Tag Archives: asters

November Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle

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What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.

Unknowns insects catch the light like snowflakes, with the native but aggressive Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) in the foreground, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairie ponds are our own version of Monet’s “Water Lily Pond.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

What an autumnal palette!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Subtle shadings in the grasses.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Bright pops of unexpected color.

Sulphur butterfly (Colias sp.) on the non-native red clover (Trifolium pratense), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

A few surprising fliers, late in the season.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So many different ways to see gold.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

An endless procession of color; from lemon to ochre to rust.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

You can see the season’s lateness in the skeletal trees, the lone bird’s nest devoid of its occupants.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Everywhere, seeds spill.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The last wildflowers are in bloom.

Asters (probably Symphyotrichum pilosum or lanceolatum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You might hear the red-winged blackbirds singing, high above the grasses.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

October passed in a blur.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.

What an exciting month to go for a hike!

***

The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

A Tallgrass Garden Rain

“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood

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Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.

Torrential rains, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitum) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.

Spider web, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.

Common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”

Possibly the transverse banded drone fly (Eristalis transversa), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Corrections welcome!

I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.

Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.

Sky blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.

I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba) on arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.

Moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.

However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.

Arrow-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum sagittifolium) with sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) in the background, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.

As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) with a common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.

Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Facebook Page, 9-9-22.

I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and at the nectar feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) having a “where’s Waldo” moment in the neighbor’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.

We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.

Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.

Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…

Giant marconi sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum)—-these were all on two plants in one picking. Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.

Black beauty eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Black Beauty’) foreground) and ichiban eggplant (Solanum melongena ‘Ichiban’ right), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!

Baba Ganoush and Stonefire Naan rounds.

As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.

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Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!

Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).

September’s Prairie and Garden

“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen; of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were; with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair…”—J.R.R. Tolkien

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It’s the first week of meteorological fall, although most of us won’t feel like it’s autumn until the autumnal equinox on Thursday, September 22. Summer, where did you go?

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You can see the beginnings of seasonal change in the garden, where there is a turn from harvest to decay. The tomatoes have slowed down production. The tomato foliage is yellow and browning, especially on the species that aren’t as disease resistant. Despite my efforts to experiment with mesh bagging the best ripening fruit on the vines, the squirrels have triumphed.

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yup. Bites right through the bags. Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking about cutting my losses and asking Jeff to pull out most of the tomato plants for me this week. Perhaps use the tomato real estate for some quick growing lettuce or kale as the season winds down. We’ll see. Nearby, in the long prairie border, a flush of goldenrods brightens the garden. Solidago speciosa, Solidago ohioenses, and that old invader, Solidago canadensis.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The gold flowers are a magnet for insects like this Hover Fly.

Thick-legged Hover Fly (Syritta pipiens) on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (ID corrected)

At least…I think that’s what it is! In Heather Holm’s remarkable book, Pollinators of Native Plants, it shows some of the incredible variety of insects that visit goldenrod and other prairie plants. Holm notes that square-headed wasps, which I first confused this insect with, perch on plants to scout for flies, which make up their primary meals. There are more than 1,500 square-headed wasp species! Wow. And I’m continually amazed at how many other types of wasps there are to learn. And, evidently—hover flies!

Unknown wasp on asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

It’s tough to change your relationship with a group of insects like wasps from one of avoidance to appreciating them for their diversity and their work as pollinators. Knowledge and curiosity pave the road to understanding and enjoyment. But sometimes it’s a long road.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

It’s going to take a little time—and more reading—to not automatically flinch when a wasp hangs out with me on the back patio.

Beggarticks (Bidens sp.) with a little unknown wasp, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL

A brief shower this weekend gave us a respite from watering the garden and prairie plantings. I took a stroll around the backyard in the splattering rain and marveled at what the doctor-mandated “no weeding” looks like after two weeks. Morning glories twine everywhere, the remnants of a planting a decade ago.

Morning Glory (Ipomoea sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Sweet Autumn Clematis I planted 20 years ago (and quickly realized was a mistake) rampages through the spicebush, old roses, and bird-sown asparagus.

