“Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light.”–Ute Prayer
Goodbye, summer. I’m not sad to see you go.
I’m ready for less humidity. More cool breezes.
Less chaotic headlines. More peace and stability.
I’m ready for change.
Meteorological summer draws to a close on the tallgrass prairie today. The signs of autumn are all around us, from the sheets of goldenrods….
… to the fringed swirls of deep purple New England asters, to the pale amethyst obedient plant spikes.
You can feel autumn nearing in the slant of light. The air is pixelled, a bit grainy. Mornings dawn later and cooler, a little less of the “air you can wear” humid.
…is a hummingbird magnet, both on the prairies and in my backyard prairie planting. When the hummers finish nectaring at the hyssop, they bounce from the cardinal flowers to the zinnias, then over to the sugar-water feeder. According to Journey North at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ruby-throated hummingbirds eat between one-and-a-half to three times their weight in food each day. Imagine if we did that! (Hello, ice cream!) This time of year, they are in a state known as hyperphagia, in which they fuel up for migration.
Journey North, which tracks hummingbird migration sightings, notes that the males may have already left for the south by the end of August. Females and young ones will follow this week and next. Each one migrates alone. I wonder what it feels like, flying so far, looking for flowers to nectar at along the way?
On my prairie hikes this week, I see insects. So many insects! Wasps. Praying mantis. Grasshoppers. Robber flies.
Robber flies are so bizarre! This one is a Billy Gibbons look-alike. Robber flies ambush other insects in flight, then land and suck the juices out of them. There are stories of robber flies preying on wasps, bees, and even hummingbirds! Their nickname is “cannibal fly” because they snack on each other. Yikes!
Although robber flies are strange looking, skunk cabbage seedpods may get my award for “most bizarre late summer find” this year. I was out with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa Grasslands on a dragonfly monitoring run this past week, and we waded into a boggy area. I recognized skunk cabbage immediately.
But not the seed pod. She was kind enough to point it out.
Cool! I would have thought it was some type of fungi. In the same wet area, we found the cream of the late summer wildflowers. A small stand of turtlehead…
…virgin’s bower, twining among the false buckwheat at the edge of the woods…
…and lots of swamp betony (or “swamp lousewort” or “marsh lousewort” as it is sometimes called).
August is also bloom time for one of my favorite wildflowers: the great blue lobelia. Love that eye-popping color! I find this wetland native at Nachusa Grasslands, and I also have it around my backyard pond.
The name “tallgrass prairie” is apt for this last day of August. Off the trail, it’s tough hiking through the curtain of grasses. Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and cordgrass, are in all stages of flowering and seed. Little bluestem in seed reminds me of July Fourth sparklers.
When I leave the prairie, I’m powdered with pollen from a hundred different blooms. As I brush off my shirt, I think of September. So close I can feel it. This has been a summer full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings; a savage season of tornadoes and drought; and a summer of a continuing pandemic that just won’t quit. I won’t miss these things.
It’s also been a summer of knock-out wildflowers….
…beautiful sunsets and cumulus clouds like whipped cream; blue moons and butterflies; tiger beetles and tiger swallowtails; and a host of wonders free for the viewing—if we take time to pay attention. It’s these everyday miracles of the natural world that sustain me amid the chaos seemingly all around.
Thank you for these bright spots, summer.
And now….Welcome, fall.
The opening quote is from a Ute Prayer, given here in its entirety from the Aspen Institute:Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage, as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance, as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal, as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself, as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain. The Ute were an indigenous tribe that once lived in what is present day Utah and Nevada. Very few Utes survive to the present day.
Join Cindy for a class or program this fall!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock
Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…
…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.
Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.
1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.
Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.
Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.
After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:
The maples flare among the spruces, The bursting foxgrape spills its juices, The gentians lift their sapphire fringes On roadways rich with golden tenges, The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers, The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers, The squirrels scurry, never stopping, For all they hear is apples dropping And walnuts plumping fast and faster; The bee weighs down the purple aster — Yes, hive your honey, little hummer, The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”
I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!
And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.
2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.
Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.
Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.
Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.
This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.
I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?
Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.
I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.
So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.
What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…
3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.
In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.
This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…
…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.
I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.
August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.
You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?
The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.
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 pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella
Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”
I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…
…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.
When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!
Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.
They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.
I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.
I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.
I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.
Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.
I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…
…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.
Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.
They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.
Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!
With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…
…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….
… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.
The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!
Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?
The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).
All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
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.
“Deep in July…counting clouds floating by…how we thrive deep in dragonfly summer.”—Michael Franks
It’s all smooth jazz on the tallgrass prairie this week, from sunrise to sunset.
The prairie hits its groove as it swings through mid-July. In the dewy mornings, by a tallgrass stream….
…the vibe is especially mellow. Water flows over stones. A few cumulous clouds drift over. In the tallgrass, the dragonflies warm up their flight muscles. Ready for a hot and humid day.
As the temperatures rise, the dragonflies rise with them. Time for breakfast. Dragonflies hover over our heads; patrol ponds.
Often they perch nearby on a downed log…
Or an upright twig.
No need to chase them today. If you startle one, it may fly off, then loop back to its original perch.
Their kissing cousins, the damselflies, stake out streams…
… hang out in ponds.
On the prairie, damselflies hover right above my boots.
As my eyes get older, it’s more difficult to see them. So tiny! But if I’m patient, and don’t rush my hike, there they are. Right in front of my eyes.
The eastern forktail damselflies, one of our most common species, are also one of the easiest to spot. Look for that bright green head and thorax, and the tiny blue tip of the abdomen. It’s bright amid the tall grasses.
Spreadwing damselflies are less common than the forktails on my hikes. I get a jolt of joy when I spot one half-hidden in a shady cool spot.
As I hike, I see more than dragonflies. Moths flit through the grasses.
Butterflies puddle in the gravel two-tracks through the prairie.
Wildflowers continue their exuberant displays…
…making it difficult to look at anything but blooms.
And yet. There’s so much to see on the July prairie.
Why not go take a hike and listen to that “smooth jazz” for yourself?
Michael Franks (1944-) is a singer and songwriter, whose lyrics from the song Dragonfly Summer kick off this blog post. His songs have been recorded by Diana Krall, Ringo Starr, Patti Austin, Manhattan Transfer, Art Garfunkel, and Lyle Lovett — just to name a few. Listen to his song Dragonfly Summer from the album of the same name here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
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 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.
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!
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Earlier this spring, I moaned about the loss of my new jersey tea shrub. The twigs looked lifeless. But look!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The prairie smoke rubs shoulders with prairie alumroot, as pretty in leaf as it is in bloom.
It doesn’t mind sharing space with whorled milkweed, which promises flowers for the first time this summer in my backyard.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
All photos this week, unless indicated, are by Cindy from her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL.
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.
“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy
You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.
I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.
But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.
When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.
I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.
I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.
But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.
Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.
Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.
Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.
It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.
The bullfrogs like it, too.
Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.
I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.
Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.
The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.
I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.
Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.
We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.
I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.
Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.
I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.
One plant at a time.
Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
Join Cindy for a program or a class online!
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.
“This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.”–Louise Glück
I am preoccupied with light; the number of daylight hours is slipping through my fingers. Gradually lessening.
I rise in the dark, and eat dinner at dusk. Where has the light gone?
The trees at the edge of the prairie are alight.
The year is passing quickly.
Sunday evening, as I admired my backyard prairie patch, a white-crowned sparrow appeared. Its bright white striped helmet glowed in the twilight as it sampled seeds spilled from my feeders, under the wands of the blazing star.
No matter how we cling to what we have, it will eventually be lost to us.
Better to turn the page. Practice release.
October is a bittersweet month; a month that catches fire and burns everything to ashes as it goes.
But oh, what a fire.
And oh, what a light the burning makes.
Store up October now.
Cherish that light.
It will be solace in the months to come.
