Category Archives: wildflowers

August’s Prairie Pairings

“When despair for the world grows in me…I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds… .”–Wendell Berry

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A festival is in full swing on the east side of the 1700-acre Morton Arboretum. Hundreds of cars, thousands of people.

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But I’m alone on the west side trail here, except for the mosquitoes. Destination: Prairie. Good thing I brought my headnet, I think as I trek through the old gravel two-track through the  savanna. The bugs buzz around my ballcap and plaster themselves against my face, trying to bite through the mesh.

A male violet dancer damselfly perches on a grass blade along the trail. Thanks, I tell him, only half kidding. I know he’s doing his part to eat as many of these mosquitoes as possible.

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I leave most of the mosquitoes behind as the prairie spreads out before me. I smell the prairie dropseed in bloom, the scent reminiscent of hot buttered popcorn or cilantro. In the first days of August, the tallgrass shimmers in the heat, a mass of wildflowers and grass… grass, grass, so much grass.  Beauty in the aggregate, like a wall of big bluestem shooting toward the sky.

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Clouds of lavender bee balm blooms drift through the tallgrass, seducing butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds with their delectable nectar. I could sit and watch a patch for hours.

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They are gorgeous en masse. But there is also delight in the singular, like this tiny jewel-like fly, part of the Condylostylus genus. That face!

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So much to discover. A double-striped bluet damselfly hangs out at the edges of the savanna, less than an inch long. I almost walk right by him.

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The female turns up also; different color, same double-stripe. I rarely see the double-striped bluets, so they are an unexpected treat. Two in one afternoon? Joy!

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I love the juxtapositions on the prairie in August. The surprises. The discoveries. The  “prairie pairings,” like these two stream bluet damselflies, forming the mating wheel.

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The prairie plants have their own pairings, like these wild petunia “twins” —native prairie plants—growing directly in the mowed path.

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Deep in the grasses—just past the wild petunias—carrion vine has balled up its seeds. The lavender bee balm acts a backdrop; a prairie pairing that tells me we’re sliding toward autumn. Soon the carrion vine seeds will turn a dark purple. The bee balm will drop its tubular petals before the snow flies, but its fragrance will linger through the winter in its leaves and stems, scenting the tallgrass.

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Nearby, a male eastern amberwing dragonfly rests on the pored and veined surface of a compass plant leaf, ready for take-off at my slightest move. The amberwing dragonflies will be around another few weeks or so, then their season will be over. Summer is going too fast.

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Tiny butterflies stir the grasses, colorful blurs. The eastern tailed-blue butterfly is a common prairie flier, but no less delightful for its ubiquity. This one sips nectar from a showy tick trefoil bloom. See its uncurled proboscis, sipping nectar? Like a flexible straw! But it’s so much more. Read about new butterfly proboscis research here.

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I love the crazy contrasts of rattlesnake master’s globed blooms, which mix and mingle with budding blazing star.

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Or the almost clichéd pairing of monarchs and butterfly weed. Their bright orange POP of dynamic duo color is unmatched by anything else on the prairie. Except, perhaps…

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…the royal catchfly in bloom, hot soloists, riffing on red.

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Bee balm sings backup. What a pairing!

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Sure, not all the prairie juxtapositions are welcome. I could do with a few less mosquitoes buzzing around my headnet or no Japanese beetles making inroads on the showy tick trefoil.

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But its all a part of fully experiencing summer on the prairie.

What “prairie pairings” do you enjoy? Leave me a note and let me know. Can’t think of any? There’s no better time to go out and find some for yourself!

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Wendell Berry (1934), whose words are at the top of this blog post, is a writer, conservationist, farmer, and philosopher.  This week is a great time to revisit his complete poem, The Peace of Wild Thingsfrom which the opening words of this blog were taken. He lives in Kentucky.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; male violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis var. violacea);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); fly (Condylostylus spp.); male double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); female double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); male (blue) and female (greenish) stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans); wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); possibly upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera) on compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) with showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with blazing star (Liatris aspera); butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); royal catchfly (Silene regia); royal catchfly (Silene regia) with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) on showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense).

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Visit cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s speaking, classes, and events.

An Extravagance of Wildflowers

“There is something classic about the study of the little world that is made up by our first spring flowers—all those which bloom not later than April.”– Donald Culross Peattie

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The “little world” of spring wildlowers is in full swing in the prairie savanna and neighboring woodlands. Let’s go take a hike and look.

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The palm warblers flit through the trees, a prelude to the waves of warblers to come.

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By an old log, hepatica is blooming in whites and purples. The fuzzy new leaves, which replace the winter-weary ones, are emerging below. Oh, hepatica! You always say “spring” to me.

