“The prairie is bountifully utilitarian. But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them.”– Paul Gruchow
Yes, it’s hot. Okay, more than hot. It’s downright scorching. Hike the prairie? You’ve got to be kidding.
I kid you not. Let’s go! Why? Here are half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in July. Go ahead–dress light, hydrate, slather on that bug spray and sunscreen—and let’s go.
#1. Oh those butterflies! Big ones, like this common but yet oh-so-uncommonly-beautiful Spangled Meadow Fritillary, nectaring at false sunflower in the prairie savanna.
Or the tiny ones, like this Eastern Tailed Blue, barely visible in the tallgrass.
You might see the Pearl Crescent, fluttering ahead on the path.
Wait! I think it is a pearl crescent, but I’m not completely sure. Evidently they are almost indistinguishable from the Northern Crescents. Some folks say they are both the same species, rather than two distinct ones. Ah, well. At least I know for sure when I see a Monarch, like this one nectaring on butterfly weed, one of our native milkweeds in Illinois.
Not into butterflies? Consider hiking to admire the wildflowers. Why?
#2. July’s prairie wildflowers are show-stoppers. Wow-oh-wow. So much orange. There’s the native Turk’s Cap Lily, just coming into bloom.
Not to be confused with the invasive daylilies, escaped from tamer plantings in gardens and along roadsides.
Although they often find a seat in our gardens, we weed them out of prairie restorations when they show up. Otherwise, they’d take over the prairie.
More orange: The aforementioned butterfly weed screams its hues in infinite color variations of neon orange across the prairie.
Other native milkweeds are more nuanced, like this swamp milkweed.
Even the much-maligned common milkweed, which is—well, weedy,—has a scent that has to be sniffed to be believed. Some sprang up in my clematis just off the back patio. When my husband Jeff passed it the first time it opened this summer, he stopped in his tracks. What’s that great smell?
Mountain mint is in bloom, barely visible in the tallgrass unless you know where to look. A chewed leaf is a guaranteed breath freshener on a hot day.
Glade mallow, the only member of its genus that occurs in Illinois, is in full bloom.
It’s difficult to miss, towering over my head. Much easier to walk by without noticing is the fringed loosestrife, a modest little plant with its flowers pointing downward.
Not to be confused with purple loosestrife,a rampant invasive, fringed loosestrife is a desirable native. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “7” for its coefficient of conservatism. Its anther surface “fluoresces brightly” (or glows) when seen under long-wave ultraviolet light, Wilhelm writes, and it appears “otherworldly.” I’d love to see this for myself.
Nearby is white wild indigo; some plants still emerging, other bloom stalks mature and withering in the heat. A male red-winged blackbird finds indigo the perfect perch to warn me off its nest.
I also love the wild petunia for its seeming tenacity, although its coefficient of conservatism is an “8”. It pops up every year in the same general location on the mowed prairie paths.
Buckeye butterfly caterpillars are big fans of this wildflower. It’s also attractive to numerous pollinators, especially different bee species.
You might know many of the wildflower names. But do you know their stories?
3. Got ethnobotany? Got—what? Ethnobotany is just a term we use to talk about how humans have used plants throughout history (and today!). The prairie is full of plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian, and as the wonderful prairie writer Paul Gruchow once said in a chapter from his book: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, there need not be any contradiction between the two. A good example is Wild Quinine, in full bloom now.
Some people know it as “feverfew,” which tells you how confusing common names can be (there are several other plants with this nickname). That’s why it’s always good to look at the scientific name, in this case, Parthenium integrifolium. Daniel Moerman, in his amazing book, Native American Ethnobotany, tells us that one Native American tribe used a poultice of fresh leaves of this plant to dress burns. Another tribe believed the leave’s ashes were a veterinary treatment for sore backs in horses.
And look at its value for insects! Wavy-lined emerald moth larvae occur in the inflorescences, according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Butterflies such as the American Lady, Pearl Crescent, and Common Wood-Nymph visit the flowers, they tell us. As I read, I learn that bees that visit the flowerheads when the staminate florets are blooming become coated with white pollen and “resemble little ghosts.” I’ve not seen this! Obviously, I need to sit for a while with this plant and pay more attention.
Another plant in bloom is Elderberry, which Illinois Wildflowers tells us occurs in every county of Illinois. Its small, edible fruits—somewhat poisonous when raw—have none-the-less been used (when cooked correctly) in jellies, wine, and pies, and are often used in homeopathic remedies for flu and colds. Native Americans used plants in the same genus for everything from making whistles to using infusions of the blossoms for upset stomachs, Moerman writes in Native American Ethnobotany.
I particularly love New Jersey Tea, a prairie shrub whose blooms cover parts of the prairie like a foamy cappuccino in July. The Dakota used the leaves to make a tea-like beverage, although as I understand it, there is no caffeine. I have a small New Jersey tea plant growing in my prairie garden this season, and although it didn’t bloom this summer, I have high hopes for next year.
Each prairie plant has an ethnobotanical story to tell us. All we have to do is invest a little time into learning that story, and then, share it with others. It’s a non-stop adventure! I particularly love Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethobotany as a venue to discover some of these stories. Check it out, if you love stories as I do! Although many of the plant remedies and uses are not considered valid today, your prairie hikes will open you up to these stories that will fill you with gratitude for the utility of these beautiful plants over time, and the place they earned in the lives of people who depended on the prairie as their pharmacy, grocery store, and craft shop.
Still need more reasons?
#4. Find a respite from the news. Tuck your phone away where you can’t reach it easily, put all thoughts of politics and pandemics away, and let the tallgrass prairie clear the cobwebs from your mind. Admire the tall bellflowers that edge the tallgrass.
Soak up the sunshine of false sunflowers, having a banner season despite the blistering heat.
Marvel over the smooth phlox with its hairless stems and vivid color. Moths, bees, and butterflies all love this plant, a harbinger of summer.
And then, look deeper into the tallgrass. So dainty and silent, you’ll see these… .
#5. Learn the names of some damselflies. Aren’t they beautiful creatures worth your time and attention? Their very names seem to sing.
The American Rubyspot can be found along the river and stream edges in the Chicago Region. Their bright wing spots make them unmistakable.
One of the most common damselflies in the Chicago region is the blue-fronted dancer. Last season, at Nachusa Grasslands, it was our most numerous damselfly.
And once you see the damselflies, consider…
#6. Dragonflies, too! While you’re learning damselflies, why not discover a few names for dragonflies?
Male eastern amberwings.
And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.
The female calico pennants are charming, no matter what angle you see them at.
These are only half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie this week. Grab your water bottle, swipe on some sunscreen…
…and why not go see?
Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who loved the Boundary Waters and tallgrass prairies. If you haven’t read his writing, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL this week (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele); eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) with fleabane (Erigeron); common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); glade mallow (Napaea dioica); prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia ); trail with wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) with unidentified bee; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); elderberry ((Sambucus nigra canadensis)); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); tall bellflower (Campanula americana); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior); variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis); ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta); American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana); blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa); one of the rudbeckias, still working on this ID. It was part of a planting into our prairie display strip with a commercial “native” mix–or it has escaped into it. Pretty! But is it one of our natives? Still working on that. What do you think? (Rudbeckia spps.).
Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:
REGISTER BEFORE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT! “Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.
“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? 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.