The opening line is from poet Louise Glück (1943–), who won a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature this past week. It’s the latest of many major prizes she’s earned for her writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, a good introduction to her work. Her poems are often harsh; exploring the meaning of suffering and mortality. Read about her life and writing here, or listen to her read some of her poems here.
All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): view over the October prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); bird’s nest; blazing star seeds (Liatris sp.); lichens, one is possibly gold dust (Chrysothrix candelaris) and another possibly hoary rosette (Physcia aipolia); Schulenberg Prairie in October; rose hips (Rosa carolina); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); leadplant (Amorpha canscens); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angeliae); bridge over Willoway Brook in October; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata); one of the katydids (possibly Scudderia sp.); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; video of leaf fall, prairie looking into savanna; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization—this autumn and winter.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh
Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.
Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.
The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.
The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.
Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.
Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!
The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.
The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.
Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.
Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.
Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.
So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?
The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.
The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.
Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.
Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.
Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.
Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.
September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.
Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.
Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.
Close your eyes. Make a wish.
Now, release it to the wind.
The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.
All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“There’s so much to discover! So much we don’t know.” — Sharman Apt Russell
Be careful what you wish for.
For the past week, I’ve hoped for rain. The garden and prairie have been crisped to a crunch. Now, I’ve added a new word to my vocabulary: Derecho. What a mighty storm passed through the Midwest on Monday! Hope this finds all of you safe and well.
Hot and muggy August has brought more than storms to this week. Blooms! Butterflies. Bison shenanigans. Let’s go for a hike at Nachusa Grasslands, and see what’s happening.
The bison bulls are sparring, bellowing, and generally kicking up a fuss. It’s rutting season. The peaceful notes of song sparrows and chirps of crickets and other insects are punctuated by sudden snorts, followed by puffs of dust.
Bison normally ignore people, but in August, all bets are off. When working in bison units this month, I try to stay as far away from them as possible as bulls battle for mating rights. The mamas are also in a protective mood…
…especially if they feel their babies are threatened.
Despite their size (males can weight up to 2,000 lbs, females up to 1,100 lbs), bison can move invisibly through the tallgrass. Or so it seems! They can also run up to 40 mph. That’s a combination that demands respect.
The tallgrass prairie is incomplete without them. Learn more about Nachusa’s bison here.
On the other end of the size spectrum at Nachusa are the springwater dancer damselflies. What they lack in size, they make up for in color. That blue! In bright sunlight, this damselfly is stunning.
In the shaded tallgrass along the creek, I see springwater dancers caught in a frenzy of love; making the mating “heart” or “wheel.”
This mating between Odonates—dragonflies or damselflies—is one of the most amazing phenomenons in the natural world. As August slides toward fall, it seems to take on a new importance. The creek where they mate has seen a decline in damselfly species over the past few seasons. The next generations of Odonates depends on these pairings’ success. The springwater dancers give me hope for the future.
Along the creeks and across Nachusa’s prairies, August unfurls her blooms.
Great blue lobelia, just beginning to open.
Flowering spurge. So delicate! It seems as if it belongs in a florist’s bouquet. The “baby’s breath” of the prairie.
Along the trails, another white flower—the whorled milkweed—is in bloom. It’s often overlooked as a milkweed. Those leaves! So different than the common milkweed or the butterfly milkweed.
And yet. Look at the flowers up close. Yes! They have the unmistakable milkweed floral structure.
Illinois has 24 species of milkweed; 22, including whorled milkweed, are native. How many have you planted in your yard or your neighborhood? I’ve only five milkweed species in my garden: the common, butterfly milkweed, swamp milkweed, green milkweed, and short milkweed, but it’s a good start. In my yard and at Nachusa Grasslands, the bees are especially drawn to the swamp milkweed, sometimes called rose or marsh milkweed.
Milkweed has some of the best plant promotional campaigns in the world. (Just Google “Got Milkweed?” Milkweeds are host to the larvae of the monarch butterfly, a charismatic insect that migrates from Illinois to Mexico each autumn. The first members of the migratory generation of caterpillars are emerging now! Next spring, a new generation of monarchs returns to Illinois in the spring.
