Prairie Bloom, Doom, and Zoom

“All things seem possible in May.” –-Edwin Way Teale

The dickcissels sing a coda for spring; on its way out. But so much more is on the way in.

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Something big has been set in motion. No stopping the cycle now.   Even as the first spring blossoms wither, something new opens each day to take their place. The prairie overflows with wildflowers.

Wild columbine hangs its blooms wherever it can find an open spot.

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Insects emerge. Bumblebees zip and zoom. Close up, the wild columbine serves as a landing strip for hover flies.

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The genus name for columbine is Aquilegia from the Latin Aquila which means “eagle.” Named for the talon-like petal spurs on the flower. It does seem to embody flight, doesn’t it?

Panic grass—an awesome name!–staccatos itself across the prairie.

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Zoom in a little closer and—hoverflies again! They find the panic grass a great place for a romantic tryst.

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Shooting stars fizzle and form seeds.

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Prairie smoke signals the end of its bloom time with a Fourth of July-ish fireworks finale.

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Common valerian finishes fuzzy, sparking seeds. Its stems gradually turn bright pink, making it more noticeable a month after flowering than during its bloom time.

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Meadow rue loosens its grip on its tight-fisted buds, ready to throw out its tasseled blooms.

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The first flush of prairie phlox whirligigs across the prairie…

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…and deep in the leaves, the odd little flowers of wild coffee open. Some call it “tinker’s weed, “feverwort,” or “horse gentian.” Which nickname do you prefer?

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The beautifully-named springwater dancer damselflies emerge.

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While the more plain-Jane-named prairie ragwort begins to bloom.

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Beardtongue dazzles. Hirsute-ly hipster.

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May is over. Finished. Done. Kaput.

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June is ready to launch, full of surprises.

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Will you be there to see them?

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Edwin (Arthur) Way Teale (1899-1980), whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL, not far from where these photos were taken. He was a naturalist, photographer, and staff writer for Popular Science for many years. Teale’s book, “Near Horizons,” won the John Burroughs Medal (1943) for distinguished nature writing. One of his non-fiction books,  “Wandering Through Winter,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with hoverfly (Toxomerus spp.), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.) with hoverflies (Toxomerus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee, feverwort, horse gentian, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Prairie Endings and Beginnings

“Each moment is a place you’ve never been.” — Mark Strand

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May slides toward its inevitable conclusion. New wildflowers open each day. Grasses concentrate on becoming fuller, lusher.

Golden Alexanders, looking other-worldly, finishes a spectacular bloom season. Bravo!

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The first flowers of prairie smoke open.

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The remains of last year’s grasses and dry seedheads still patch the unburned prairie in places.

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Just as the native dwarf dandelions begin to bloom…

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…the small white lady’s slipper orchids wither; ghosts of their once bright selves.

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Damselflies emerge.

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Fringed puccoon blooms, low in the grasses.

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Nibbled by insects and small animals; ragged and worn by temperamental spring weather, the last prairie violets contemplate setting seed.

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A female orchard oriole arrives. She’s looking for a mate; ready to raise a brood. She’ll weave a grassy pouch, sling it onto a forked branch, then fill it with half a dozen blue-gray, splotchy eggs.

She seems pretty calm about the hard work ahead.

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Wild hyacinth flowers open from bottom to top. The seeds, like crazy punctuation marks, form close behind.

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Beginnings and endings on the prairie. Every spring day brings more.

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They’re worth watching for.

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Mark Strand (1934-2014), whose quote from “Black Maps”  (Collected Poems) opens this post, was a Poet Laureate of the United States (1990). He won many awards for his writing, including a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection, “Blizzard of One.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL;  dwarf dandelion (Krigia virginica), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male mimic female eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola peditifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Purple Prairie Haze

“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
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There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.

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Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.

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Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.

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After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.

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The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!

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Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.

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No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.

An hour that is always well-spent.

***

Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is  a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.”  She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.

Wonderful, Wicked Wildflowers

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” — Shakespeare.
***

Woodland and prairie wildflowers are praised in poetry and prose; celebrated in song, and immortalized in art. Those colors! That fragrance! Innocent. Fragile. Such beautiful blooms.

And yet. These lovely blooms have a darker side.

Take a walk through a spring woodland. In the Victorian language of flowers in which blooms symbolized certain sentiments from the giver, anemones were often associated with bad luck, illness and death.

Anemones are also known as “windflowers;”  from the Greek wind God’s name, “Anemos.”  You can see why.

Or look at this colony of trilliums below, edging the prairie.  What name would you suggest? Something pretty, right?

