Tag Archives: blue-eyed grass

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).