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sure, the Sweet Autumn Clematis is pretty! And it smells lovely. But how I long to yank it all out!

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a menace. I’ve spent the last two decades pulling it from the garden and prairie plantings. Every fall, I think I’ve eradicated it. Every fall, when it blooms, I realize I’ve failed. Garden catalog copy mentioned it was “vigorous.” Seasoned gardeners know when you hear the word “vigorous” alarm bells should go off. If I could turn back time, I’d order Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), a native vine that might have played more nicely in the garden. It pairs beautifully with asters. It’s almost identical to the non-native Sweet Autumn Clematis, although the leaves are shaped a bit differently.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) and asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2010).

I love how Virgin’s Bower looks when it goes to seed on the edges of the prairie.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I make a mental note to order Virgin’s Bower in the spring. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Sweet Autumn Clematis show for another September.

In my prairie plantings, the rambunctious native Grey-headed Coneflower finished blooming, and has left me with delicious, lemony-fragrant seedheads. I love crushing them between my fingers and inhaling the scent. Mmmmm.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The grassy mounds of prairie dropseed planted under my living room windows spray the air with buttered popcorn fragrance. Such tiny seeds to make such an olfactory difference!

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Swamp milkweed seeds refuse to parachute from the mother plant. Instead they damply cluster in the rain. I think of all the possibilities wrapped up in those seeds.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hope for the future.

There’s plenty to look back on in this first week of September. And so much to look forward to as a new month is underway.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.

*****

The opening quote was made by Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The old hobbit sang these verses to Frodo as he reflected on his years on Earth and readied Frodo for his quest to destroy the “one ring that ruled them all.” The three books in the series plus The Hobbit are well worth revisiting.

*****

Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn

Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register.

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young

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It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.

Sunrise over Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…and their swerves and curves.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Look closely.

Possibly blue-gray rosette lichen (Physcia caesia), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.

The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…

Skies over Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

I spy the mallard and his mate.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.

East Branch of the Dupage River, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.

Frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go out and see them for yourself?

You’ll be glad you did.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

******

The opening quote is from Allen M. Young’s Small Creatures and Ordinary Places: Essays on Nature (2000, University of Wisconsin Press). This lovely book includes dragonflies and damselflies; fireflies, silk moths, butterflies, and cicadas—just a few of the many insects he investigates. Several of his essays first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Young is Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

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Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.

Autumn Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant

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September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.

Ware Field plantings, Lisle, IL.

In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.

Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…

Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

…to smooth.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.

Ware Field planting in early September.

As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.

White goldenrod (Oligoneuron album), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.

Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariaefolia), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But most of all, I delight in the gentians.

Autumn on the prairie, DuPage County, IL.

Welcome back.

Downy Gentian or sometimes called Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), DuPage County, IL.

True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.

Cream (or “Yellowish”) Gentians (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.

Downy (or Prairie) Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), DuPage County, IL.

As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:

Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall

A flower from its cerulean wall.

I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.

Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia), DuPage County, IL.

Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.

Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia), Fermilab, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.

Possibly a Hybrid Bottle Gentian (Gentiana × pallidocyanea), DuPage County, IL.

Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.

Why not go see?

*******

The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”


*******

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.

September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

******

Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL.

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

******

The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

******

Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

A sense of wild is engendered by awareness, a sense of connection with and deep understanding of any landscape. The pavement of any city side street wriggles with enough life to terrify and delight us if we choose to immerse ourselves in it.”—Tristan Gooley

*****

Brrrr! It’s bitter cold—-as it should be in December. The added hours of darkness make it seem more arctic. Whenever the sun shines during these short-lit days, I follow it, cat-like, from room to room, hoping to absorb as much as possible. Soon, the Winter Solstice will arrive, and with it, the return of longer hours of sunshine.

On our Christmas tree, I hang dried orange slices, backlit by the tree lights, which turn the fruit to stained glass. Anything for more light. Color. Beauty.

December darkness is relentless. The pandemic has shadowed this month with more than the usual gloom as well: limiting our activities, sapping our spirits.

For these reasons alone, it’s a great time to get outside. Walk the tallgrass prairie trails. Enjoy brief moments of sunshine, or even a bit of fresh air if the day is gray. Undecided? Worried that it’s too chilly? Here are five more reasons to hike the December prairie.

  1. Unpredictable sightings. I walk the local prairies regularly, yet I never fail to see something that surprises me. This past week, a belted kingfisher rattled from the prairie pond, amusing me with its call—and its “hairstyle.”

Not far away, a partially dismantled osage orange fruit lies on the tallgrass trail, appearing as some alien Christmas ornament.. Despite its name, it’s related to the mulberry, not the orange. I’ve seen them here before, but they always give me pause. So strange!

Nearby, in a stand of tall goldenrod, a plant displays two types of galls on one stem. Huh! That’s a new one for me.

You can see the ball gall–maybe two of them? —topped by the rosette or bunch gall. Nice to see the insects are sharing housing arrangements. It was a big year for goldenrod—-and galls—on this particular prairie.

Piles of cut branches are everywhere; the sign of ongoing maintenance to keep woody shrubs and trees out of the tallgrass. It appears staff or site stewards tried to whack back this persistent tree.

What a stubborn will to live! You have to admire its determination.

2. That peculiar slant of light. December has a certain type of light unlike any other month; low and piercing.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, the prairie ponds and wetlands dazzle; almost too too bright to look at directly. The light turns the landscape monochromatic in places.

The sun scrolls through the sky, hugging the horizon and leaving the grasses and forbs alight.

Aster seeds, seen in this light, may be more beautiful in December than when they were in bloom.

Their puffs of brilliant white brighten gray days.

3. The sounds of winter. As I type, half-asleep at the kitchen table in the early hours, a THUNK snaps me fully awake. A Cooper’s hawk is perched outside, scanning the area for breakfast. Looks like it hit the window—ouch!—but missed its prey. No wonder the feeders have been mostly empty all morning.

I watch the hawk preen its feathers, then hop down and sift through the prairie dropseed planted around the porch. Looking for voles, maybe? Or a frightened sparrow? It’s the hungry season for hawks. After a few minutes, it flies away. The backyard is quiet for a long time afterwards.

Out on the prairie edges, juncos flit from tree limb to limb, their wings shuffling through the dry leaves. Geese honk their way over the tallgrass, headed for a nearby empty soccer field.

There’s a sound of water running. Listening, I feel the tension in my muscles loosen and I relax. Water music has that effect on us. The brook runs free and clear. And, I imagine, cold.

Ice laces the edges.

I think of the legions of dragonfly and damselfly nymphs waiting under the water to emerge. So much life unseen! Water on the prairie—whether pond, brook, river or wetland—-is ever-changing. Never dull. Always interesting. There’s always something new to see, no matter the time of day, or the season of the year.

4. Those December skies! What will each day bring? Steel gray scoured clouds, snuffing out the sun? Burnished blue cloudless skies, warming up the 20-degree temperatures? Veils of milky cirrus?

Or wind-combed clouds, streaming toward some destination far away?

This week, the prairie’s night skies will fill with meteor showers, the best holiday light show of all. By night or by day, the prairie is a front-row seat to the life of the skies. Don’t forget to look up.

5. That feeling of well-being that a good prairie hike brings. Clear your mind of Zoom meetings. Inhale the fragrant smell of December—frozen earth, wild bergamot seedheads, the tang of ice and decay. Turn off the news. Put paid to politics. Silence your cell phone. Go for a prairie hike.

You’ll be glad you did.

******

The opening quote is from Tristan Gooley, who has authored many books on reading and navigating the landscape. Thanks to my son and daughter-in-law for the boxed gift set of Gooley books—I am enjoying them immensely. Check out Gooley’s website at The Natural Navigator.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at College of DuPage Natural Areas, East Prairie, unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): unknown vine with berry from invasive honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica); author’s Christmas tree, Glen Ellyn, IL; belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis) and rosette gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) on tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); unknown tree sprouting; last leaves; prairie pond; COD East Prairie and line of osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera); unknown aster (Symphyotrichum sp.); Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying over COD East Prairie; Willoway brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Prairie skies; East Prairie skies; bench at COD East Prairie.

