Tag Archives: backyard prairie

August’s Prairie Alphabet

“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic

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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.

Ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

C is for Tall Coreopsis, 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.

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.

Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Big Rock, IL.

F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.

Biennial gaura (Guara biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) feather Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.

American Painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on unknown thistle, Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL.

N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.

New england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), College of DuPage East Side Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Queen anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

S is for Silphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

X is for sphinX moths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.

Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.

Black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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.

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Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.

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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.

July’s Backyard Prairie Adventures

“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver

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Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.

Unknown bee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Dew on grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.

Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with a backdrop of gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Sunflower (Helianthus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.

Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii Boyer de Fonscolombe) on whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticallis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

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.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), with a couple of bees, Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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.

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

It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), with gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You, too?

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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.

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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.

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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!

Chasing Dragonflies

At Home with the Tallgrass Prairie

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”— Jim Dent

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Welcome, July!

It’s hot, hot, hot. The thermometer cruises past 90 degrees. My suburban backyard prairie plantings grow lush and tall by the minute, embracing the temperature. So many blooms!

Now starring in my backyard: hot pink.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The first pink party-time flowers of queen of the prairie cause me to yearn for cotton candy, and its burnt-sugar fragrance and melt-on-your-tongue sweet flavor. I see queen of the prairie and remember my first bicycle at age six: hot pink. As I admire the blooms from my kitchen window, I feel an impulse to make a batch of strawberry lemonade. Think pink! The memories flood in. Queen of the prairie flowers are a sure-fire nostalgia trigger.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The blossoms seem to float across the tallgrass like puffs of cumulus. Queen of the prairie is attractive in bud, too! Look at those tiny pink pearls.

Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra).

Nearby, culver’s root glows in the partial shade. The bees adore it. It’s a little leggy in the good garden soil of my suburban backyard, but no less pretty for sprawling.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

Cup plant helps hold it up. It’s aggressively pushed its way into more and more of my prairie planting. Hmmm. Looks like I might need to do some proactive digging and remove a few plants.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

Not a job for a day with temps in the nineties, I convince myself. Maybe later.

Joe pye weed tentatively lobs its first buds above the leaves. It’s a butterfly favorite. Moths and skippers love it too, as do bees and other insects. See the visitor on the leaf?

Red-banded leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) on joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Earlier this spring, I moaned about the loss of my new jersey tea shrub. The twigs looked lifeless. But look!

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).

The once dead-looking twigs are flush with leaves, and it’s putting on height next to the house. Maybe it’s not a write-off, after all. New jersey tea is in full bloom on the prairies this month. I close my eyes and imagine these little twigs flush with foamy flowers. Someday. Someday.

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first week of July is a time to put the seed catalogs away and close down the planting season. It’s difficult to stop planning and planting; to throw in the trowel. The dreams I had for a front-yard pollinator garden? Maybe next year. My hopes for adding big bluestem to the prairie patch? I mark my calendar to put seeds in when the snow flies. Now, it’s time to focus on enjoying what I planted this season.

To pay attention to the creatures my backyard prairie attracts.

Unknown critter on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

To learn the names of the weeds showing up in large numbers in my prairie plantings. Native? Or aggressive invader? Oops—was that prairie sundrops I yanked out? It was! Ah, well. I can plant more next season.

Blazing star is tipped with new blooms. They’ll continue flowering from the top down, like sparklers.

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae) on blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya).

Prairie smoke, which I planted and lost many years ago, is flourishing in a new spot under the eaves with its prairie neighbors. When I threw prairie smoke plants into the big prairie patch, they trickled out, eventually disappearing. Perhaps they were bullied by the big rough-and-ready cup plants. Here, in the partial shade and dryness of the patio edge, they get lots of personal attention from the gardener. No blooms yet. Next year. I imagine the pink.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) Prairie Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL (2015).

The prairie smoke rubs shoulders with prairie alumroot, as pretty in leaf as it is in bloom.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii).

It doesn’t mind sharing space with whorled milkweed, which promises flowers for the first time this summer in my backyard.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

An unusual milkweed, isn’t it? From the leaves, you’d never guess it was an Asclepias. But the monarchs know.

Jacob’s ladder is gone to seed, and a few slim first-year plants of prairie coreopsis jostle for position next to the whorled milkweed. But the piece-de-resistance is the butterflyweed, which I tried and failed with at least three times before finding its sweet spot. Look at it now!