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Nope. They are known in the vernacular as “the bloody nose flower” or “the bloody butcher.” Memorable? Yes. But most of us would rather settle for “red” or “prairie” trillium.

Even this elegant woodland trillium…

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…bears the common name, “drooping trillium.”  Not quite as bad as a bloody nose flower, but not a peppy moniker for something so stunning, either.

On the prairie in early spring, the “common valerian” looks like a sweet little flower. But give it a sniff…

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…and you’re reminded of the smell of dirty socks after a work-out at the gym. Not a repeater.

When wood betony blankets the early spring prairie, you immediately think of snapdragons, yellow fireworks, or even carnival rides that swirl and turn.

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Its other common name is— “lousewort.” This, in the once-mistaken belief it repelled lice on livestock. Could have used some help from marketing, don’t you think?

“Lousewort” might not be the worst name on the prairie, however. When I began volunteering in the tallgrass, this flower was one of the first ones I learned.

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Bastard toadflax. Not a lot to love in that name. But a favorite plant of any school group I take out on a walk in the tallgrass, and one they are sure to remember.

Not far from the bastard toadflax is the ethereal wild hyacinth. Its name is nice, but it is associated with an unfortunate Greek legend that goes somewhat like this: When two gods fought for the love of a Greek boy named “Hyakinthos,” one of the gods murdered the boy in a jealous rage. Where Hyakinthos’ blood was spilled, a flower grew. The “hyacinth.”

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A crime scene? Not what you’d think of when you see something this exquisite, is it?

The delicate trout lily below–also exquisite–is valued for its medicinal qualities, including as a possible cancer-fighter. Too bad its unfortunate side effect is inducing vomiting. Lots of it.

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Who would have thought something so sweet looking could be so nauseating?

And blue cohosh seeds, once used as a coffee substitute, were found to be toxic when not roasted correctly. That’s a bad cup of coffee. Stick to Starbucks.

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These are only a few of the wicked wildflowers and their traits. So many beautiful blooms, both on the prairies and  in the woodlands!

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But don’t be fooled. They’re not just pretty faces.

Which makes them just that much more interesting, doesn’t it?

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright, and widely believed to be one of the greatest writers in the English language. The opening quote in this blog comes from Act 4- Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth.” The phrase has been widely used in a number of other literary works, including as the title of a murder mystery by Agatha Christy (1890-1976) and a book by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

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The information above about wildflowers was sourced from a variety of books and online sites. A few of my favorite resources include “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders; “Native American Ethnobotany” by Daniel E. Moerman;  “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie” by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa; and “Wildflowers of Illinois Woodlands” by Sylvan Runkel. Great books! Go give them a look.
***
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides (older name) ), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) white trout lily, (Erythronium albidum) East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Where the Prairies Begin

“I like to think of landscape not as a fixed placed but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet.” –Gretel Ehrlich

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Spring comes to the tallgrass prairie with rains that soak and flood the newly-burned earth, urging wildflowers to bloom. Illinois’ state flower, the blue violet, is one of the first to color the prairies and woodlands.

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Pussytoes on the prairie are not far behind.

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On the wet prairies, marsh marigolds butter the streams and ponds.

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Water is the key to this lush profusion of prairie color. Illinois receives almost 40 inches of rain in a good year, nourishing the wildflowers and giving the grasses and wetlands a boost.

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But the story of prairies and rain begins almost a thousand miles west of Illinois, high in the Rocky Mountains. April here is full of precipitation of a different sort.

 

Mule deer forage in the snow-glazed grasses for something green and nourishing.

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Birds scan their surroundings for insects and seeds.

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As the storms move over the Rockies, snow and rain water the western slopes.

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As storms move west to east over the mountain range, the eastern or leeward side is in the “rain shadow.” Simply put, a “rain shadow” means less precipitation falls here. The prairie grasses on this side of the mountains adapted to drier conditions.

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As the weather systems move further east…

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…more precipitation falls across the Great Plains, eventually with help from the moist Gulf of Mexico air.

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Mixed grass prairies grow where there is increased rain, taller and more robust than the shortgrass prairies in the rain shadow. As rains become more abundant, they help nurture the rich tallgrass prairies of the Midwest.

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These tallgrass prairies seem a long way from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

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So different. So separate.

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Yet, they’re connected. Mountains and tallgrass. For it is here, in the snow-capped Rockies,  that we begin to understand what shapes our prairies.

***

The opening quote is from “Landscape,” introduction to Legacy of Light by Gretel Ehrlich (1946-). Her book, “Solace of Open Spaces,” movingly chronicles her life on the rural Wyoming prairie.

