Tag Archives: chicago botanic garden

Orchids in the Tallgrass

“It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.” –Susan Orlean

***

Even the most loyal prairie lovers may find themselves hungry for a little bright color in February. Sure, there are the russets and silks, still out there until the first licks of flame from a prescribed burn turn them to memories.

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But don’t we always long for that which we don’t have?

If you want a jolt of bright colors in winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show is a pretty good bet. Wander through the greenhouses, and you’re immersed in pink, purple, and orange.

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And ohhh! That smell of humidity and moist earth! If I close my eyes and inhale, I can imagine I’m on the prairie after a July thunderstorm.

Here, at the Chicago Botanic, I learn a few things about the cultural and social significance of the flowers. Orchids, I find, are often a symbol of wealth. Turns out Beyoncé had 10,000 of them flown in for her wedding. On a lesser scale for us mere mortals, perhaps you had an orchid corsage for your high school prom or an Easter outing. The Orchid Show may prompt a flood of these types of orchid-related memories.
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But not all blooms are of the corsage type. There are orchids in simple, clear lemon-colored zen forms…

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…orchids in every possible combination of colors…

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…and many crazy patterns.

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The white orchids are stunningly elegant in their simplicity.

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Beautiful, yes?  Yet, they still fail to delight me like the orchids on the prairie.

Orchids on the prairie? What’s that, you say?

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Illinois has 45 different species of native orchids, I learn at the show, including the small white lady’s slipper in the photo above. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, as their exotic cousins do.

But perhaps the native orchids are prettiest in bright white. Like these nodding ladies’ tresses in the autumn tallgrass.

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Mmmm– that scent! Light and vanilla-ish.

Some of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s exotic orchids are scented, as well. This orchid smells like chocolate.

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There are spectacular non-native pink orchids on display at the Orchid Show.

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Although they are beautiful, I still prefer the pink lady’s slipper orchids, like this one I found up north, around Lake Superior.

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I admire the blooms at the Chicago Botanic’s Orchid Show.  They bring sunshine and a touch of the exotic to my Midwestern winter.

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But, attending a flower show is a different experience than the joy I feel when I find an native wildflower, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid, while out for a hike on the prairie. That feeling can’t be replicated in any hothouse, no matter how beautiful the display.

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Once you know the location of a particular orchid, you follow its existence with a bit of parental anxiety. Sort of like a mom waiting up for her teenager when curfew is long past. Will the orchid bloom again this season? When? Will the weather conditions favor it? What about trampling animals; lack of pollinators?  Will the orchids show up?

Blink–and you’ll miss them.

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Which makes finding native orchids each season a treasured moment. Imagine the happiness I felt when the little patch of  lady’s slipper orchids I’ve watched over like a mother had twelve blooms this spring, instead of six, as they did the year before.

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No floral display –not even one with 10,000 orchids–can replicate the tallgrass prairie landscape with its native orchids, and its attendant serendipities and disappointments from year to year.

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But until spring comes to the prairie, the exotics will stand in. And they are welcome for their color, variety, and scent, just as the natives will be as the weather warms up.

Soon. Very soon.

***

Susan Orlean (1955-, whose quote opens this essay,  is the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998), based on an article she wrote for the New Yorker about Florida orchid growers and poachers. Her book was later made into the movie, Adaptation. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from University of Michigan. Orlean was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) with tiny green pollinator (likely metallic green sweat bee, genus  Agapostemon), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL;  pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) with yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) and Canadian bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Burlington Prairie, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois DNR, Burlington, IL.

An Ovation for Orchids

March roared in like a lion today–a sleet-covered, blustery lion. Despite the wintery mix that showers the tallgrass prairie, it’s the first official day of meteorological spring. It’s a day to think about the prairie bloom season ahead. A day to think about … orchids.

Wait a minute. Orchids? On the prairie?

When most of us picture orchids, we envision the hothouse blooms of the tropical greenhouse …

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… their alien-esque furry buds seemingly right out of a sci-fi movie.

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We picture crazy shapes  …

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… and wild diversity.

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Chicago Botanic Garden always gives visitors a blast of hues each February when it hosts its orchid show. A walk through the 10,000 orchids on display feels like a spin through a kaleidoscope.

The colors! What a broad-ranging palette orchids have.

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Their ruffles and frills take us straight down memory lane to our high school proms.

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The patterns!

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The pizzazz!

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Our Illinois tallgrass prairie orchids might not dazzle us with neon brights. Yet, perhaps the subtle elegance of the prairie orchids have more staying power than their flashier tropical cousins.

What the ladies’ tresses orchid lacks in color, she makes up in architecture.