This monarch looks a bit shopworn; doubtless it is at the end of its allotted lifespan. I remember finding monarch caterpillars on my butterfly weed in my prairie garden early this summer.
I’ve not seen any since, although I’ve seen plenty of the monarch butterflies sail through my prairie patch. And other butterflies, both at home and on the prairie.
One of the highlights of my hike this weekend at Nachusa is three yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, nectaring on Joe Pye weed.
I spot the tiger swallowtails fairly frequently, although not always in these numbers. It was more unusual for me to see a half dozen common wood nymphs. They moved quickly from clover to clover.
The eyespots of the common wood nymph—which give it its nickname of “goggle eye” —- are a lovely pale gold. And look at its particular color of grayish brown! I’d love to have a woven scarf made in the same soft hues.
I’m startled by something hopping at my feet and a flash of color. More gold. The bright and glittery gold of the northern leopard frog’s stripes. I hear them at Nachusa—and see them plop-plop-plop into ponds—but I’ve rarely had time to study one at close range.
This frog kept me company for a while, then hopped off to a pressing appointment somewhere else. As it disappears into the tallgrass, my spirits lift. August is full of fascinating creatures. There’s so much to see. So much, right in front of me.
August is passing far too quickly.
Autumn will be here before we know it.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Sharman Apt Russell (1954-), the author of An Obsession with Butterflies, Anatomy of a Rose, and Diary of a Citizen Scientist, from which this quote is taken. Russell lives in New Mexico, where she teaches writing at Western New Mexico University. Thanks to Lonnie Morris, who shared Diary with me.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless indicated otherwise: (top to bottom) sunset over Cindy’s home and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); bison (Bison bison); springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); springwater dancer damselflies in the wheel position (Argia plana); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia silphilitica); flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollatta);whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata); whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) close-up of flowers taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum); common wood nymph butterfly (Cercyonis pegala) on red clover (Trifolium pratense); northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens or Rana pipiens); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); mixed wildflowers (native and non-native) at Nachusa Grasslands in mid-August.
Note: Bison in these photos are farther away than they appear; I use a telephoto lens.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn!
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!)
“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Sunshine, thunderstorms, and wind. The heat index tips over 100 one day, then temperatures drop into the 60s the next.
The tallgrass prairie doesn’t blink. It adapts. Then adapts again. The prairie was made for these wild swings of weather.
By day, the prairie explodes with blooms. July is its zenith for wildflowers.
So many interesting flowers to see on a hike through the tallgrass!
So many interesting creatures in my backyard prairie.
And that’s just in the daytime.
Just think of what goes on…after dark.
Last week was National Moth Week, In the spirit of celebration, Jeff and I put on a “mothapalooza” near our backyard prairie patch. I knew, as a prairie steward, that moths depend on specific associated plants for their caterpillars to survive and thrive. Would the native (and non-native) plants in my backyard be enough of a draw to nurture a thriving moth population?
I didn’t know what moths were nearby, beyond the occasional gray-ish ones that banged away at our front porch light and a sighting of a Beautiful Wood Nymph last summer which stuck around by the front door for a few days. Armed with a Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths, we were about to find out.
As I read up on moths, I learned there were between 150,000 to 500,000 different species in the world. New moths are discovered all the time. While most are creatures of the night, some fly during the daytime. That made sense. I see the snowberry clearwing moths nectar at the Schulenberg Prairie’s bee balm blooms….
…and the hummingbird moths nectar at my native bee balm —- and not-so-native hanging basket of petunias.
But after dark….that was a mystery. Other than a few moths I had seen on my nocturnal front porch visits, what else might I discover? it was time to find out.