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

No monarch caterpillars on it yet. I’m hopeful. Adult monarch butterflies loop through the lawn; lighting on common milkweed plants and nectaring from the rainbow blooms of cut-and-come-again zinnias. The hummingbirds like the zinnias too.

Summer in the backyard (2019).

It won’t be long until the monarchs discover the butterflyweed.

This week, the bee balm—wild bergamot—opened. Hummingbird moths as well as the namesake bees use this pretty flower from the mint family. Bee balm contains thymol, an essential oil. If “prairie” had a taste, it would be the antiseptic bee balm leaves and flowers. So refreshing!

Bee balm (Monarada fistulosa) with a bumblebee (Bombus spp.).

My backyard prairie compass plants, lagging behind the already-open blooms on the bigger tallgrass prairies, are closed fists ready to explode into yellow. When they open, the monarchs will be there, along with long-tongued bees and bumblebees and many other insects.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

So much is happening in my small suburban prairie patch. It boggles my mind to think of the larger prairie preserves, and the sheer numbers of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and other insects going about their business of living. Whether it is the thousands of acres of prairies like Nachusa Grasslands or the tiny prairie patches such as my backyard, I don’t want to miss a moment. July will be over in the blink of an eye. I want to soak up as much as I can.

For now, in the 90-degree-plus-heat, I’ll pour another strawberry lemonade. Then, I’ll enjoy the view of the prairie from my hammock as I plan my next hike on the prairie preserves.

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The opening quote is from Jim Dent, the author of Hops and History. Prairie in your backyard means less grass to mow, although not less weeds to pull. On hot days like these, it’s good to have an excuse to swing in the hammock with a cold drink and a book, and admire the prairie plantings we made. And –dream a little about next year.

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All photos this week, unless indicated, are by Cindy from her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards; 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. Register here.

The Prairie in Early June

When the soul lies down in that grass; the world is too full to talk about.” — Rumi

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Hello, June!! By the meteorological calendar, June 1 is also the first day of summer, although many of us will hold out for the “astronomical summer” date or solstice, June 20.

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

By any reckoning, it’s a new season on the prairie. Aldo Leopold wrote, “In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them.” I want to “heed” them all! But how to choose what to see? A hundred species—animal, vegetable, mineral—clamor for attention. The bumblebee pushing its way into the American vetch blossom over here….

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on American vetch (Vicia americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…or the tiny immature female eastern forktail damselfly, clinging to a grass blade…

Immature female eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…or the insect hiding in the spiderwort. Sort of ironic. (Even if spiders aren’t insects.)

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) with unknown insect, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You can’t miss the red-winged blackbird, its wing tattooed with floral shadows.

Redwinged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) perched on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What a racket he makes! No doubt a nest is nearby. Nearly everyone has a story about being dive-bombed by a protective red-winged “daddy” bird. I give him plenty of space.

Blooms, blooms. It’s a wildflower extravaganza.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Marvel at the architecture of stem, leaf, and flower.

Possibly upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Each bloom is a wonder.

Pasture rose (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The colorless wildflowers…

Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…are no less beautiful than the colorful ones.

Prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look for the unusual, in structure and hue.

Late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), sometimes called wild coffee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In each stage of bud and bloom is the opportunity to see a familiar wildflower with new eyes.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The buds may seem more intriguing than the blooms.

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many wildflowers are easy to miss. Unless you slow down and pay attention.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I love the infinite variety of wildflowers just past their prime; the tension between what has been, and what is yet to come.

Shooting star (Dodacatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The transitions are as delightful as the blooms themselves…and sometimes more so.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Watch for the flowers to go to seed, ready to set sail on the slightest puff of wind.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just think! Each seed holds the secrets of next year’s prairie.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum) with shadow of prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Change is happening, so fast that I can’t keep up with it.

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

Standing on the threshold of June, anything seems possible.

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Rumi (1207-1273) was a scholar, poet, and theologian born in what is today known as Afghanistan. The opening quote is from his poem, “A Great Wagon.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

Three Reasons to Hike the May Prairie

“…And life revives, and blossoms once again.” —Emily Pauline Johnson

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How can you describe the prairie in early May? So much is happening! New wildflowers open every minute. A different insect emerges. Bumblebees buzz. Rain falls. Strong winds ripple the new grass blades and foliage. A few dragonflies cruise by, sampling the warmer air and looking for love along the prairie streams and pond edges.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2020)

The prairie is awake. So much jazz and motion and life! Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairies and prairie savannas this month and see what’s unfolding.

