Tag Archives: compass plant

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

sun halo with sandhill cranesWM 3-15-16 copy.jpg

It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

SPMASAV10719WM.jpg

The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

SPMA10619path.jpg

1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

butterflyonnewenglandaster10819WM.jpg

2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

grayheadedconeflowerSPMA10719WM.jpg

3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

paleindianplantainseedsSPMAWM10719.jpg

Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

compassplantseedheadSPMA10719WM.jpg

False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

falsesolomonssealSPSAVMA10719WM.jpg

Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

carrionvineSPMA10719WM.jpg

This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

turtleheadSPMASAV10719WM

4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

bottlebrushgrassSPMASAV10719WM.jpg

You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

Canadawildrye10719WMSPMA.jpg

 

5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

paleindianplantainSPMA10719WM.jpg

Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

compassplantSP10719WM.jpg

6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

sumac10719WMSPMA.jpg

Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

SPMAlittlebluestem10719WM.jpg

Why not go see?

SPMA-Octoberbridge10719WM.jpg

Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

greatblueheronbridgeSPMA10719WM.jpg

It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

*****

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

******

Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

The September Prairie’s Greatest Hits

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems–especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” –― Barbara Pym

******

Open windows. Cool breezes. That low slant of light. Autumn is here.

belmontprairie92319WMtrail.jpg

After dragonfly migration is finished, I always feel a bit of a letdown, as you might after the end of a long-anticipated party.  Summer is over.  But it’s impossible to feel too melancholy as the prairie ramps up its fall extravaganza. This year, the Indian grass, big bluestem, Maximilian sunflowers and tall coreopsis loom high, shooting toward the sky. Lush. Lanky. Resplendent. Many tallgrass trails are impassible and choked with thick vegetation. The recent deluge of rain left sunflowers too top-heavy to stand upright. Gold spills into the mowed paths.

maxmilliansunflowersBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

The smell of prairie dropseed and damp earth permeates the air. The soundtrack of goldfinch chirps and blue jay calls is augmented by the insects tuning up each evening, a static that I sometimes don’t notice until it goes silent. The cacophony is already winding down; soon, we’ll lose this chorus altogether. Goldfinches are ravenous. It seems they can’t get their fill. They work over the prairie patch in my backyard like a bus full of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

goldfinchesGEbackyardSeptemberWM.jpg

An occasional crow inks its way across a mackerel sky, and I’m reminded to be grateful for each bird I see and hear, on the prairies and in my backyard. Bird conservation news has been dismal this week, and birds of the grasslands are faring the worst of all. It’s another reason to encourage establishments of new prairies, and to care for existing remnants and restorations.

SKY Mackarel 91819WM.jpg

September is arguably one of the most enjoyable months in the tallgrass. Have you been for a hike on the prairie this month? Do you need motivation to go? Consider a few of the September prairie’s “Greatest Hits.” Maybe one of them will give you a push out the door.

Compass Plants and Other Silphiums

As I wandered through my backyard prairie patch this week, I suddenly realized my prairie dock and compass plants failed to flower this season. Why didn’t they flower? I’m not sure.  This flower-less state is not unprecedented, both in my backyard and on the prairie. Some years, they just… don’t flower! Anecdotally, it seems like the compass plants and prairie dock take a “rest” every few years from making flowers and seeds, the production of which is a huge output of energy.

compassplantF62918wm

I missed the tall bloom stalks of compass plant and prairie dock this summer, with the occasional goldfinch or hummingbird resting on top. The hummingbirds that sojourned through my backyard had to settle for the tall zinnias as surveillance platforms instead.

hummingbirdonzinniasbackyard92119WM.jpg

There are four members of the Silphium genus most prairie stewards concern themselves with: compass plant, prairie dock, rosinweed, and cup plant. (Read more about cup plant in a previous post here.) On Sunday, I went for my first big prairie hike since my surgery six weeks ago, visiting Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove for a half an hour. I compared their compass plants and prairie dock with my own backyard plants. The trails were cut back, making it easy to hike (thank you, Belmont prairie stewards and volunteers!) Woven compass plant leaves ranged from vibrant green to various stages of senesce.

compassplantleavesBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

Some leaves have already turned crisp and brown, curling into base clefs. Or perhaps, chocolate shavings.

compassplantcurledleaves92219WM.jpg

Others were somewhere inbetween “vibrant” and “crunchy.”

compassplanthalfwaydecayed92219WM.jpg

I looked for prairie dock seedheads and came up empty.  I only found desiccated leaves.

