ll see the tallgrass as my friend the professor did.

Nothing but weeds.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whitetail deer, SP; white prairie clover (Dalea candida), SP; halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), SP; autumn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; summer, SP; autumn, NG; volunteer, SP; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), SP.)

Fire and Ice

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Some say the world will end in fire, 

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

–Robert Frost

Frost wrote these lines in a poem noted for its ambiguity. But I find these lines resonate with me as I hike the prairie in early March. Fire and ice – or perhaps, the order should be reversed for the tallgrass: ice and then, fire. But unlike Frost’s poem, without the tempering of fire and ice, the prairie would cease to exist.

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It’s all ice now; beginning to melt into slush as the temperatures start their teasing climb into the 30s and 40s. A little flirting with the low 50s. Where the sun shines brightest, the snowmelt pocks the prairie with mudholes.  Old coyote tracks fill with water. They freeze, thaw again, freeze.

The life of the prairie is on hold. It depends on ice  — or at least a cold winter — for certain seeds to grow and for other plants to have a dormancy period. But, as the Beatles sang, “It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.”

Send us the fire.

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The prescribed burn just around the corner will wipe the prairie slate clean, ready for the sums of a new year to be chalked upon it. The tallgrass needs fire to keep the trees and brush from infilterating —- then dominating —- the landscape. But lightning strikes are suppressed, and Native Americans no longer set intentional fires for hunting. It’s up to restorationists to keep the prairie as an open grassland. We burn it ourselves, mimicking the past.

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The ying and the yang of fire and ice remind me that the prairie has evolved to survive the extremes of Midwestern weather. Sometimes, when I’m going through a rough patch,  this cycle reminds me that the difficulties I’m wrestling with are part of a season that will eventually pass.  Rather than destructive, the seasons of fire and ice are lifegiving.  They set the stage for something new.

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We’ve got the ice. Enough already.

Now, bring on the fire.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top: Tenting at sunset at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, SP, 2013; fire on the SP, 2013; ice designs with grass, SP)

Tallgrass Transitions

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We like to plan and schedule. March, however, didn’t get that memo.

It’s unpredictable. In the Chicago suburbs, we’ve just come off one of the coldest Februarys ever recorded here. Yet the meteorological calendar says it’s now spring. Really. Out on the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook is solid ice and shows few signs of thaw, even after a sunny warm-up day in the 30s this week. It rests under a white snow comforter, quilted into the landscape. Almost invisible.

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The recent dusting of snow makes critter tracks a little more clear. I follow them around, using them as a visual GPS to find their tunnels, snow-caves, and escape holes.

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Under that same snowfall, garlic mustard, that scourge of the prairie savanna, is waiting. Before long, my crew of restoration volunteers will be out on their search and destroy mission. When can we get going? They are restless, ready. But it’s not a date I can put on any calendar. Soon, I tell them. Soon.

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I have to wait. Be flexible. Pay attention to the shift from winter to spring. Look for clues. Watch for the signals that it’s time to start something new.

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At Nachusa Grasslands and at The Morton Arboretum, the natural resources folks plan their prescribed burn strategies after snowmelt. Fire equipment is cleaned and readied. Maps are unfolded and studied. Training commences. Prescribed burn season is about to begin…. but when? Just as soon as that snow disappears.

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People and the prairie hold their breath; poised for the new season.

The prairie reminds us that waiting is part of transitioning from one season to the next. We can only look for hints of what’s around the corner. And be ready.  Meanwhile, we walk the snowy tallgrass and believe that change is possible.

A new season. It’s coming.

Soon. Very soon.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top: Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Willoway Brook, SP; snow hole, tunnels and tracks, SP; Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, SP; upper prairie, SP) 

Prairie Literature 101: Reading the Tallgrass

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Temperatures in the Chicago region continue to plummet below zero. The ice-slicked prairie trails glisten, hard-packed and unforgiving. It’s hazardous hiking even for those of us who are passionate about the tallgrass.

Time to curl up with a good book.

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Two of my favorites, Journal of a Prairie Year and Grassroots: The Universe of Home—  both by Paul Gruchow — have been excellent companions during this week’s bone-chilling weather. Journal of a Prairie Year is a quiet, month-by-month documentary of Gruchow’s walks that begin in January and end in December; Grassroots, a prairie memoir of sorts, contains his seminal essay on tallgrass, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.”  Few people have loved and written about prairie the way Paul did, and his passion for the tallgrass lives on through his words.

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Kudos to The Nature Conservancy for their work, documented in two beautiful coffee-table type reads, Big Bluestem: Journey into the Tallgrass  (Annick Smith), and Tallgrass Prairie (John Madson/Frank Oberle).  Each is filled with gorgeous photography and eloquent writing. When the gray days seem endless, I browse through the color photos of lavender coneflowers and orange butterflyweed. Spring feels a little closer. As I leaf through the images of prescribed burns and smoldering flames, I also feel a little warmer.

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Louise Erdrich’s essay Big Grass, appears in The Heart of the Land, a general nature collection from The Nature Conservancy. It’s perhaps the most emotionally-charged piece of writing I’ve ever read, and I assign it to students in my nature writing classes. And any of us who has ever planted a patch of prairie has Stephen Apfelbaums’ Nature’s Second Chance on the nightstand or close at hand for reassurance and comfort. We find he’s encountered the same resistance from neighbors and nature as we have.