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  1. Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers: The spring prairie wildflowers have arrived. Look around the savanna and the prairie edges, and you’ll spot the prairie trillium. The deep wine petals are unmistakable.
Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, Il.

Maybe you learned this trillium by a different name, such as “wake robin” or “bloody butcher” or even “bloody noses” (as one of my friends tells me he called it as a child). By any name, it’s one of the touchstones of spring. The dappled leaves are camouflage against deer, which eat the leaves and flowers. It’s a common wildflower which occurs in every Illinois county.

It’s tougher to spot the jack in the pulpit; sometimes pale green, sometimes reddish green. Can you find “Jack” under the spathe or hood (the “pulpit?”)

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The 20th century modernist Georgia O’Keeffe created a series of six paintings based on this unusual plant, although she is better known for her work with flowers, animal skulls, skyscrapers, and the landscape of the American southwest. What a great way to immortalize this curious flower!

Not far away in the open sunshine, a single pussytoes plant reminds me of a bundle of Q-tips. It is striking when seen alone…

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…or in a small colony.

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2020).

Such strange little flowers, with their feathery antenna-like “blooms!” Another white wildflower, Comandra umbellata, may not be as strange looking, but its common name “bastard toadflax” always gets the attention of my wildflower students.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

Bastard toadflax is the only plant in its genus, and it has a certain nostalgia for me. When I first began volunteering on the prairie more than two decades ago, I saw this tiny flower while I was bent over weeding. Puzzled, I asked Marj, an older volunteer, for the ID. She laughed. “Oh that!” Then she told me the name, and made me laugh. Marj is gone now, but I always think of her mentoring a newbie volunteer whenever the toadflax blooms.

Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

These tiny wildflowers are just a hint of what’s out there. And so much more is on the way!

2. Signs of Bird Life: Mornings in May are all about birdsong. In the dawn light, I wake to robins chattering their joy, looking forward to the hours ahead. The first oriole showed up at my backyard feeder this morning, and the juncos-–those somber yet jaunty northerly birds, cloaked in nun-like colors–have disappeared, doubtless to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada.

On the newly greening prairie, killdeer find the perfect nesting spots in the exposed gravel after the burn. Their signature calls are a soundtrack for any hike in May.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Have you seen them? No? Seeing the killdeer and listening to its heart-tugging, high-pitched cry is reason enough to get outside on the prairie. There is something elemental; something primal, about this particular bird call that always makes me think “spring!”

Other birds leave clues to their presence. Some feathers are breathtakingly soft, subtle.

Unknown feather (perhaps red-tailed hawk? (Buteo jamaicensis)) or something big!), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This feather is a startling shaft of bright color.

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) feather, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I leave the feathers where I find them, even as I wonder what stories they hold. Imagine a bird’s-eye view of the life of the prairie. Supposedly, northern flickers may live up to nine years; red-tailed hawks may live up to 15 years in the wild. What glorious years those must be, spent so high in the sky!

3. The Fragrance of Spring Prairie: I don’t wear perfume, but if you could bottle the smell of the prairie in May, it’s a scent I’d gladly wear. The prairie in May smells like the drifts of wild blue phlox edging the savanna…

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

…a sweet scent, but not cloyingly so. Fresh. Light.

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.(2017)

The fragrance of phlox mixes with the green chlorophyll scent of countless numbers of growing prairie plants and their cradle of damp earth. Inhale. That smell! It’s life itself. Can you feel your heart expand? Do you feel your spirits suddenly lift?

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So much joy. You want to shout!

This is spring.

You are on the prairie.

Sunset, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Isn’t it a wonder to be alive?

******

The opening quote is from a poem, “Fire-Flowers” by Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who also published under her Mohawk name Tekahionwake. Born on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West, she was an artist, performer, and poet who authored three collections of poetry, including Flint and Feather (1912). Grateful thanks to Dan Haase who introduced me to this poet.

******

Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to John Heneghan for his help with bird feather ID this week!

A Tallgrass Prairie Morning

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit

*******

High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.

Nachusa Grasslands at the end of April, Franklin Grove, IL.

Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.

Sand phlox (Phlox bifida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.

New growth on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?

Unknown bee covered with pollen, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.

Possibly an Andrena bee, or miner’s bee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.

Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).

If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?

A trout lily (Erythronium albidum) with an insect visitor, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, LIsle, IL.

A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.

Wild coffee or horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Time to head home and pour a mug.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, at the end of April.

A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.