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The sweet, light fragrance of the ladies’ tresses is almost imperceptible on a warm September’s day. It’s worth lingering close by to catch the scent.

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We should give standing ovations for the white lady’s slipper orchid. It’s one of the spring prairie’s serendipities.

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This past June,  I stumbled over the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Literally. It was almost directly under my feet.

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It was a moment to savor. And it happened only because I was out hiking at the right time, in the right place.

I still have quite a few prairie orchids on my must-see list. The purple-fringed orchid. The snake-mouth orchid. The grass pink. They’re out there — just waiting for me to find them. But to see them, I will need to make time to be there. To wander around, enjoying the prairie. Paying attention.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love the tropical orchids. I have a shelf of them in my south-facing window; all castoffs or gifts from friends.  When backpacking up north, seeing pink lady’s slippers and other showy orchids in bloom along the trails is another delight.

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But none of the orchids I’ve seen in the greenhouses here or along the trails up north are quite as magical as the ones I unexpectedly find when out hiking the Illinois tallgrass prairie.

Who knows what surprising discoveries are waiting for us this season?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): First six orchids, Chicago Botanic Orchid Show, Glencoe, IL; ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pink lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium acaule)  with blue bead lily (Clintonia borealis)  and Canada dogwood (Cornus canadensis), Isle Royale National Park, Michigan.

The Best Prairie Restorations

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

–Annie Dillard

 I can’t get Dillard’s simple observation out of my head.

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How do I want to spend my days? This new year?

I want make time. To be there.

To look at the prairie up close, and marvel at a seed head’s complexity.

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To listen to the empty wild white indigo pods, tap-tap-tapping in the wind.

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To notice the tracks of a coyote in the snow and follow them…

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…find the remains of her dinner in the snow…

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…a reminder of how fleeting and precious life is.

How violence and beauty coexist in the natural world.

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Let me soak up the colors of prairie grasses around a lake…

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…marvel at the ice forming on the grasses…

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Take time to notice the kaleidoscope of the sky.

Sunrises.

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Sunsets.

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And all the ways the clouds configure themselves in-between. Such ongoing drama! Yet, the bison on the prairie graze beneath the sky, oblivious.

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Don’t they know? Each day may be our last.

I want to admire the unpopular opossum, with his face like a valentine.

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Be there to see the moon rise in the East,  like a smile.

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Appreciate the play of light and shadows on snow.

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Why? Making time to be fully present to life on the prairie helps me be fully present to life off the prairie. To the people I love. To the work that I do.  It is restoration of another kind. The restoration of my soul.

There might come a time when I may no longer be able to hike the tallgrass. Until then, I’m storing away images in my mind.

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Inhaling deeply so the smells of the prairie are etched into my memory. Mentally recording the sounds of the sandhill cranes and the song sparrow. Remembering how the tallgrass brushes my face.

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If  the time comes when I can no longer physically hike the prairie, I’ll still be able to sit and think back on how I spent my days. The images will be there, like pages in a scrapbook. I’ll count my life richer for this: paying attention.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) SP; unknown seed, SP; white wild indigo pods (Baptisia alba), SP; coyote tracks, SP; squirrel kill, SP; coyote, SP: grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses and ice, ML; grasses and ice, ML; sunrise, Newton Park, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; clouds over bison, NG; opossum, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; crescent moon over author’s prairie, GE; blue shadows, SP; coyote, SP; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), SP.

Note: SP, NG, GE: Schulenberg Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Glen Ellyn.

Quote from  Annie Dillard is from The Writing Life.

 

October’s Fire

Autumn strikes its match against the tallgrass.

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There’s a hiss, then a smolder. Seemingly overnight, the prairie bursts into flame.

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Sumacs catch fire.

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The odd sapling or two torches the tallgrass, creating small flare ups.

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Impossible colors clash.

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Even the butterflies mimic the tallgrass, their wings full of glowing embers.

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The colors crescendo, peak, then begin to fade.

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Compass plants wave leaf flags of surrender.

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Slowly, the elephant-eared prairie dock leaves crumple like old paper bags.

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Little bluestem sparks bright;  then its seeds float away like cinders, still combustible.

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Colors burn out, leaving trails of ash-colored seeds behind.

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The seeds disperse. Only skeletons of the plants remain.

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November is close on the heels of this conflagration. As the prairie moves into a season of rest, it will offer new ways of seeing beauty. Structure, instead of color.

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Until then, we celebrate the last frenzied outpourings.

October’s fire.

 

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the October tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sumac (Rhus spp.), NG; October sapling in the tallgrass, NG;  October sapling in the tallgrass, NG; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae- angliae) against gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), SP; buckeye butterfly, NG; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), SP; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), NG; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), NG; Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), NG.

