Tag Archives: butterfly milkweed

A Walk on the June Prairie

“Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the horizon line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.” — Sherwood Anderson

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Come walk with me. The prairie is calling. Who knows what we’ll see?

Coyote (Canis latrans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is awash in wildflowers.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle IL.

Pale purple coneflowers bounce like badminton birdies across the tallgrass. Large elephant ears of prairie dock vie with the clear blue-violet spiderwort blooms, which open in the mornings and close when the sun is at its zenith.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look along the trail. See the pale wild petunias? They pioneer their way along the path edges, and are a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Oddly enough, they aren’t a close relative of the petunias we see in cultivated borders and flowering baskets.

Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look up! See the clouds roll in across the unbearably bright prairie sky.

Skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL, in June.

Kneel down and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Tiny creatures hide in the petals of smooth phlox…

Goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…or buzz along the just-opened flowers of leadplant.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with various insects, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Yet despite all the hustle and bustle, there is peace here.

Glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s also cooler this week after days of brutal heat and humidity. Such a respite. A relief.

Let’s walk to the bridge over Willoway Brook and sit for a while.

Bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Dangle your feet over the bridge. Look into the stream. The shadows of cruising stream bluet damselflies ripple when the sun breaks through the clouds.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Nearby, the female ebony jewelwing damselfly is poised for courtship. The male is just a few feet away, waiting to woo her.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Other damselflies cover the vegetation in tandem, bumper-to-bumper. It’s rush hour.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Variable dancer damselflies offer a contrast in male and female Odonata coloration. Entomologists call this “sexual dimorphism,” which, simply put, means the female is different than the male in some way that doesn’t have to do with reproduction. In this case, color.

Variable (sometimes called “violet”) dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. Male is on the left, female is on the right.

The American rubyspot damselfly stakes out its claim…

American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…while a twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly rests in the shade.

Twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Watch out for turtles! A dragonfly or damselfly would be a tasty snack for this red-eared slider.

Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Life for damselflies and dragonflies is tenuous. The snap of a turtle’s jaws or smack of a bird’s beak and—it’s all over. But what glorious sparks of color these insects give to the summer prairie during their brief time here! They are rivaled in color only by the wildflowers, which are building toward their colorful summer crescendo.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Prairie coreopsis are splashes of sunshine across the prairie. Ants investigate the new buds.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

New Jersey tea, one of my favorite prairie shrubs, froths and foams like a cappuccino.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Carrion flower—-that strange member of the prairie community—twists and turns as it vines toward the sky. I inhale, and get a good sniff of the fragrance that spawned its name. Whew!

Carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Culver’s root is one of the most elegant prairie wildflowers, and a magnet for pollinators. Today, though, it’s mostly bare of insects.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There’s so much to discover on the prairie at the end of June.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see?

*******

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), whose quote kicks off this blog post, was best known for his short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (also adapted as a well-known play). The quote was taken from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John Price.

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program!

Wednesday, June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. 

Thursday, July 14 (Zoom online) and Friday, July 15 (in person field class): “Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification“: Discover these beautiful insects through this two-part class, offered by The Morton Arboretum. Space is limited — register here.

Plant Sales and Prairie Remnants

“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao

*****

At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.

Shooting Star at Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.

Short green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), Glen Ellyn, IL.

In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018).

There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.

Plant sale prairie plant plunder, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. And yup — thats a rogue dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the background.

A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.

******

After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.

Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.

Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.

Shooting star (Primula meadia), Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.

Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…

Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.

Shooting star (Primula meadia), Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.

Shooting star, Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with a tiny critter, Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.

Violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with tiny insects, possibly the metallic wood boring beetles (Acmaeodera tubulus), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.

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The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

A Prairie Fall Equinox

“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.

Gold dominates.

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.

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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.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

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. 

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

****

A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

Prairiedropseed91419GEWM

Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

monarchonzinnia91519GEWM

Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

Butterflymilkweedpod91419GEWM.jpg

It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

redsaddlebagsWM82418CROSBYbackyardwm

The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

Jaspar Polaski Sandhill Cranes 2016 .jpg

 

Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

PecksskipperonblackeyedsusanWMGE91519.jpg

At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

bluelobeliaGE91519WM.jpg

…for a sip of sugar.

bluelobeliawithpecksskipperGE91519.jpg

I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

Beautiful Wood Nymph Moth GE front porch 91619WM.jpg

I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

Beautiful Wood Nymph Top ViewWM Glen Ellyn 91619.jpg

Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

flyonasstersgreenmetallicsweatbeeWMGE51519.jpg

Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

NEAster91419GEWM.jpg

This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

NewEnglandAster91419GEWM.jpg

But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

Much Ado About Milkweed

“A fallen blossom–returning to the bough, I thought…But no, a butterfly.”

–Arakida Moritake

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What’s all the fuss about milkweed?  Well…what’s not to love?

There’s butterfly milkweed’s day-glo orange. Grab your sunglasses.

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Get a pop of prairie color—with a pollinator—from purple milkweed.

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Enjoy the pretty-in-pink of prairie milkweed, sometimes called Sullivant’s milkweed.

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In the fall, the milkweeds smoke silks into the autumn air, sending seeds aloft.

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When the milkweed’s seeds are spent, the canoe-like seedpods are endless vehicles for creativity and imagination.

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Other than the visual and tactile pleasure the blooms give us, our 19 native Illinois species of milkweed are a veritable Noah’s Ark for monarch butterflies. Although monarchs sip nectar from a variety of plants like the bee balm below, they lay their eggs only on milkweed.

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When the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) hatch, they munch on milkweed. Without the milkweeds, there would be no monarchs.

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Scientists at Cornell University tell us to pair milkweeds with fall blooming, nectar-rich plants such as goldenrods. Why?  Goldenrod and other fall nectar plants provide food for the monarch butterfly’s epic migration to Mexico in the fall.  Evidently, goldenrod is an important life-giving flower for monarchs.

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But it all begins with milkweed. Such a simple act of hope—to plant a flower.

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After all, how often can we help save a species while, in the process, make the world more beautiful?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii),Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed silks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed pod with snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  monarch caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  monarch butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago canedensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca) with false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), whose words begins this essay, was a Japanese poet who wrote about the natural world.