“My own feeling for tallgrass prairie is that of a modern man fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.”—John Madson
Today, as we swap sweet valentine notes with friends, family, and loved ones, I’m writing to you, prairie.
I’m talking to you, prairie remnants…
…and backyard prairies, so lovingly planted…
…and front yard prairies, placed where neighbors can see…
…and street prairies, in the midst of suburban hustle and bustle.
Cemetery prairies, where the native plants hung on for dear life as the tallgrass was plowed all around.
Prairies of a hundred acres.
Prairies of thousands of acres.
Prairies tucked into the corners of churches and schools…
…playgrounds and public spaces…
…in industrial parks…
…and in places you might not expect.
Old planted prairies that started a restoration movement…
… and prairies that remind us of the vision it takes to keep tallgrass alive in the hearts and minds of people.
Prairies that gave me new ways to think about the world.
Thank you, my landscape of home, for the thousands of hours of pleasure you’ve offered me.
I’ve pulled your weeds…
…collected your seeds.
Thank you for supporting the native bees…
…and the butterflies…
…and the birds…
…so many fascinating birds….
…and myriad whimsical insects…
…by providing them with a healthy, diverse place to live.
Thank you for your blooms, which add color to my life from March to October.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie, for days full of sound and motion…
…for nights full of discovery…
…for streams to wade through…
…for helping me understand the role of prescribed fire that causes you to flourish…
…and for endless bridges to adventure.
For the cool taste of mountain mint leaves in summer…
…for the delights of prairie thunderstorms…
…and for giving the displaced and threatened a home.
You’ve taught me to see the small things. To pay attention.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie.
This is my love letter…
The opening quote is by John Madson (1923-1995) from his beautiful, thoughtful book on tallgrass prairie, Where the Sky Began.If you haven’t read it, February is the perfect month to do so.
Dragonflies and Damselflies —IN PERSON February 18, 10-11:30 a.m. (Note new earlier date). Hosted by Citizens for Conservation, Barrington, IL. For more information, click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—In Person February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens —In Person March 7, 7-8:30 p.m.—Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.
See Cindy’s website for more March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle
It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.
1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.
Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.
It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.
Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.
We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.
2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.
One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?
Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.
What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.
3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.
One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.
The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.
I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.
With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!
Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.
4. I will plant an oak.
When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.
But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.
Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.
A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.
5. I will keep a regular eBird list.
Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.
Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.
This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.
Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.
6. I will expand our native plantings.
When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…
…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.
Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.
2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.
In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.
Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.
What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.
Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!
The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.
“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao
At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)
Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.
Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.
In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.
It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.
There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.
I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.
A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”
Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.
After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.
This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.
Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.
Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.
A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.
The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…
…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.
There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…
…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.
As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!
We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.
As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.
We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.
They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.
This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.
So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…
…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.
The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.
Sunday,June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
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.