“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle
It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.
1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.
Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.
It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.
Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.
We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.
2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.
One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?
Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.
What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.
3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.
One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.
The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.
I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.
With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!
Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.
4. I will plant an oak.
When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.
All told, for someone who teaches at The Morton Arboretum, I sure haven’t paid enough attention to trees in my yard. When I paged through Doug Tallamy’s books Nature’s Best Hope and The Nature of Oaks, it nudged me to invest in oaks in 2023. Sure, I have concerns—-oaks, like many other trees, are under threat from disease and from climate change.
But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.
Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.
A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.
5. I will keep a regular eBird list.
Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.
Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.
This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.
Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.
6. I will expand our native plantings.
When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…
…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.
Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.
2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.
In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.
Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.
What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.
Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!
The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter
The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.
Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.
Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.
***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.