Tag Archives: blue-eyed grass

A Belmont Prairie Stroll

“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver

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May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.

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Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.

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Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.

Spring in Illinois.

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In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

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The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.

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The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.

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Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.

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Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.

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As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie.  Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.

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I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.

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Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.”  In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.

There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.

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Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.

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The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.

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Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.

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Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”

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I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.

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Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.

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It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.

Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!CompassPlantBelmontPrairieWM52120

So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.

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Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.

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Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.

As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.

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There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.

The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.

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I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.

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The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.

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John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.

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All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace 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.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

After a Prairie Storm

“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.”  — Josephine W. Johnson

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Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.

The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.

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Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails.  I should have brought my kayak.

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On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…

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…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.

This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.

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Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.

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Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.

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Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color.  I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?

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The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.

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May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.

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Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.

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Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In  The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.

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All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:

Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).

Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here. 

Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)

Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).

Find more at cindycrosby.com

Rainy Day Prairie Pleasures

“Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers… .” — Mary Oliver

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Rain, rain, rain. As we wake to another cold, wet spring morning in northeastern Illinois—with the promise of more in the forecast—it’s difficult to not get discouraged. Looking back over the past weeks…whitetaileddeerBelmontPrairie519WM.jpg

…it seems as if the Chicago region is setting records for the wettest spring weather. In fact, as of May 15, this is the 15th wettest in the city of Chicago’s recorded history (since 1871).

Even so. It’s a lot of precipitation.

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Whenever the sun makes a surprise appearance, it’s worth a trip to the prairies in my area to soak up every moment. Surprises await. The warmth and light coaxes out the early butterflies. Mourning cloaks emerge from hibernation, nectaring on bladderwort blooms.

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In the dappled light of the prairie savanna, a female scarlet tanager perches, her more flamboyant mate nearby. What a pairing—the red and the yellow!

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A lone sandhill crane flies over the prairie. Its rattling call seems lonely, without a supporting cast of another dozen or more birds. I wonder. What is it doing all by itself? I usually see the cranes in high-flying flocks. And why is it here so late?

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I learn that a few sandhill cranes raise their young locally; as close as Fermilab’s natural areas in Batavia and other welcoming sites here in the Chicago region.  It’s a shift from the past, when they summered further up north. I watch until the lone crane disappears, headed west.

At my feet, the cool, wet spring offers its own particular rewards.  Jacob’s ladder tumbles across the emerald prairie. I’ve never seen it so prolific. So much blue.

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The wild geraniums put in an appearance after what seems like endless delay. That color! They rim the edges of the prairie in pink. Happiest, perhaps, in the woodlands and savanna, where they enjoy more shade. Did you know wild geranium pollen is blue? Something new I learned this spring. I always thought all flower pollen was yellow, but it evidently comes in all the colors of the rainbow, from red to orange to green.

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Shooting star reflexes its flowers, with plenty of buds promising more to open. Have you seen the bumblebees working their magic? They’re engaged in sonication.

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commonly called “buzz pollination.”  The bumblebees vibrate the blooms with their “buzz” and shake the pollen out on the anthers. Nope, honeybees aren’t strong enough to pollinate these wildflowers. It’s another reason to care about bumblebees, if you need one!

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Our local carnival has been in full swing downtown this week, much to the delight of our grandkids. When I see the wood betony on the prairie spiraling upwards, I can’t help but be reminded of those swirling rides: the tilt-a-whirl, the Ferris wheels, and those spinning cylinders that made me so dizzy as a kid. Festive, isn’t it?

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Does the plentiful wood betony seem like a cheap thrill? If so, there are more exotic blooms waiting to be discovered. If you’re lucky, on a few of Chicago’s regional prairies, you’ll happen across the small white lady’s slipper in full bloom.

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So tiny! Unlike its larger blossomed cousins, the pink lady’s slipper and the yellow.

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I fall to my knees in the mud in admiration. Wow.

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So perfectly formed. So delicately colored.

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A fleeting delight.

But not the only one. The first wild hyacinths spangle open. Their distinctive fragrance and color is a magnet for human visitors. Bees, flies, butterflies and wasps also visit.

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Right on schedule, blue-eyed grass (ironically not a grass, and with no blue center), shows up, low, tiny, and delicate.

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If you study the blue-eyed grass closely, deep in the muck, you’ll notice other more subtle wildflowers. The bastard toadflax in pearly bloom. Erupting milkweed leaves. A mud-splattered Philadelphia daisy fleabane, unfurling its buds.