********

The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

*******

It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

*****

The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

*******

Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold

*****

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.

Icicles, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of thaw.

Icicle, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.

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

Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie in late February, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.

Ice on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.

Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.

Cindy’s backyard prairie patch at the end of February, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.

It’s been a beautiful winter.

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

But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, viewed through the piled parking lot snow at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.

Winter at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.

Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.

Hidden Lake prairie plantings, Downers Grove, IL (2019).

But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.

Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I’m ready.

***

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.

*****

Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“It’s a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.” — John T. Price

The polar vortex has clamped its icy claws on the Midwest.

Monarch Way Station, Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I find myself humming Christina Rossetti’s gorgeous Christmas poem/carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Snow on snow, snow on snow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

My hikes have gotten shorter and shorter this week. Even a trip to fill up the backyard birdfeeders…

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….is Brrrr!...enough to send me back inside to brew a mug of hot lapsang souchong tea, shrug on an afghan, and reach for a book about the gorgeous and—painfully cold this week—natural world.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s prime reading weather. Time to investigate some prairie literature.

Let’s pull a few books off the shelf and spend some of this week “hiking” through the pages, immersed in prairie.

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Do you love a good story? A great place to begin a prairie literary exploration is with John Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.

If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.

Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.

Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chance by Steven Apfelbaum.

After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.

For the same reasons, I love Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year ….

…and Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.

Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Kelly Kindscher’s two seminal works on Kansas prairie plants, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie include many stories of grasses and wildflowers native to my area of Illinois as well as further west. Drawings like these below are included, rather than photographs.

Illustration from Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.

Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.

So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.

Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?

Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.

Happy reading!

*****

John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

*******

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Readers, I hope you’ll “hunker down” this winter with my book, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and my book with awesome co-author Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit during this cold spell! Don’t forget your independent bookstores when you order Thanks for reading about and supporting prairie.

Prairie Snow Messages

“…How swiftly time passes in the out-of-doors where there is never a moment without something new.”– Sigurd Olson

******

It starts with graupel. Icy pellets of rimed snow. Soft hail. The graupel rattles the windows. Pelts the patio. Bounces like tiny ping-pong balls across my backyard and into the prairie patch. The winter storm is here.

Graupel, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Four mourning doves swoop onto the porch. They peck-peck-peck the scattered millet seed around the bird feeders, then shelter under the eaves. Darkness falls. The wind rattles the windows. And at last, it begins to snow.

A light snow cover has blanketed the prairies this week. Critters leave clues to their identities.

Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) tracks, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie grasses, overshadowed by wildflowers most of the year, find snow is the perfect backdrop to showcase their charms.

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

Snow is a stage for tallgrass shadows and silhouettes to play upon.

Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Turkey tail fungi sift snow, letting it powder each arc of nuanced color.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor), Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In shrubs and thickets, black-capped chickadees shelter from the storm. They know how to endure.

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

From a distance, Indian hemp seems stripped of all but pod and stem.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Come closer. A few seeds still cling to the scoured pods, ready to set sail in the high winds.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere is something to spark wonder. “Even an adult can grow in perception if he refuses to close the doors to learning,” wrote Sigurd Olson in Reflections from the North Country. There are stories to be listened to…

Ash tree (Fraxinus sp.) with emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…messages to be read in the midst of the snow, if only we can decipher them. If we keep the doors to learning open.

Emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) gallery, Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When the doors to learning stand open, what is there to discover?

Perhaps, diversity is beautiful.

Mixed prairie grasses and forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Or, Think of future generations, not just of the needs or desires of the moment.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Remember the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Embrace change, even when it’s difficult. It usually is.

Lambert Lake, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Appreciate what you have today…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

…it may not be here tomorrow.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The choices we make aren’t always clear or easy.

Mixed forbs, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There are a lot of gray areas.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

But it’s never too late to reflect. To listen. To learn.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

And then, to move forward.

Lambert Lake hiking trail, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is so much to see and think about on the prairie.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to pay attention to.

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

So much to consider, on a prairie hike in the snow.

*****

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982), whose quote opens this post, was born in Chicago and grew up in northern Wisconsin. He is considered one of the most important environmental advocates of the 20th Century. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area—over one million acres in size—owes its preservation to the work of Olson and many others. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area of Minnesota and Canada, and his nine books explore the meaning of wilderness and the outdoors. He is a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal, the highest honor in nature writing, for Wilderness Days. If you haven’t read Olson, I’d suggest beginning with The Singing Wilderness. A very good read.

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 6 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.