All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) blue violet (Viola sororia) plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; April snowstorm video clip, Divide, CO; mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in spring snowstorm, Divide, Colorado; mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) Divide, Colorado; storm coming in over Divide, Colorado; rescue grass (Bromus catharticus), Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; spring snowstorm in Divide, Colorado; blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Wyoming ground squirrel (Urocitellus elegans), Divide, Colorado; Pike’s Peak, Divide, Colorado. 

Spring’s Contrasts on the Prairie

“April golden, April cloudy, Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy...”–Ogden Nash.

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Spring on the prairie is a showcase of contrasts at the end of April.

Jacob’s ladder.

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Sand phlox. So small! Like a paper snowflake carefully cut out with scissors.

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Tiny blooms. Balanced by rough-and-tumble bison, the heavyweight champs of the prairie.

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Delicate spreadwing damselflies emerge from ponds to tremble in the sun.

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Furry beavers coast by, on their way to ongoing construction projects.

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There’s evidence of egrets. Their pale feathers a contrast to…

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…the bright buttery sunshine of marsh marigolds, with a lipstick red beetle.

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The beetle seems minuscule until a spider wanders into the scene. The line it throws is deceptively fragile looking. Yet, it’s strong enough to capture supper.

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There is life high above, in the flight of a blue heron scared up from the fen.

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While below, tossed carelessly in the grasses, are souvenirs of death.

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Life cut short.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side-by-side.

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But the stars still come out –shooting stars! Make a wish.

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Life, death, rebirth. It’s all here…

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…at the end of April on the prairie.

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The opening quote is from the poet (Frederic) Ogden Nash (1902-71) and his poem, “Always Marry an April Girl.” Nash is known for his humorous rhyming verse, and his nonsensical words. An example: “If called by a panther/don’t anther.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom): Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), sand phlox (Phlox bifida bifida); bison (Bison bison); possibly sweetflag spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) (ID uncertain); beaver (Castor canadensis); egret feather (Ardea alba); marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) with an unknown beetle;  unknown spider; blue heron (Ardea herodias); bones in the grasses;  possibly red-winged blackbird egg (Agelaius phoeniceus) in nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with an unknown pollinator. Thanks to Bernie Buchholz for showing me the sand phlox, and John Heneghan, for help with the nest ID.

A Walk on the Wild Side

“The earth laughs in flowers.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Come hike with me in April as the gray days of winter recede.

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On the prairie, in the savanna, and deep in the woodlands, birds sing the wildflowers up into the sunshine. Christmas fern fiddleheads jostle for space among the striped spring beauties.

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A small ensemble of hepatica nudge aside a fallen log.

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Virginia bluebells, aided by pollinators, chime in quietly at first…

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… then in full chorus.

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White dogtooth violets, sometimes called adder’s tongue or trout lilies…

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…join with the yellow to throw their flowery stars across the woodlands and savanna.

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Their sheer numbers threaten to distract us from the more timid spring blooms. Look closely. See the subtle notes of bishop’s cap? Such tiny, intricate flowers! They dazzle in their own quiet way.

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Other blooms clamor for attention. The false rue anemones sway in the breeze; little wind instruments.

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A single wild geranium appears. You’re early!  But it cannot be repressed. More are on the way. Soon. Very soon.

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On the prairie, the first wood betony swirls into a whirlwind of yellow and russet.

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A nice foil for the pussytoes blooming nearby, antennae-like on their silvery stalks.

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Vast swaths of bloodroot strike chords of impermanence; here one morning and then gone seemingly overnight. Did we dream them?

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The prairies, savannas, and woodlands flood the world with blooms. Orchestrating spring.

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All we have to do to see them is make time to look.

Let’s go!

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose quote opens this post, was a transcendental poet and essayist who made his living as a lecturer. He published his first essay, “Nature,” anonymously in 1836. Emerson famously asked Henry David Thoreau, “Do you keep a journal?” in 1837. This simple query became a life-long inspiration for Thoreau,  perhaps, sparking Thoreau’s writing of Walden.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Christmas fern fiddleheads (Polystichum acrostichoides) with spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL;  hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; white trout lily (Erythronium albidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bishop’s cap (Mitella diphylla), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; false rue anemones (Enemion biternatum), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fiddlehead ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides), wood anemone leaves (Anemone quinquefolia), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), and wild geranium leaves (Geranium maculatum) at Franklin Creek State Natural Area (Illinois DNR), Franklin Grove, IL. Special thanks to Susan Kleiman for the walk in the woods at Franklin Creek State Natural Area and pointing out the bishop’s cap.