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The new shoots of big bluestem appear, furred and supple. Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are easy to name, with their mounds of green. Other grass shoots spear their way across the wet prairie, difficult to ID. Switchgrass. Indian grass. Canada wild rye.

Summer wildflowers are leafing out. I reacquaint myself with each one, like seeing old friends. Some are months away from bloom, but already distinct. Culver’s root. The sunflower gang. Compass plant. Occasionally, you find a  hybridization between the compass plant and prairie dock. Obviously, some Silphium hanky-panky going on here.

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And suddenly, it seems, the starry false Solomon’s seal has opened everywhere; a constellation of knee-high wildflowers in a universe of green.

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So much to marvel at. So much to pay attention to.

As I write these words, storm clouds are moving in…again. It’s difficult to remember what a sunny day looks like, after all the gloomy ones.

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But after thinking about all of the joys and surprises of this cool, wet spring, I find it tough to complain.

You too?

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The opening quote is by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver (1935-2019) from her poem, “The Wild Geese.” Watch and listen to her read her beautiful poem here. 

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby : (top to bottom): white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; storm clouds over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mourning cloak butterfly  (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station Area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  female scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hybridization between compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; starry false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata or Maianthemum stellatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gloomy day at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. Special thanks to Donna U. for her great talk on wild geraniums and blue pollen.

Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking:

Tonight! Tuesday, May 21, 7-9 pm: Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL: “Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers” — Free and open to the public. St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL.

Thursday, May 23, 6:30-9 p.m.: Part two: “A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie” continues at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now through May 27: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online–continues at The Morton Arboretum. Next online class begins June 26. See details and registration information here.

“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Saturday, June 1,  1-4 p.m, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free lecture followed by book signing, then a prairie and bison tour with purchase of a book. Seating is limited: Must pre-register here. Only 15 bison tour spots left! Thanks to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands for hosting this event.

“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Thursday, June 6 , 7:30-9 p.m., Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, WI. Bring a picnic basket for the social at 6 p.m.  See details here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly ID“—Friday, June 14, 8-11:30 a.m., The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Sold Out, call to be put on a waiting list.

More classes and programs at http://www.cindycrosby.com

The Fault in Our (Shooting) Stars

“Cherish your science but understand it as a finite guide to the immensities of time and space…Look far. Dance with the world rather than try to explain it away. Consider the boat, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know, too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply.” — William J. Broad.

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What a week it is shaping up to be on the tallgrass prairie! Rain and cool weather are bringing out the blooms. Small white lady’s slippers are in their full splendor. Like tiny white boats floating in a sea of grass.

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The first bright pops of hoary puccoon show up along the trail.

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Nearby, another pop of orange. An immature female eastern forktail damselfly. So common—and yet so welcome right now.  Emergence of dragonflies and damselflies has been slow this spring, due to the cool, wet weather.

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Cream wild indigo doesn’t mind the cool conditions. It jumps right into its opening act.

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The wild hyacinths add their delicate scent and good looks in washes of lavender across the prairie.

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So many beautiful prairie wildflowers blooming this week, you hardly know which way to look. And oh, the juxtapositions! This blue-eyed grass is swirled into an embrace by wood betony.

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While nearby, a butterfly conducts surveillance runs across the low grasses and forbs.

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But the literal star of the prairie stage this week is Dodecatheon meadia. The shooting star.

 

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Its pink clouds of flowers are so unusual. Look at that bloom shape!

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Now, think “tomato blossom.” Or the blooms of eggplants and potatoes. Similar, no?

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Shooting star is a tease. She beckons bumblebees with her good looks. They zip by, then pause, perhaps shocked by all that floral abundance. Buzz in for a closer look.

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What the bumblebees don’t know right away is this: Shooting star has no nectar reward. The only “fault” in this star to speak of! Nonetheless, you can see this bumblebee in the photo below stick out its tongue. Looking for nectar? Grooming itself? Or perhaps letting me know it is time to quit taking photos?

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As the bumblebee clings to the underside of the bloom, it vibrates its strong wing muscles. They emit a high-pitched buzz. This causes the pollen to be shaken out of the anthers onto the underside of the bee. The process is known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Honeybees can’t do it. Their muscles aren’t strong enough.  Which emphasizes the need for native bee conservation, doesn’t it?

Can you see the pollen in the photo below? Like yellow dust.

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As the bumblebee moves on, it carries some of the pollen with it, cross-pollinating other shooting star flowers as it visits each one. Bumblebees also eat pollen, and feed to their bumblebee young.  Click on  this great video for more info that’s been helpful to me in understanding the process.