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I love the range of color, from deep purple to  lavender to snow white.

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Close by, the yellow trout lilies are just beginning to bloom. Tiny pollinators are finding them, like this little one.

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You may have grown up calling the yellow and white trout lilies “dogtooth violets.” By any name they are marvelous. The yellow seem all the more special for their scarcity here in the savanna where I walk, although they are prolific in other parts of the Midwest.

The mayapples are up in full force, unfurling their umbrellas.

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Rue anemone, trembling on its ethereal stems, is even less prolific than the yellow trout lilies in the prairie savanna. I look for the small stand of it each year, and feel a sense that all is right with the world when I find it.

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Jacob’s ladder leaves lace the landscape, while Virginia bluebells look as if they will explode any moment.

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Bloodroot is in full swing, and the bee flies are delighted.

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The blood root flowers last about three days, then the petals shatter. I’m enjoying them while they last.

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Most of the Arboretum’s visitors this week are strolling through the hundreds of thousands of daffodil blooms on display, a golden sea under the oaks. I can’t blame them much; the daffodils are spectacular this spring. But my heart is with these spring ephemerals, like the wild blue phlox with its candle flame of a bud, poised to emerge.

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In 1935, Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his Almanac for Moderns of spring wildflower time: “Happy are those who this year, for the first time, go wood wandering to find them, who first crack open the new manual, smelling of fresh ink, and rejoice in the little new pocket lens.”

Beautiful.

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True happiness, indeed. Happy hiking this week!

*****

Chicago-born Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was an influential nature writer who inspired generations of naturalists. An Almanac for Moderns is his daily guide to observing the natural world through 365 days of the year. He advocated for the protection of Indiana Dunes, which recently became a National Park.

All photos this week are from The Morton Arboretum prairie savanna and woodlands, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), hepatica (hepatica nobilis acuta), yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), bloodroot  (Sanguinaria canadensis), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica).

 

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues–offered through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register for the June online class here.

Tuesday, April 23, 7:30  p.m.–Prairie Plants at Home, Villa Park Garden Club. Free and open to the public! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for specific location.

Friday, April 26--Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Sold out)

Saturday, April 27–Dragonflies and Damselflies–Blue Line Financial luncheon (Private Event)

Turn the (Prairie) Page

“Something in me isn’t ready to let go of summer so easily.”–Karina Borowicz

If you read the book of seasons closely, you’ll know it’s about time to turn the page to a new chapter. Summer wildflowers give way to asters and goldenrods; birds fuel at the feeders, storing up energy for their long migrations. Meteorological autumn arrives on Saturday. Meanwhile, August covers the prairie like a blanket that’s been in the dryer long enough to get hot, but not dry. Humidity reigns.

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The pale Indian plantain on the tallgrass prairie is lush and jungle-like this season; the combination of heat and early rains this spring pushing it skyward.

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Wingstem blooms nearby….

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…and the asters on the prairie pop open; soft blooms of lavender blue.

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At home, I step out the back door to admire my prairie patch. As I pass the vegetable bed, I notice the tomatoes are rioting. Pick me! Pick me! No me! Me! 

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I avert my eyes. Our kitchen counter is awash in fruit. I should can tomato sauce, or dry tomatoes in my food dehydrator, or do something in the face of all this lipstick red abundance…

tomatoes 818wm.jpg …but instead, I avoid the whole issue and go for a stroll around the yard. Ten tomato plants didn’t seem like enough for us in May. Yeah, right.

But wait! There’s a rustle, deep in the tomato leaves. Reluctantly, I turn. A dark red insect—almost brown—rests on one of my Roma tomato plants.

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It’s a red saddlebags dragonfly, cooling its wings in the shade of the tomato leaves. I’ve never seen this species at either of the prairies where I’m a steward. The two times I’ve seen it over the past 13 years I’ve monitored have been in my small suburban backyard, among the tomatoes. I wonder what it’s up to?

We know the black saddlebags dragonflies migrate; we speculate the red saddlebags may migrate as well, although very little is known about this.  We do know that migration on the prairie is an epic event. The past two weeks, I’ve watched the black saddlebags and common green darners massing and moving south, just as I have the past decade or so.

 

Perhaps this red saddlebags in my garden is headed south as well. Better hurry up!

I leave the dragonfly in peace. Now, by the porch, I notice movement in the mums and the roses. Someone else is out for an evening walk. She’s barely visible.

See that white plume?

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SKUNK! Uh, oh.

I avoid the porch, and detour to my prairie patch where the goldenrod is in full bloom. The monarch butterflies loved the swamp milkweed I planted for them this summer, but now, as they migrate to Mexico, they need fall-blooming wildflowers to nourish them on their way.  Scientists tell us that monarchs are looking for nectaring sources beyond milkweed. Goldenrod in my backyard prairie serves as a filling station for their long journeys. A beautiful—if a bit unruly—filling station, at that.

