Tag Archives: Classes

Autumn Arrives on the Prairie

“Shorter and shorter now the twilight clips; The days, as though the sunset gates they crowd; and Summer from her golden collar slips… .”—Alice Cary

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It’s here.

Thursday, September 22, is the first day of astronomical autumn; the autumn equinox. The signs are everywhere. Migrating monarchs are on the move.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

They linger in twos and threes in my backyard, sipping nectar from the garden zinnias and floating over the goldenrods and asters.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hey—little monarch! Yes, you. Watch out for the Chinese mantis. It likes to snatch unwary butterflies.

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Safe travels, monarchs.

Meanwhile, the goldfinches pluck zinnia and hyssop seeds from the plants around my patio. The flower petals litter the garden like confetti.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on purple giant hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Breeding season is past, and the males have traded their lemon-colored wardrobe for more somber olive oil-hued duds. It’s molting season. The goldfinches pause by the water dish to rest from time to time, and to catch each other up on neighborhood news. I watch them through the kitchen window as I wash dishes, feeling content.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cleared by the doctor to go for longer walks this week, I venture out of my backyard to a nearby park with beautiful prairie plantings and a nicely-paved trail.

Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s a great name for a park, isn’t it? “Dragonfly” and “Prairie”—two natural wonders. I slowly stroll the paved path that circles the pond. Autumn washes the prairie plantings with golds and purples.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

The low slant of the sun backlights the grasses and wildflowers. There’s a bit of a cool tease in the wind.

Prairie plantings at Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

I’m here, Autumn whispers. Ready or not.

Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Prairie Walk Pond & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Something tiny hovers over the path, then lands.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

It’s the appropriately-named Autumn Meadowhawk, looking for a snack. I love that sassy scarlet chassis; those pale, hairy legs which are its signature ID mark. By November, most dragonflies will be gone in the Midwest. I feel my spirits lift. A dragonfly! What an auspicious sighting.

There are other bright dabs of color on the common milkweed plants. The large milkweed bugs always remind me of the monarch butterflies. These orange-and-blacks are tethered to earth, instead of sky.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with large milkweed bug ( Oncopeltus fasciatus), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

As the path curves close to a cluster of trees, white snakeroot lies like snowdrifts across the shade.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

This beautiful wildflower has some deadly stories to tell. Supposedly, when cows eat white snakeroot, it turns their milk and meat toxic. Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of “milk sickness”, which we now know was caused by this pretty plant. Such a lovely wildflower, with such a dismal back story.

Close by is the beautiful pale jewelweed with a more inspiring spiel.

Pale jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Poison ivy and jewelweed are often found growing together, and jewelweed has long been considered an antidote to poison ivy when mashed up and applied to an affected part of the skin. However, modern medicine tends to debunk these claims. Medicinal or not, I love the jewelweed for its attractiveness to hummingbirds, and the way it brightens up the shade. It’s a fun plant, too! When you touch a ripened seed pod, it pops, scattering seeds everywhere. This gives the plant another name, “touch-me-not.”

September brings with it prairie grasses gone to seed.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Autumn wildflowers in bloom. A change in temperature, and an opportunity to see the natural world in new ways. Constellations of asters.

Asters (Symphyotrichum sp., possibly pilosum), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Glittering golds.

Prairie Pond Walk & Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Russets.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Striking scarlet rose hips, ripened and wrinkling.

Rose hips (possibly Rosa carolina), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

There’s so much to see in only a short stroll. Welcome, Autumn.

What a splendid time to be alive.

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The opening quote in this blog post is from Alice Cary’s (1820-1871) poem “Autumn.” Alice and her sister Phoebe grew up on a farm in Ohio, then, both moved to New York City where they were active in the early women’s rights movement.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend the day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, times, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).

Friday 10-11 am, October 14, 2022—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

A Hike on the June Prairie

“Good day sunshine.” — John Lennon & Paul McCartney

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A little rain. A bit of sunshine this week, too—at last. Let’s hike the June prairie together, and see what’s happening after the spring storms.

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Tallgrass prairies in the Chicago region crackle with activity. Angelica opens its firework flowers in the soggy areas.

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Spiderwort is everywhere, both in bud…

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…and in bloom. Its short-lived flowers only last a day or two, and often close in the afternoon.

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Clouds of prairie phlox float across the low grasses in varied hues, from pearl…

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…to palest lavender, with purple eyes…

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…to hot pink. So many variations!  When the phlox mingles with the spiderwort, it makes me think of a Monet painting.

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Not all the blooms are as jazzy as the prairie phlox. Intermixed with the phlox,  prairie alumroot spikes open small green flowers with orange anthers. Inconspicuous, until you look closely. The phlox is fragrant, but the alumroot is scentless. Notice the silvery leadplant photobombing the image below, plus some sedges sprinkled around.