September Song

The prairie orchestra tunes up. The conductor pauses, lifts her baton.

The earth slants. There’s a shift in the light.

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September’s first full moon rises, red-tinged against the sky.

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Days shorten. The prairie strikes new notes each morning . The first New England asters open, fringed blasts of color against a chorus of brassy golds and whites.

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In my backyard, the feeders underscore the mornings with activity. Although the male hummingbirds have left for warmer climes, females and small fry remain, juicing up for the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

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So tiny. And yet, capable of so much.

Monarch butterflies respond to orchestrated seasonal cues; sip goldenrod nectar, pack their butterfly bags for Mexico.

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Green darner dragonflies swarm, a percussion of clicks, clacks, whirs and buzzes. They gird themselves for migration as well, although where they will end their journey remains a mystery.

The last white-faced meadowhawks and American rubyspot damselflies linger on the prairie, measuring their lives in moments. They pause. Rest.

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There’s a melancholy feel to the days, a change to a minor key. Green, stippled chords of fruit cling to the rapidly undressing black walnut limbs that overhang the brook.

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Willoway Brook catches the trees’ spent leaves, then moves them in legato downstream.

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On the edge of the prairie, there’s a crescendo of white snakeroot, goldenrod, and lavender Joe Pye.

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The bison at Nachusa Grasslands rustle the musical score of summer; turn it to the new pages of autumn. Their coats thicken in anticipation of the cold weather to come as the last echoes of hot weather begin to fade.

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The conductor waves her baton, and tells the prairie: Make seeds… Seeds… SEEDS. The prairie responds in a wild orgy of outpouring.

Wild lettuce nods to the woodwinds, waiting to send its next generations  aloft.

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I hike through Indian grass blooms, which shower me with staccato bits of yellow confetti. Later, I brush bits of gold out of my hair; flick them from my clothing.

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But the music of the prairie stays with me, long after I’ve left the tallgrass.

It’s only the first verse of September’s song.

Just think of the beautiful music to come.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rising full moon, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) SP; ruby-throated hummingbird, author’s backyard; monarch on Canada goldenrod, SP; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot damselfly, SP;  black walnuts, SP; Willoway Brook, SP; oak savanna (white snakeroot; Canada goldenrod; Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum), SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), SP; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) SP. 

Orchids: A Prairie’s Best Kept Secret

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My husband, Jeff, surprised me on Valentine’s Day by taking me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the opening of the Orchid Show. Instead of a dozen roses, I got 10,000 orchids and a little blast of springtime color and scent on a frigid February 14.

There are hybrid blooms of every possible hue, it seems….including some in impossibly bright colors, like this orange orchid and lime green orchid.

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There are crazy patterns, which makes me think of zebras and clowns.

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These hybrids are stunning. But my favorite orchids aren’t coddled and pampered like these orchids under glass. The orchids I prefer are outside, braving the elements on Illinois’ tallgrass prairies.

Illinois is home to around 50 different species of native orchids; a drop in the bucket, really, when you think of the approximately 25,000 natural species worldwide. One of the most eye-catching is this small white lady’s slipper orchid, found in the moist tallgrass in early summer. The white slipper demands your attention, doesn’t it?

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Other native orchids take more patience to discover, such as these ladies’ tresses orchids below. Stand downwind of a drift of blooms on a warm, early autumn day, and you’ll inhale a light sweet scent, evocative of vanilla.

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A native orchid that is #1 on my bucket list to see this season is the threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid, protected under the Endangered Species Act and  at home on the tallgrass prairies of Illinois.

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To stumble across any of these native orchids unexpectedly on the prairie is to discover something magical. You glimpse one bloom half-hidden in the grasses. Stunned, you fall to your knees. You look closer, then all around you. There’s another bloom, and another, and another. These orchids were here, in the tallgrass, all the time. How did you miss them before?

For what seems like minutes — but stretches to an hour — you watch insects work the blossoms, imbibing nectar and ensuring pollination.  When you reluctantly stand to leave, you wonder. What other discoveries are there to be made, here in the tallgrass? You resolve to pay more attention to the world.

Maybe these native orchids are not so spectacular and showy as the hybrid orchids in a conservatory. Perhaps their colors and patterns are not as glamorous and glitzy.

But in their own way, they are more beautiful. They belong here.

One small, miraculous part of the place we call home.

 Photos: Image of eastern prairie fringed orchid used with permission of Bruce Marlin. Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Please check out his website at: http://www.cirrusimage.com/

All other photos are by Cindy Crosby (from top): purple orchids, Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show; orange orchid, CBG;  lime green orchid, CBG; striped orchid, CBG; clown patterned orchid, CBG; small white lady’s slipper, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ladies’ tresses, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.