Prairie dock Belmont Prairie 92219WM copy.jpg

I did find rosinweed—the less showy of the Silphiums—which had flowered and gone to seed.

rosinweedBelmontPrairie 92219WM.jpg

Click here and you can see what rosinweed looks like in bloom. Pretty. But I love it in the seed stage, each September seed cluster more intricate than its straightforward bright yellow flowers of summer.

The other three Silphiums are always show-stoppers; in bloom or in seed, or —if blooms fail—just for their changing leaves. Each member of the quartet has its individual charms. Especially this month.

Dazzling Asters and Glorious Goldenrods

September is peak time for asters and goldenrod. Yes—as I wrote last week—aster ID can be frustrating. It’s nice to be on the prairie, where many of the asters are easily identifiable. Tiny leaves help ID the pearly white flowers of heath aster (now with its unwieldy new genus name of Symphyotrichum ericoides).

heathaster92219WMBelmontPrairie.jpg

The smooth blue asters have—as you’d expect—smooth stems and leaves. Here, they mix with the vibrant and colorful spent stems of flowering spurge. More about that plant in a minute.

smoothblueasterBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

September is the month for the eye-popping purple haze of the familiar New England asters , which to me signals the prairie bloom season’s grand finale.

newenglandasters92219WM.jpg

The yellows of goldenrod are a worthy pairing for the asters. Ask any quilt maker, and they’ll tell you purple and yellow are complementary colors, great for contrast. The prairie liberally juxtaposes the two in September. What a show!

IMG_9217

I’m imagining the faces of some of the prairie stewards and volunteers reading this right now. Goldenrod is a pain in the neck! you might say, shaking your head. I know, I know. When I began volunteering in natural areas almost 20 years ago, my first question to the steward was: “I should pull all this goldenrod, right?” I was surprised when the answer was “No!”, and to learn goldenrod was native to the Midwest.

If you spend time on a prairie or create a prairie in your backyard as I have, you may find goldenrod is—shall we say—a bit rambunctious.  Sure, you might end up weeding out some of this native plant that is also a take-over specialist to make room for more diversity. But think of the nectar goldenrod provides for bees and butterflies!  I became a goldenrod enthusiast when Jeff and I visited Kankakee Sands‘ prairies in September a few years ago, and we happened upon a monarch migration in progress. The butterflies were fueling up on stiff goldenrod.

WMTrio of monarchs on stiff goldenrod KS91418

Not convinced about goldenrod? A short visit to Belmont Prairie this month is enough to convert even the staunchest goldenrod hater.

BelmontPrairie92219WM

Like all good things, goldenrod is perhaps best in moderation. But the insects love it. Which brings us to…

A Sweet Buzz

The bees are still with us. Bumble bees. Honey bees. Native bees in all patterns, sizes, and colors. In Illinois alone, there are 400-500 species of native bees!  Hiking the September prairie, or standing in my backyard prairie patch, it’s difficult to imagine that in a few short months, the buzz will go mostly silent.

beesonastersbackyardprairieGE919.jpg

This week, I was reading a novel by British writer Barbara Pym when  I ran across the phrase, “Tell the bees… .” What was this?  I turned to Wiki for more information. Evidently, a European beekeeping custom is to let your bees know when important life events such as births, marriages, and deaths happen. If you fail to do so, so the folklore goes, the bees may leave their hive or fall into decline. You might also drape your bee hives in black if someone dies, or leave a slice of wedding cake next to the hives when a marriage takes place in the family.  John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) wrote a melancholy poem about this tradition, “Telling the Bees.”

newenglandasterandbumblebeeByardGEwm.jpg

I’m considering what I might “tell the prairie bees” this week. Be strong. Multiply. We need you to keep our prairies healthy. Thank you.

Skipper Fiesta

The fiery skippers have thrown themselves into September with a zeal I’ve not experienced before. They hang out around the prairie patch; perch and nectar on the zinnias in the garden.

fieryskipperGEbackyard92219WM.jpg

The best way to see the skippers, I’ve discovered, is to sit somewhere close to a nectar source and pay attention.  Not rocket science, is it? But how often I seem to be too busy to just sit and look! In September, the skippers are a reminder to do just that.