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Watch the shooting stars. Listen to what they have to tell us.  They are another reason to care about the natural world and all its creatures.

Then pause.

“Dance with the world rather than try and explain it.”

Make a wish.

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The opening quote from William J. Broad’s The Oracle was taken from Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.

All photos and video this week are from The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (top to bottom) small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum);  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), female; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the background; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) with wood betony (Pedicularis candadensis); possibly American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) although the “snout” isn’t clear;  constellation of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee performing buzz pollination (note the tongue sticking out!); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee (unknown species) vibrating out the pollen; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) close up; video of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) waving in the breeze. 

The Perils of Prairie ID

“I’d like to be sure of something—even if it is just going to sleep.” — Theodore Roethke

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What’s in a name? Lately, I’ve been stressing the importance of learning scientific names  for plants, animals, and insects in my prairie classes and with my prairie workday volunteers. In doing so, I’ve found renewed appreciation for the simple ones.

The best: Bison bison.

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Easy, right? If only the rest of them were!

I mostly love the scientific names. They keep everyone on the same page about what is being discussed regardless of region, and they often tell me something about a prairie plant, animal, or insect. Like the pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, whose genus Echinacea means—from the ancient Greek—“hedgehog.”

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Quite the resemblance!

But as steward and prairie instructor, staying a step ahead of my students and smart workday volunteers is tough. I was trained in art and journalism, not botany. Species identification makes me painfully aware of my botanical inadequacies.

At Nachusa Grasslands, with more than 700 plant species, the likelihood of stumbling over something I don’t know is certain. On the Schulenberg Prairie, we have 500 kinds of plants on 100 acres. And that’s just the plants! There are myriad opportunities to dub plants, birds, insects, and other members of the prairie community with the wrong name.

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I’m also a dragonfly monitor at both prairies, and I like to think I know most of what’s flying on my sites. Ha! As I waded a stream at the Schulenberg Prairie last week, these two elegant damselflies, finding romance alongside Willoway Brook, were a cinch to name.

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Ebony jewelwings! No trouble there. I dutifully noted them on my data sheet. But  I also found this pretty little damselfly.

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Hmmmm. I was certain it was something I hadn’t seen before. My field guides were in the car and I was thigh-deep in the stream.  I scribbled some guesses on my clipboard data sheet. “Rainbow bluet?” “Variable dancer?” Later, flipping through the field guide, it turned out this was one of the most common damselflies of all; an eastern forktail that had a different variation of coloring—nothing earth shattering, just not a variation I’d  previously seen.

Well then. Another reason to use pencil on the data sheet.

Makes me grateful for the simple damselflies, like the American rubyspot—nothing else in my region looks like them. And isn’t it nice when the common name speaks to the actual appearance of the species? Ruby…

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Check. Spot?

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Double check.

One of the joys of looking for dragonflies is stumbling across another insect, animal, or plant species I wasn’t expecting to see. While looking for midland clubtail dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I found this pretty little plant.

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“Sedge” was not on the tip of my tongue. But a sedge it was, and after asking a friend who is a whiz at plant ID for input; poring over my new copy of Flora of the Chicago Region;  and crowdsourcing a confirmation from the good folks at Facebook’s “Illinois Botany” page, it was determined to be narrow-leaved cottongrass. Yes, cottongrass! You heard that name right.  And it’s a sedge, not a grass, despite the name.

And people wonder why identifying plants is confusing!

Try explaining blue-eyed grass. Neither blue-eyed. Nor a grass.

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Or late horse gentian, which is not—you guessed it —a gentian nor anything remotely equestrian. Maybe that’s why I prefer the common name, “wild coffee.”

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My most recent ID discussion was over this pretty little wildflower below. Native? Or non-native? Cinquefoil for sure. But which one?

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And what species of bee is nectaring here? At Nachusa Grasslands, we have at least 75 different bee species. Good luck to me keying that bee out. I had more success with the cinquefoil (see ID at the end).

At some point, taxonomists begin to tinker and soon, you discover the names you put so much sweat equity into learning have been changed. And that’s more of a problem if you don’t get the name right in the first place.

This little grass that I thought was white-haired panic grass…

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…turned out to be the woolly panic grass. So my initial ID was incorrect. Then, I learned the panic grasses—a favorite!—have been reclassified and renamed. The new scientific name Dichanthelium acuminatum  has the common name: “tapered rosette grass.” Definitely does not have the charm of “woolly panic grass,” which conjures up delightful images of sheep bouncing around a field. “Tapered rosette” seems quite buttoned up.  