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Still keeping an eye on the skunk, which is now rummaging under the bird feeders for dropped seeds, I marvel over the prairie. What a year it has been for the Silphiums in my backyard! The compass plant, cup plant, and prairie dock have flourished. Compass plant is now in bloom, in seed, and in “sap.” Resin oozes from the hairy stem. Native American children chewed the resin like Wrigley’s spearmint, and although I’m not fond of it on my teeth (nor is my dentist fond of finding it there) I do love the piney smell. It’s one of the scents of summer. As I rub it stickily between my fingers, I feel a melancholy sense of something passing.

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Cautiously, I walk back to the porch. The skunk is gone, visiting the neighbor’s birdfeeders, no doubt. I notice the moonvine. It has yet to bloom this summer but finally, has its first buds.

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Moonflower is a night blooming species of morning glory. I like it, as it gives me another excuse to sit on the back porch after sunset and listen to the cicadas. Perhaps tonight I’ll see it swirl open, and have my first chance this summer to enjoy its fragrance.

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Fitting, perhaps, to see these first moonflower buds as the night sky this week has been full of wonders over my suburban neighborhood. Like the just-past-full moon last night, looking like an antique coin, or the juxtaposition of the Moon and Mars in the southeastern sky a few days ago.

moonmarsnighttime82318wm.jpgThe heat of the day gives way to a breath of cool; the relief of evening coming to the backyard. I glance up at the sky, darkening now, a few stars beginning to appear.

Goodnight, moon. So long, August.

It’s been swell.

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The opening quote is from September Tomatoes, a poem by Karina Borowicz. Her first poetry collection, The Bees are Waiting (2012), won numerous awards. Said Jeff McMahon in Contrary Magazine, “(She) captures the unbearable pulse of despair and hope in the world as its people pass across it, scarcely aware.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dragonfly migration swarm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (from a few years ago, about this time in August); striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in the garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) oozing resin, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine buds (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Moon and Mars over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

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It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie All-Stars

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing’.” — Yogi Berra

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If there’s one thing you learn on a prairie, it’s that the more you begin to know about the bugs, blooms, and grasses, the less you realize you know. And the more you realize you don’t know, the more you want to know about what you don’t know.

Whew.

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Bees, for instance. They’ve always been flying around, sort buzzing in the background of the prairie. But not on my radar. Until I started paying attention to bees this season. This one turned up as I was wading a stream this week, looking for dragonflies. At least—I think this is a bee. Interesting “raft!”

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I looked up, hip-deep in creek water, hoping to see the former owner of the feather.  The only bird in sight was this kingfisher. Hmmm…doesn’t seem to match.

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Back to the bees. Or is this a bee look-alike? I look at the markings on the head, the tuft of fur behind the, um—neck? Is that the right term?—and the patterns as seen from topside. I still am unsure. So many native bees and non-native bees! So many bee look-alikes! The mind boggles.

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The sunflower this bee is busily investigating is the woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus. At least, I think that’s what the flower is. Does anyone else find the sunflower family confusing? Later, I asked the bee researcher, who was shoulder-deep in the sunflowers, if he knew which species it was. He shrugged.

Made me feel better.

So many All-Star prairie wildflowers.

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And don’t get me started on the skippers. For my birthday this month, my wonderful husband gave me a terrific pair of close-focus binoculars and an out-of-print guide to Illinois skippers—all 59 local species. They’ve both helped. But even the skippers on the prairie seem astonished by their own complexity.

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Silver-spotted skipper? I think so. The field guide says they are pretty common. But it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the skippers and butterflies in my little corner of the world. At least there is no “question” about the identity of this beautiful butterfly.

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This week, I’m teaching “Dragonfly and Damselfly ID.” It’s guaranteed to be an exercise in humility. No matter how many of the dragonfly and damselfly species that I know—and I’ve learned quite a few over the past 13 years as a monitor—it’s a good bet there will be some oddball that shows up and doesn’t fit any description of a damselfly I’ve seen before. The meadowhawks are particularly confusing at this time of year. This one below is likely an autumn meadowhawk because of the yellowish legs.

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Likely. I’m pretty sure—at least, I think that’s what she is. However, there are red meadowhawk dragonflies zipping all over the prairie, and their immature counterparts which are yellow-ish, and the females which are sort of gold, and it all begins to blend together. Their red counterparts are even more confusing. Cherry-faced meadowhawk? Ruby meadowhawk? White-faced?

