Tag Archives: backyard

Prairie by the Numbers

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

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Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

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You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

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The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

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All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Prairie Signs and Wonders

“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”–Helen Maria Hunt Jackson

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August slows, and puts on her turn signal. Autumn lies just ahead. The signs are all around us.

In my backyard prairie patch, the goldfinches work the cup plant seedheads–then sip a drink from yesterday’s rainwater, pooled in the leaves.

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Nearby, a lone monarch appears on the zinnias, delicately sourcing fuel for its migration flight to Mexico. Hasta la vista. What a tough year it’s been for you, monarchs.

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Hikes on the prairies after work end sooner. Shorter days. Earlier sunsets.

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The tallgrass is peppered with dark chocolate coneflower seedheads; limned with early goldenrod.

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In the first light of morning, deep in the dew, the white-faced meadowhawks appear. Harbingers of fall. Their kin, the green darners and wandering gliders, black saddlebags and variegated meadowhawks, have already taken wing and left the Midwest. What a wonder, that they can disappear into the winds to fly thousands of miles! The non-migratory dragonflies  are tied to this place, however, and wait helplessly for the cold.

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There is a more spare look to the landscape. It moves from cheerful to slightly melancholy. Lonelier.

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The jewelweed opens along the prairie’s creeks. Hummingbirds work the flowers for nectar, mindful that they’ll soon need energy to make the long trip south. Come on! You can almost hear the monarchs and dragonflies whisper to the hummers. It’s getting late. Go!

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Summer is ending. We see dimly ahead. Wonder what’s around the corner.

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Something new.

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Something different.

And always, adventures to anticipate.

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The opening quote is from Helen Maria Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), who was a novelist and tireless advocate for Native Americans. She was also a classmate of Emily Dickinson. She suffered many difficult losses during her life–parents, siblings, children, her husband. At the time of her death from cancer, Jackson was still advocating for Native American rights from her sickbed. Although some have criticized her prose as “middlebrow,” she used her words to change the world she lived in for the better.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom):  cup plant (Silphium prefoliatum) with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden zinnias (Zinnia spp., certified Monarch Way Station), Glen Ellyn, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and pale purple conehead (Echinacea pallida) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white-faced meadowhawk, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also visible in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.