Two of our grandkids, age 4 and 7, were spending the night with us this weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce them to moths. First we built a moth trap. There are many good instructions for inexpensive moth traps online; we adapted one from this video by a precocious young British kid — check it out. After watching it, we were able to pull a moth trap together mostly from odds and ends I had in the garage, and some donated egg cartons from our friend, Hinsdale Prairie Steward Kath Thomas. The egg cartons are stacked inside the bucket for the moths to rest in, like rows of tiny cubicles.
The whole effect is not pretty, but as it turned out, it was functional. It is also catch and release, so the moths can return to the backyard in the morning.
We also painted a board with moth bait, a stinky concoction of brown sugar, stale beer, and bananas. Some moths, it seems, like this better than lights.
The UV light was the most expensive part of the set-up, and was a birthday gift from Jeff ordered from Bioquip, where I get my dragonfly supplies. (Thanks, Jeff!) We decided to combine the moth trap and baited board with a moth sheet that we hung on the porch.
Waiting for dark was made a little easier by setting up our backpacking tent and reading stories to the little ones.
Then, about the time the fireflies lit up, we began seeing moths.
Small ones, like this Orange Wing moth.
Beautifully colored ones, like this Woody Underwing.
Seriously cute ones, such as this Giant Eucosma. Its host plant is cupplant. Our prairie patch has plenty of it!
From time to time, we’d leave the backyard and check the front porch to see what had shown up under the porch light. Most of our photos were taken with my cell phone. Even so, you can see how beautiful this little Venerable Dart moth was. Those fuzzy antennae! Those beautiful wings. We looked in the field guide and saw its host plants include chickweed and tomato plants. Yup! We have both.
Most moths show up a little later than bedtime for little ones. They didn’t last past 10 p.m. After tucking them in, I kept things going outside until about 1 a.m., when I finally left the moth trap to work its magic and went to bed.
In the morning, still in our PJs, we rushed out to check the trap. Not a lot in there; mostly very tiny moths and a lot of night insects. I can see our moth trap is going to need some work. But one find at the bottom of the trap that wowed the grandkids: a Harnessed Tiger Moth, nestled into one of the cups of an egg carton.
I’ve seen tiger moths on the prairies, but never in my backyard! I read in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths that this species depends on dandelions and clover as host plants for its larvae–or caterpillars. Another reason to not treat our yard with chemicals.
The four of us gently lifted the egg carton out of the bucket and watched as it flew into the gray-headed coneflowers.
Moth identification is tricky; I’m learning a lot from the Moths of the Eastern United States Facebook Page and my field guide. Buguide.net is also a terrific resource, and iNaturalist, a free app for my phone, did a lot of legwork getting my moths identified—at least to genus. But like learning dragonflies or damselflies or any insect, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.
Such an exciting adventure—the realization that a lifetime will not be long enough to discover all there is about moths.
Each moth needs a particular plant or several specific plant species in order to survive. Every time I choose to put a host plant in my garden for moths—or leave a “weed” that they depend on for survival like clover or dandelions—I increase the chances of a more healthy and diverse moth population in my little corner of the world.
The night is full of amazing creatures. Now, I’ve met a few more of them. Just think of what you might find in your backyard prairie patch or your favorite prairie….after dark.
Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) whose quote opens today’s blog is considered one of the most influential painters of all time. His paintings have commanded some of the highest prices at auction in the world, and his painting, “Starry Starry Night” inspired a song by musician Don McLean. Listen to it here.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in Cindy’s backyard, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Hinsdale Prairie remant, Hinsdale, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus); Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) with non-native petunias (Petunia sp.); homemade moth trap; moth board with painted stinky bait; sheet moth lighting for mothapalooza;REI half-dome tent;Orange Wing moth (Mellilla xanthometata); Woody Underwing moth (Catocala grynea); Giant Eucosma moth (Eucosma gigantica); Venerable Dart moth (Agrotis venerabilis); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); blazing star (Liatris sp.) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium); black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.
Thanks to Trevor Dean Edmonson who is my moth mentor! Any moth mis-identifications will be happily corrected; I am a rank beginner with moths, and delighted to learn whatever I can.
Join Cindy for an online class!
Last call for “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
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.