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I think I see some reflected amber patches on the leaf. So I check the field guide— most of the red meadowhawks have them. My “unknown meadowhawk dragonfly” column on my data sheet is getting bigger each week.

For my class, I’ll hope for the old familiar favorites, like the male calico pennants with their row of luscious red “hearts” in a row down their abdomen.

Unmistakable.

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And back to those wildflowers. Wow! They keep me up at night, flipping through plant ID websites, dipping into Flora of the Chicago Region, trying to understand what it is that I’m seeing and how it fits into the community we call prairie. Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m a dragonfly monitor, has more than 700 plant species! How do you wrap your head around that?

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What a beautiful problem to have, isn’t it? So many “All-Stars” on the prairie. So much to discover. Whenever I get frustrated at all there is to learn about in the tallgrass—and marvel that I’ve learned anything at all—I take a moment to sit on the bridge over Willoway Brook and be quiet.  Clear my head.

As I reflect, I realize what I don’t know doesn’t matter as much as showing up. Listening. Thinking about what I see.

Being there.

*****

Lawrence Peter (Lorenzo Pietro) “Yogi Berra” (1925-2015) was an 18-time All-Star professional baseball catcher, coach, and manager. He was part of teams that won the World Series 10 times—more World Series wins than any other professional baseball player to date. Berra and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years which is another great record. He is known for his paradoxical sayings such as the one that begins this post. Check out more “Yogi Berra-isms” here, and find a smile for your day because, as he says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And, remember, Berra also told us, “I never said most of the things I said.”

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on a feather, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) over Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; July wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; calico pennant dragonfly (male) (Celithemis elisa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of bridge over Willoway Brook in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

10 Reasons to Hike the Prairie This Week

“The pleasure of a walk in the woods and the fields is enhanced a hundredfold by some little knowledge of the flowers which we meet at every turn.”–Mrs. William Starr Dana

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Buckets of rain have doused the prairie to life in the Chicago region. Color it technicolor green. Even under cloudy skies.

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In the neighboring savanna, oaks leaf out and invite exploration to see what’s emerging. They seem to say: “Go deeper in.”

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So much new life all around us! Still need a push to get outside? Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week.

10. Pasque flowers are going to seed, as marvelous in this new stage as they were in bloom. Maybe even more beautiful.

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9. Prairie violets are out in profusion.  Not your ordinary lawn violet. These are something special.

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8. Bastard toadflax spangles the landscape with white. The name alone is worth going to see it!

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7. Wood betony is spiraling into bloom. Looks like a carnival has come to the prairie, doesn’t it?

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6. There’s nothing quite like the smell of wild hyacinth opening in the rain. Breathe deep. Mmmm.

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5. New Jersey tea—a prairie shrub—spears its way through the soil and bursts into leaf.

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4. Common valerian is in full bloom this week. Such a strange little wildflower! Supposedly, it smells like dirty socks, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of any unpleasant fragrance.

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3. Jacob’s ladder covers whole patches of the prairie, adding its bright baby blues.

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2. Wild coffee is about to flower. Its other quirky nicknames, “tinker’s weed” and “late horse gentian” are as odd as the plant’s unusual leaves, blooms, and later, bright orange fruits.

 

  1. Shooting star blankets the prairie in low-lying, pale-pink clouds. You don’t want to miss these wildflowers!  Like their name implies, they’ll be gone before you know it.

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Ten very different reasons to take a hike. But I could find a hundred reasons (and not just the wildflowers) to put on a rain jacket, get out of the house, and go for a  walk on the spring prairie this week.

What about you?

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The opening quote for this post is from How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893) by naturalist Francis Theodora Parsons, aka “Mrs. William Starr Dana” (1861-1952), a book I have long coveted and which my wonderful husband gave me for Mother’s Day.  Parsons was educated at a school taught by Anna Botsford Comstock, who is noteworthy for her role in establishing the Nature Study Movement and especially, empowering women to explore the natural world. Parsons’ life was marred by several tragedies. After the loss of her first husband, Parsons went walking with her friend, the illustrator Marion Satterlee, for comfort. From those walks, the book came about. My 1989 edition has 100 lovely black and white drawings from Satterlee, plus 25 rich color illustrations from paintings by the artist Manabu C. Saito.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum (top to bottom): Rainy May day on the prairie; oaks (Quercus spp.) leafing out; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) going to seed; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) in bloom; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) in bloom; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) in two different stages; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans); wild coffee from afar and close up, sometimes called tinker’s weed or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum);  shooting star  (Dodecatheon meadia).

Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

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Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

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…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

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…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

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My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

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Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

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We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

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The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

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…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

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Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

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In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

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The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

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Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

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Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

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Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

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Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

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Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

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Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

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We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

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The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

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Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.