Want to know more about the history, biology, and politics of prairie? Grassland, by Richard Manning, is where I turn. In the same book stack is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began, many prairie lovers’ desert island book and one I find as comfortable as my favorite old fleece socks. Madson’s closing lines are a quote from Thomas Wolfe’s book, Look Homeward, Angel: O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again and are some of the most heartfelt words ever appropriated to describe prairie restoration.

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I’ve only found a single anthology devoted to prairie; editor John T. Price’s The Tallgrass Prairie Reader from University of Iowa Press. One of the gifts of his volume is its diverse prairie literature arranged by the century in which it was written. The reader comes away with a new understanding of how tallgrass has been viewed over hundreds of years. I’m delighted to have an essay about the Schulenberg Prairie included in his collection; Price, Thomas Dean, Lisa Knopp, Drake Hokanson, Elizabeth Dodd, and Mary Swander all have terrific contemporary pieces about prairie represented here.

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Prairie restoration is about restoring habitat and increasing diversity: pulling weeds, collecting seeds, and cutting brush. But preserving prairie also happens through planting words and images in hearts and minds. Each winter, when I hang up my hiking boots for a few days and huddle by the fireplace with my stack of books, I’m grateful for these “restorationists” who do just that.

 (All photos by Cindy Crosby. From the top: Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s stack of books; photo spread from Tallgrass Prairie; critter tracks, Glen Ellyn, IL; The Tallgrass Prairie Reader; coyote track, Quarry Lake at West Branch Forest Preserve, Bartlett, IL.)

Orchids: A Prairie’s Best Kept Secret

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My husband, Jeff, surprised me on Valentine’s Day by taking me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the opening of the Orchid Show. Instead of a dozen roses, I got 10,000 orchids and a little blast of springtime color and scent on a frigid February 14.

There are hybrid blooms of every possible hue, it seems….including some in impossibly bright colors, like this orange orchid and lime green orchid.

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There are crazy patterns, which makes me think of zebras and clowns.

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These hybrids are stunning. But my favorite orchids aren’t coddled and pampered like these orchids under glass. The orchids I prefer are outside, braving the elements on Illinois’ tallgrass prairies.

Illinois is home to around 50 different species of native orchids; a drop in the bucket, really, when you think of the approximately 25,000 natural species worldwide. One of the most eye-catching is this small white lady’s slipper orchid, found in the moist tallgrass in early summer. The white slipper demands your attention, doesn’t it?

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Other native orchids take more patience to discover, such as these ladies’ tresses orchids below. Stand downwind of a drift of blooms on a warm, early autumn day, and you’ll inhale a light sweet scent, evocative of vanilla.

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A native orchid that is #1 on my bucket list to see this season is the threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid, protected under the Endangered Species Act and  at home on the tallgrass prairies of Illinois.

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To stumble across any of these native orchids unexpectedly on the prairie is to discover something magical. You glimpse one bloom half-hidden in the grasses. Stunned, you fall to your knees. You look closer, then all around you. There’s another bloom, and another, and another. These orchids were here, in the tallgrass, all the time. How did you miss them before?

For what seems like minutes — but stretches to an hour — you watch insects work the blossoms, imbibing nectar and ensuring pollination.  When you reluctantly stand to leave, you wonder. What other discoveries are there to be made, here in the tallgrass? You resolve to pay more attention to the world.

Maybe these native orchids are not so spectacular and showy as the hybrid orchids in a conservatory. Perhaps their colors and patterns are not as glamorous and glitzy.

But in their own way, they are more beautiful. They belong here.

One small, miraculous part of the place we call home.

 Photos: Image of eastern prairie fringed orchid used with permission of Bruce Marlin. Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Please check out his website at: http://www.cirrusimage.com/

All other photos are by Cindy Crosby (from top): purple orchids, Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show; orange orchid, CBG;  lime green orchid, CBG; striped orchid, CBG; clown patterned orchid, CBG; small white lady’s slipper, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ladies’ tresses, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

A Little Prairie Music

My first introduction to a foreign language came when I took piano lessons at six years old. If you were in band in high school, or play a little guitar, you know what I’m talking about.

Allegro. Crescendo. Fortissimo.

Fast, gradually louder, very loud. Musical terms. Almost all in Italian.

Watch the prairie through its four seasons, and you’ll begin thinking in musical terms. Speaking a little Italian. Imagining visual music.

Early winter shows off the punchy staccato of tick trefoil seeds, waving like notes six feet high.

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Under deep snow, the shadows repeat the round bergamot seedheads. Eco, Italian for “echo,” means notes are quietly repeated. Indigo lines and shape-shadows mirror the prairie in the wind-swept drifts.

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In the spring, the prairie is acceso, ignited, on fire. The flames crackle and leap across the acres of tallgrass, consuming last year’s memories of the prairie, stimulating growth and offering a new beginning.

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The prairie is brilliante in summer; it sparkles with color and energy.

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Then comes a gradual decrescendo — softening — into fall.  Autumn is legato, as the tallgrass ripples and waves, a smooth connected ocean of motion.

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Prairie music is played a piacerethe performer is not required to follow it exactly; the prairie is free to improvise. Every season in the tallgrass  is different. Every year, the music changes.

Visual music, for the imagination.

(Photos by Cindy Crosby: From top to bottom: Tick trefoil, The Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum; snow shadows, SP; prairie burn, SP; pale purple coneflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; road through the tallgrass, NG).