Darn taxonomists.

Meanwhile, I console myself by noting my ID percentages are still better than the Chicago Cubs’ win-loss percentage this season (.500 at this writing). I continue to work on identification in consultation with smarter friends, pore over excellent books, and plug along the best I can. Knowing that my skills will improve. Prodding myself to be willing to be wrong in pursuit of learning new things. Reminding myself how much I’ve learned since I saw my first tallgrass prairie almost 20 years ago.

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Isn’t that the way of the natural world? The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. The more you see, the more you realize you aren’t seeing.

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And yet. I might get all the scientific names correct—learn grasses and sedges; figure out the different colors of the eastern forktail at its various life stages—and still not “know” a species. “Knowing” comes through building a relationship with a place, and the community that inhabits it.  Seeing it in all weather, at many times of the day, in all four seasons. Getting hot, sweaty, dirty, buggy, and wet. Watching the damselflies form their heart-shaped wheel. Listening to the dickcissel sing. Touching the prickly center of a pale purple coneflower. Then, the identifications–those crazy names– become a part of my story and the story of that place.

And if I get a plant name wrong or forget which dragonfly is which?

Tomorrow’s another day.

***

The opening quote in this post is from Straw for the Fire, an edited collection from the poet Theodore Roethke’s (1908-1963) notebooks by another amazing poet, David Wagoner (read Wagoner’s poem Lost.) Roethke’s father ran a 25-acre greenhouse in Saginaw, MI, where he grew up. A difficult childhood (his father died when he was 14; an uncle committed suicide); a battle with manic depression, numerous breakdowns, his mysticism, and a feeling of alienation were foils for some tremendous poetry about the natural world and the inner self. Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1954) and the National Book Award for Poetry twice (1959 and 1965, posthumously). He was also a revered professor at Michigan State University.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby except for the hedgehog: (top to bottom) bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris); summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; immature eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; narrow-leaved cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late horse gentian, wild coffee, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) with unknown bee, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum)  formerly woolly panic grass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) opening, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Hedgehog (“Butterfinger”) photo courtesy of Kim Engels White. Thanks Kim!

Thanks to Susan Kleiman, Bernie Buchholz, and the good folks on the Illinois Botany and Odonata of the Eastern United States Facebook pages for their ID help.

Bright White Delights on the Prairie

Bright colors aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Need convinced? Hike the prairie and prairie savanna on a fine spring day in May and look for flashes of white. Among the blooms, you might see…

…the small white lady’s slipper orchids. After the seeds germinate, it takes almost a dozen years for the plant to produce flowers. No instant gratification here… but it’s worth the wait, isn’t it?

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Frequent pollinators include this halictine bee. Almost as beautiful as the bloom.

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Common valerian  looks anything but common. The blooms smell like dirty socks, but it appears its antsy visitors don’t mind the scent. As the flowers fade, the stalks turn bright pink. Who knew?

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If you hike the prairie savanna nearby, you may stumble on a cluster of large-flowered trillium. Instinctively, you’ll drop to your knees to appreciate them more fully. Wow.

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Whoever named “blue-eyed grass” had a sense of humor. It’s not in the grass family (rather, it’s an iris) and this particular species is not blue.  Despite its name, this “common blue-eyed grass” is uncommonly beautiful.

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I have an affinity for violets, although my neighbors think of them as weedy trespassers. On the prairie, the common white violets line the trails. They rarely venture into the tallgrass arena, where they’d have to duke it out with tougher plants.

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Smooth and false Solomon’s seal are starting to bloom in the savanna and in the shadier areas  of the prairie. But the real showstopper is starry Solomon’s seal, sprinkled through the grasses.

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One of the first prairie plant names I learned was bastard toadflax, which colonizes large areas, dabbing the prairie with dots of white. Its seeds were once a tasty trail snack, when eaten in small amounts, for hungry Native Americans on the move.

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Even the lone dandelion that blooms unwelcomed by the trail puts on a colorless, star-like show. Love ’em or hate ’em, the dandelion has its own ethereal beauty as it throws its starred seeds to the wind.

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Sure, it’s no lady’s slipper.

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But even dandelion seeds take on a bit of bright white glamour on a fine spring day in May. Why not take an hour  or two and go see for yourself?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): small white lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium candidum), small white lady’s slipper orchids with halictine bee (Cypripedium candidum), common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum),  white blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), white violet (Viola blanda), starry Solomons seal (Maianthemum stellatum), bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata),  dandelion (Taraxacum officinale),  small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum).