“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.”—Mary Oliver
August takes its last steamy, stormy breaths.
Tumultuous sunsets send me to the porch each evening to watch the show.
An unexpected health setback means no big hikes for a while. Instead, I go for walks around the yard. There is so much to see.
Look at the determination of this insect, making a beeline for the blazing star.
I like its single-minded focus on what’s in front of it. A reminder to pay attention to what I can do, instead of what I can’t do right now.
And what’s this? A Marine Blue Butterfly sips nectar in the front yard prairie planting. Earlier, I saw one of these “rare strays” to Illinois at Nachusa Grasslands, 90 miles west. But that was on a 4,000 acre mosaic of prairies, woodlands, and wetlands, where you might expect to encounter an unusual insect. I’m stunned to see this butterfly in my small suburban front yard.
Would I have noticed this tiny, nondescript butterfly if I was busy with my normal prairie and dragonfly hikes in the bigger preserves? Probably not. Maybe it’s a reminder that “there’s no place like home.”
My sneezeweed, now in its second year, is covered with winged creatures. I try my phone app iNaturalist on them for identification, but none of my ID’s feel certain. The insect world is so big, and my ID skills are so limited.
As I walk, there’s a loud chatter at the feeders. A downy woodpecker stops mid-peck to see what all the fuss is about.
A noisy goldfinch and furious hummingbird battle over the hummingbird feeder. A water moat keeps ants from plundering the sugar water. The goldfinch seems to think the water moat is his personal watering hole. The hummer wants a nip of nectar.
The defeated hummingbird brushes by my head in a whir of wings on his way to the neighbor’s feeder. I follow him with my eyes. And then I see it.
Not a hummingbird—but a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth! Its wings are mostly a blur as it works the zinnias.
One of the reasons I include non-native zinnias in my backyard plant mix is as nectar sources for hummingbirds, moths, butterflies, and bees. I watch this day-flying moth hover over flower after flower for a long time, marveling at its downy body and gorgeous wings.
When it flies away, I check the pond for visitors. Two frogs keep watch.
Kitschy, yup. But they started life in my grandparent’s garden, and now, they attend to mine. It’s a connection to the past that never fails to make me smile.
A wasp nestles into the marsh marigold leaves. For the millionth time, I wish I knew more about wasp ID. Wasps are such a large group of insects! I believe it’s a paper wasp. You can see where the old-fashioned phrase “wasp waisted” comes from.
A Margined Calligrapher—a type of hover fly—rests on Garlic Chive blooms. The chives, much like my pink garden Chives, have popped up all over the garden and close to the pond. Such a delicate insect!
Almost a dozen Great Blue Lobelia blooms are “blue-ming” around the water, and the insects approve.
A carpenter bee seems as enamored of it as I am. The flowers are deep sapphire! So very blue.
Meanwhile, any “blues” I had have passed.
An hour walking through the prairie garden has a way of taking care of that. Even if only for the moment.
The opening quote is by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) from her poem, “Don’t Worry” (Felicity). Although much of her poetry is set in New England and Ohio, her love of nature and ability to connect with the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives through her words transcends geography. Read more here.
***All photos in today’s post are from the Crosby’s prairie plantings and garden in Glen Ellyn, IL.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn
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. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery
It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.
Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).
It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.
As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.
Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.
On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.
Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.
Surely nothing will stick.
But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…
A dusting of snow.
Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.
The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.
Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.
Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…
…the prairie smoke…
…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…
…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.
Never a dull moment on the prairies.
The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).
April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.
Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.
“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom
I’ve been looking up words in the thesaurus to describe the Chicago region’s prairie temperatures this week.
Here’s what I’ve found so far: Chilly. Freezing. Icy.
Piercing. Numbing. Sharp.
Glacial. Wintry. Raw.
Penetrating. Hypothermic. And did I say…. cold?
And….refreshing. These temperatures are a wake-up blast that jolts you clear down to your toes. Until you can’t feel your toes anymore.
What do you think? How would you describe the cold this week?
After I hiked the prairie this weekend in the snow, rising temperatures and a misty rain laid an icy glaze across the sidewalks and driveways; shellacked the front steps to our house. It looked as if Mother Nature got down on her hands and knees and buffed the snow to a high gloss.
Monday’s sunshine helped melt it a bit. Now everything is slick with ice. It’s treacherous out there.
I can see my backyard prairie patch from the kitchen window. What solace! The prairie dock leaves are brittle and brown; the compass plants curl like bass clefs. Wild bergamot satisfies my need for aesthetics as much in winter as it does in full bloom during the summer. Rattlesnake master’s spare silhouette is more striking now than it was in the warmer seasons.
Along the side of the house, prairie dropseed pleases in its mound-drape of leaves. What a pleasure this plant is. Every home owner should have it. So well-behaved.
But it’s the rough and tumble of joe pye, goldenrod, asters, swamp milkweed, cup plant, culver’s root, mountain mint and other prairie community members as a whole that I appreciate as much as parsing out a single species.
I’m reminded that underneath the snow is a world of color and motion and growth, just waiting to happen at the turn of the temperatures toward warmth. These bitter temperatures are a necessary pause in the life of the prairie.
Meanwhile, I’ll wait for the ice to melt…
… and remind myself that one of the reasons I planted prairie in my yard is for days just like this one. Is my backyard prairie good for the environment? Absolutely. Essential for pollinators? You bet. And…
…it’s a winter pleasure that warms my spirits, as I look through the window on a brutally-cold, iced-in day.
Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a writer, abolitionist, and teacher. As one of nine children, whose father (a sea captain) died when she was eight, Larcom worked with her mother to run a boardinghouse to keep the family afloat in Lowell, Massachusetts. She worked in Lowell’s mills at eleven years old, where the “mill girls” established a literary circle and she became a friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a support and encouragement. At twenty, she moved with an older sister to the Illinois prairies, where she taught school. She later moved back East and wrote for such magazines as the Atlantic. Her poetry collections include Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie (1853). She is best known for her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory which the Poetry Foundation calls “a richly detailed account of gender, and class in mid-nineteenth century New England.”
Join Cindy for a program in January!
“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us in person, or tune in via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Please note changes in venue may be made, pending COVID. Check the day before to ensure you know the most current details of this event). Register here.
It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…
…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.
I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.
It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.
Fall color has arrived. At last.
My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.
The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.
I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.
Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.
Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.
Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.
I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.
It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.
If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.
After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.
We need these prairie places.
And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.
I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.
Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.
Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.
Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.
You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.
The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
“The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.
Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.
Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.
Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.
Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.
Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.
This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…
…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!
Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.
The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.
If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.
Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.
Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.
Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toadbooks I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.
As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.
I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.
Why not go see for yourself?
The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of Americaby May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday,December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to mind?
Is it prescribed fire, decimating the old, and encouraging the new?
Is it the sweep of the charred land, with a whisper of green?
Is it the prairie in springtime, covered with shooting star?
Or do you imagine the summer prairie, spangled with blooms?
Is it the smell of prairie dropseed, tickling your nose in the fall? Mmmm. That hot buttered popcorn smell, tinged with something undefinable.
Or do you see prairie limned with snow, in its winter colors?
When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to your mind?
Is it the call of dickcissel?
Is it a butterfly that you see in your mind’s eye?
Or is it bison, claiming the Midwest tallgrass as their own?
What comes to your mind when you think of prairie?
It isn’t as important what you think of when you imagine prairie as this: That you think of prairie at all.
And then, make it your own.
Here, in the prairie state.
Our landscape of home.
The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s (1947-2004) wonderful book, Journal of a Prairie Year. The full quote reads: . “The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.” Gruchow’s legacy of love for the prairie continues to connect and engage people’s hearts and minds with the tallgrass.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Just moved ONLINE: September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information.
ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
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 and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver
Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.
Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.
Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.
I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.
I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.
I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.
Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.
Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.
The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.
Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.
I enjoy the July transitions.
A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.
Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.
Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.
I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.
In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.
I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.
Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.
If only we could be present to them all.
In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.
The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.
So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.
It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.
I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.
The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.
Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.