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Close to the stream, I see meadow rue heading skyward.  In a good wet year like this one, meadow rue will likely top out at six or seven feet tall. When meadow rue blooms,  the flowers remind me of fringed Victorian lamps. Today, they are mostly in bud.

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Cauliflower fists of wild quinine buds are about to pop.

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As are those of the common milkweed. I turn the leaves over, but no monarch eggs. Yet.

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As I admire the buds and blooms, I notice dragonflies perched to soak up the sun. Dragonflies have kept a low profile for the past two months; sulking about the windy, chilly, drizzly, and generally gloomy weather.  I discover a twelve-spotted skimmer…

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…and also, a common whitetail. Both species will be ubiquitous by late June, but these first appearances always delight me. Welcome back.

Common Whitetail SPMA6219WM.jpg

As I look into foliage along the trails for more dragonflies and damselflies, I see clumps of what appear to be bubbles. Inside of the froth is a spittlebug. I pull one sticky mass apart with my fingers and gently admire a tiny green nymph. Later, when I’m at home, I read that the nymph will feed on the plant and eventually become an adult that looks something like a leafhopper, to which they are related. Although they are considered a pest, we don’t worry much about them on the prairie. They do little damage.

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In the cool breeze, I’m grateful for the sun.  I snap off a red clover bloom and chew on some of the petals. Sweet. So sweet. Red clover isn’t a native prairie plant, but it’s pretty and generally not too invasive. We only pull it in our display areas at the front of the prairie.

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The native yellow wood sorrel leaves are also irresistible, with their sour, tangy jolt to the tastebuds. Both the red clover and yellow wood sorrel are found in every Illinois county. Tough little flowers.

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Brown-headed cowbirds often show up at my birdfeeders at home, as well as on my prairie hikes. They have several different trademark calls. This one sings a Clink-whistle! I admire it, glossy in the sunshine. Cowbirds are despised by many birders for their habit of laying their eggs in other bird species’ nests; letting someone else raise the kids. Ah, well.

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The earliest spring prairie blooms are now in the business of making seeds.  Jacob’s ladder, which pulled blue sheets of flowers across the prairie just weeks ago, now carries clusters of sprawling seedpods. Except for the plant’s ladder-like leaves, it’s unrecognizable.

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I pull a pod apart and check the tiny seed, pinching it between my fingernail and thumb. Still green. When the seedpods turn brown, I’ll bag them and use them to propagate other parts of the prairie where they aren’t as common.

Wood betony is another wildflower that has undergone a complete makeover, spiraling from yellow blooms into into soldier-straight rows. I mentally mark its locations for our work group’s seed collection efforts in a few weeks.

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A common sight on the Midwestern prairies at this time of year is the remains of dogbane pods (or Indian hemp as it is sometimes known) that escaped the prescribed burns. Seedless now, it looks graceful, scything the breeze. My prairie work group collected last year’s dogbane stalks to experiment with making fiber this season. Native American’s knew dogbane could be used for twine, fishing line, and even fiber to weave clothing. I enjoy the way the pods catch the wind.

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Wild coffee (sometimes known as horse gentian or tinker’s weed), has made an eye-catching mound in the knee-high tallgrass. Look closely.

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You’ll see the dark reddish brown flowers, nestled in the leaf axils. Later this summer, the flowers will turn into small orange fruits tucked into the leaves. The dried fruits were used as a coffee substitute by early settlers.

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The highlight of my hike is finding one of my favorite prairie wildflowers beginning to go to seed: common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata). I love its explosions of seed-spirals, and the way its stalk is beginning to transform from white to pink. As it ages, the pink intensifies until it is almost neon bright on the prairie.

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So much to see. So much to hear. So many things to enjoy with all the senses. It’s difficult to do desk work. What if I miss something?

The prairie conjures up new astonishments every day.

I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon penned the song, “Good Day Sunshine” for the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver. It’s a good cure for rainy day blues. Listen to it here and you’ll be humming it all day.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from two different prairie hikes put together (top to bottom): butterweed (Packera glabella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) and prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii affinis) with the phlox, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spittlebug (possibly Philaenus spumarius) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red clover (Trifolium pratense) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) seedpods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum) flowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Tonight! Introduction to the Tallgrass Prairie, Tuesday, June 4, 7-9 p.m., Lake to Prairie Wild Ones, Fremont Public Library, 1170 N Midlothian Rd, Mundelein, IL 60060. Free and open to the public.

Thursday, June 6–9 p.m. — A Tallgrass Conversation, talk and book signing. Bring a picnic dinner for the social at 6 p.m. Talk begins around 7:30 p.m. Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, Wisconsin. Details here.

Friday, June 14, or Friday, June 28, 8-11:30 a.m., Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration here (first session is sold out).

Thursday, June 20, 7-9 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop, Rock Valley Wild Ones, Rock Valley Community College, Rockford, IL. Details here. Free and open to the public.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com