Unexpected Prairie Fall Color

Who needs autumn leaves when you have the prairie? The golds of Indian grass, the wine-blue Andropogon gerardii—big bluestem, the copper-colored little bluestem. Together, they make the September prairie breathtaking. I also anticipate the flowering spurge’s post-bloom color each year; the leaves and stems are every bit as pretty as the sugar maple’s leaves.

floweringspurge92219BelmontPrairieWM.jpg

You can find these bright spots all across the tallgrass.

floweringspurgeBelmontPrairie92219WM.jpg

From a distance, they look almost pink. A startling color, in September.

FloweringSpurgeBelmontPrairieWM92319.jpg

Color. Textures. Buzz. Blooms. These are only a few of the September prairie’s greatest hits. What are your favorite sightings on the September prairie? Drop me a note, and let me know.

There is so much to enjoy on the prairie in September. So much to marvel about. The month is sliding to a close.

Why not go see?

*****

Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose quote opens this week’s post, was a British writer referred to as “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another great quote from Pym; ““Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”  I also love, “Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.” Pym died of breast cancer at 67.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in September, Downer’s Grove, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) enjoying evening primrose seeds, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; mackerel sky over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant in bloom (Silphium lacinatum), Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (from 2018); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceaum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrafolia), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL; heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sky blue asters, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) with New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (previously taken); monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) at Kankakee Sands in September 2017, Kankakee Sands Preserve, The Nature Conservancy Indiana, Newton, IN; asters and goldenrods in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.) with honeybee (Apis mellifera) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) on New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

****

Join Cindy for a speaking event or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com to learn more.

Spring Prairie Thaw

“Keep busy with survival…remember nothing stays the same for long, not even pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.”  ― May Sarton
*****
Mid-March in the Chicago region feels like emergence from a long dream.  The world is waking up. Slowly.
We blink in the sunshine. Rub our eyes. Stretch.
Listen!
What’s that sound?
willowaybrookmarch2019WM.jpg
It’s the sounds of water. The prairie creek thaws. At last!
willowaywaterfall3719WM.jpg
Melted snow runs into cracks and crevices. Water tunes up; provides a musical soundtrack for the tallgrass once again.
Sure, it’s not officially astronomical spring until March 20, another week away, when winter officially ends.
willowayinmarch31119WM.jpg
 But you can see the transitions in play.
Willoway Brook 3719WM.jpg
Not quite spring yet? Tell that to the birds. They know better. Soon, migrants will pour through the skies, piping their songs to us Midwesterners. We’ll ask each other, “Was that a white-throated sparrow singing?” They are common migrants and occasional winter residents here in Illinois. Every spring, I hear them calling on their way north, headed for the upper Midwest and Canada. It’s just a matter of days, now. I’m listening.
Speaking of birds…In the tallgrass, one has pecked through the Chinese mantis egg case  I’ve been watching all winter. The case is in tatters. Goodbye, little future insects! Praying mantises are pretty merciless predators themselves, so perhaps it’s justice.
chinese mantis WM2719SPMA.jpg
It’s a savage world out there, especially at the end of winter when survival is still bitterly won. Hunger gnaws. Reserves are low. Hang on. Don’t quit. Sit it out. You can make it!
Soon, the March mud season will give way to color and song. For now, I welcome the sunshine, the melt and the thaw.
willowayiceflow319WM.jpg
Cardinal songs in the morning. The “oke-a-leeeeee” conversations of red-winged blackbirds as I hike the prairie trails by the brook.
Red-wingedblackbirdCROSBY2017SPWM.jpg
The first green shoots. The last old stands of dried grasses and wildflowers, fuel for the coming prescribed burn. You can feel spring trying to punch through the cold; break out of the gray and the gloom.
compassplant2719WMSPMA.jpg
The old order is passing. Something new is on the way.
]grayheadedconeflowersWM3219.jpg
Breathe in. Can you detect spring in the air? It’s in the scent of water. The smell of earth. That subtle scent of green. Feel the mud cling to your boots. Hear spring’s tentative first notes as the prairie community warms under the March sun.
willoway3719SPMAafternoonWM.jpg
Later, we’ll demand more than these small pleasures from the tallgrass.
But for now, they are enough.
*****
The poet May Sarton (1912-1995), whose quote begins this post, was also the author of numerous fiction and nonfiction books, including “Recovery.” She was particularly interested in aging, illness and depression (and our responses to both); solitude; personal, emotional, and artistic growth; our need for community and dependency on others; and the close observation of the natural world. Read “Mud Season” about her spring garden here. “Fluent, fluid…” said one reviewer of Sarton’s work; another wrote that her words are, “…direct and deeply given.”  Her writing, however, has been largely snubbed by major critics. She died of breast cancer at the age of 83. Read more in her obituary from The New York Times.
****
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bubbles under the ice, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice waterfall, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running into crevices at Fermilab Prairie’s Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese mantis ((Tenodera sinensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
******
Pre-order Cindy’s New Prairie Book By Clicking Here Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean), Ice Cube Press. Releases in April, 2019, full-color hardcover, $24.95. Also available at The Arboretum Store: https://www.mortonarb.org/visit-explore/arboretum-store
Cindy’s Classes in March
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online March 27 (The Morton Arboretum—work at your own pace from home and hone your knowledge of prairie)