*****

Please consider giving the gift of books this holiday season! Support writers, small presses, and independent bookstores. Through December 31st, you can receive 40% off The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (2016) and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (2020) when you order directly from Northwestern University Press. Use the code HOLIDAY40 at checkout. At regular price, order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with Thomas Dean) from Ice Cube Press (2019). Or order these three books from The Arboretum Store or your favorite indie bookseller. Thank you, and happy reading!

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

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The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

Willoway Brook SPMA111719WM.jpg

The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

SPMAnovemberground111719WM.jpg

As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

ryeonlogSPMA111719WM.jpg

Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

SPMAundernovembersnow111719WM.jpg

Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

bramblesSPMA111719WM.jpg

It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

prairiedockSPMA111719WM.jpg

Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

falsesunflowerSPMA111719WM.jpg

I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

WillowayBrookSPMA111719WM.jpg

Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

illinoisbundleflowerSPMA111719WM.jpg

There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

beebalmetcSPMA111719WM.jpg

Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

cupplant SPMA111719WM.jpg

But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

carrionvine111719WMSPMA.jpg

The last flag-leaves of sumac.

sumac SPMA111719WM.jpg

Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

November on the SPMA111719WM.jpg

… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

*****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

****

A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

Prairiedropseed91419GEWM

Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

monarchonzinnia91519GEWM

Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

Butterflymilkweedpod91419GEWM.jpg

It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

redsaddlebagsWM82418CROSBYbackyardwm

The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

Jaspar Polaski Sandhill Cranes 2016 .jpg

 

Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

Prairie Passages

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”–Paul Gruchow

The sun lobs her light into the early morning hours. Mist rises from the warmth of the tallgrass into the cool air. It’s quiet, except for the wake-up songs of a few migrating warblers, resting in the nearby trees.

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Dawn is later now. The autumn equinox is only days away. You feel the transition in the slant of the light, the scent of the breezes. The just-past-full harvest moon this week seemed to speak of the cold and dark to come.

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The prairie  year rushes toward its inevitable conclusion.

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Drive by the prairie in late September. The impression is a sea of grasses. It’s easy to be indifferent to the seeming sameness, if you don’t take time to pay attention and look carefully.  

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So. Get out of your car. Sit. Look up at the sunflowers. See the migrating monarch nectaring?

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Celebrate the grasshopper, the bee, the cricket. Each one with plant associations; each irreplaceable in the prairie community.

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Applaud the profusion of asters, dabbing the prairie with purple.

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Watch as the prairie, under the lessening light, gently puts on the brakes. Seeds ripen and fall; some gathered by volunteers, others fuel for grassland birds or tiny mice and voles.  Bison thicken up their hairy chocolate-colored coats.

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Admire the boneset, one of the last flushes of extravagant flowers before the frosts touch the grasses. Boneset was once valued for its medicinal qualities; its ability to alleviate pain. Discomfort is part of change, but there is always solace in unexpected places. The clouds of pale boneset are one of the comforts of a prairie in transition.

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Inhale, smell the buttery prairie dropseed, the lemony scent of gray-headed coneflower seeds, the dusty mint of bee balm.

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Are transitions difficult for you, as they are for me? Are you watching and listening as the tallgrass moves from the warm season; melds into the coming cold?

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Let the prairie remind  you that there is always something amazing waiting, just around the corner. Love the transitions. Embrace what is bittersweet. Don’t be indifferent. Or afraid of change. Keep moving forward with anticipation to the new season ahead.

You’ll see.

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The opening quote is from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow grappled with depression throughout his writing life; he found solace in the solitude of wild places, especially prairie.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just past full harvest moon seen from author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky asters (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mist over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; September on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.