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

*****

Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

Sanibelbeachumbrellas2014WM.jpg

But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

BelmontPrairiemaxsunflowers2919WM.jpg

Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

Canada Wild Rye BelmontPrairie2919WM.jpg

Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

belmontprairieduskfenceline2919WM.jpg

The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

BelmontPrairieCreek2919WM.jpg

As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

GeeseBelmontPrairie2919WM.jpg

Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

compassplantbelmontprairie2919WM.jpg

A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

crescentmoonbelmontprairiecorrectWM2919.jpg

Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

belmontprairieicecapades2919WM.jpg

Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

WoodpeckeronashfeederWMbarkbutter12719.jpg

The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

REd Fox Backyard GE 2017.jpg

Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

possum-WMbackyard.jpg

The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

Belmont Prairie Sunset 2919WM.jpg

Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

belmontprairietreelinesunset2919WM.jpg

I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

goldenrodandmilkweedpappusBelmontP2919WM.jpg

Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

*****

Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

.***

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

******

How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

HiddenLakeFP2419WM.jpg

Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

SPMAbenchinsnow2219WM

Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

prairiebenchSPMA4419thawWM.jpg

Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

crosbybackyardpolarvortexWM12919.jpg

We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

SPMA2219prairiegraphicsWM.jpg

There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

SPMA2219SwitchgrassWM.jpg

How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

MASP2219suncloudsWM.jpg

Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

SPMAfreezethawtrail50degreesWM2419.jpg

But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

SPMALatefigwort2219WM.jpg

The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

SPMA-413

These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

SPMA-bigbluestemleaves2219WM.jpg

But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

compassplant2419SPMAWM.jpg

…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

prairiedockleafSPMAWM2419.jpg

Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

SPMAgrayheadedcflowers2219WM.jpg

As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

MASPsavanna2219WM

This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

****

The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Saving Prairie

“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

******

Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

WolfroadprairielandscapesnowWM11319.jpg

Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

WolfroadprairiecompassplantWM-11319.jpg

Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

wolfroadprairie11319wm

We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

WolfroadprairiemousetracksWM11319.jpg

Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

Wolfroadprairiecattails11319WM.jpg

…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

Wolfroadprairienest11319WM.jpg

I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

wolfroadprairiewmcrop-sunflowergall?11319

There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

wolfroadprairiegoldenrodgallWM11319.jpg

I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

Wolf Road Prairie SavannaWM 11319.jpg

…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

SidewalksatWolfRoadPrairieWM11319.jpg

I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

Wolfroadprairie11319WMsnowshadows.jpg

…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

Wolfroadprairie-littlebluestemWM11319.jpg

Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

wolfroadprairieWM11319-Palepurpleconeflower.jpg

Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

WolfRoadPrairieWM-culversroot11319.jpg

Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

WolfRoadPrairie-goldenrodWM11319.jpg

I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

wolfroadprairiesignWM11219.jpg

I’m grateful to hike it today.

Wolfroadprairietrail11319WM.jpg

In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

*****

The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.

December Prairie Delights

“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson

*****

As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome.  A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve.  A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!

belmont prairie 121618WM.jpg

I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring.  So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.

Backlit Compass Plant 121618WM .jpg

The melting ice glitters on the grasses.

frostmeltBelmont Prairie 121618WM.jpg

A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.

compassplantsilhouette121618WM.jpg

Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.

Belmont Prairie compass plant WM121618.jpg

Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.

Compass121618compassplantstemWM.jpg

Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks  of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.

bigbluestem121618WM.jpg

Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.

palepurpleconeflower121618WM.jpg

More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.

ThimbleweedBelmontPrairie121618WM.jpg

The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.

roundheadedbushcloverWMBelmontPrairie 121618.jpg

It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.

Belmont Prairie Fence 121618WM.jpg

So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.

What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.

 

****

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world.  Read more about Olson here.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost;  compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads;  thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.