“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger
Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.
The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.
The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.
Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.
In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.
I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…
…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.
Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.
A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…
…dull aluminum and copper…
…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.
It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.
Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.
On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.
Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.
There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…
…looking forward to something new.
Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.
Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.
Sure, they can be rough.
But bring on the change.
Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.
The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.
“Gardening is a long road, with many detours and way stations… .”–Henry Mitchell
Listen? Can you hear it? It’s the sound of summer winding down. Crickets and cicadas. A school bus passing by. The chatter of children walking home from school. My first-year front yard prairie pollinator patch (try saying that three times fast) is full of bees and insects working the wildflowers.
Common Mountain Mint is a popular hangout.
The bees whiz over the last few Butterfly Milkweed flowers. And look—seedpods! Not bad for a first-year planting.
Blazing Star blushes color; it won’t be long before it bursts into bloom. Are those spider silks trailing along the buds? I’m not sure.
In the backyard, the garden shifts into high gear. The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds are ready for it. They wreak havoc on the tomatoes, eggplant, and anything else that catches their fancy. I find big, impudent bites out of my best, almost-ripe “Delicious” and “Supersteaks.” What to do?
This week, I covered green tomatoes and some of the eggplant with drawstring mesh bags to deter any furry or feathered noshers.
We’ll see if it works. My yard is wildlife-friendly, and I like it that way. But this summer, it’s been a little too wildlife-friendly for the garden. Although the mesh bags make the garden look a little strange, hopefully this will slow hungry varmints down a little bit.
Meanwhile, I try to stay a day ahead of the critters by picking a little early. Sometimes, it works.
Fortunately, the birds, bunnies, and squirrels don’t seem interested in okra. I would grow Burgundy Okra just for its flowers alone. I also love okra in soups and gumbo. And wait—is that a Yellow Jacket? Or a Paper Wasp? They are tough to tell apart.
This week, I’ve been reading Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. As I’ve read, I’ve put aside a few of my prejudices against these varied and diverse insects. I learned there are tens of thousands of named wasp species in the world! My apprehensions about wasps are slowly being replaced by curiosity. There is so much to discover.
Next to the okra, the arugula is in bloom. It’s so…stripy! Attractive enough that I haven’t pulled it yet. Soon, I’ll need its garden spot for lettuce or beets. But for now I’m enjoying the flowers.
Nearby, the green beans tower six feet high over my head. This June, after the bunnies sheared off the early green bean leaves, I fenced my raised bed. The beans slowly put out new leaves and took off. Now, at the end of August, I finally see the results. Green beans for dinner! At last.
The backyard prairie patch is shorter this season, likely due to the lack of rain here. However, some of the toughest plants are flourishing. Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom.
Cup Plant thrives. (Although, when does Cup Plant notdo well???)
The goldfinches love drinking the rain that collected in Cup Plant’s leafy “cups” after this weekend’s brief shower. Nearby, Obedient Plant is so short it is barely noticeable. But still the bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies seem to find it.
Speaking of hummingbirds and butterflies, what’s that by the pond? Great Blue Lobelia is in bloom! One of our backyard’s prettiest August wildflowers.
Close to the Great Blue Lobelia I see our first Cardinal Flower of the season. What a beauty.
It’s a lovely surprise. With the recent lack of rainfall, I wasn’t sure we’d see Cardinal Flower at all this summer. It makes me wonder—what other surprises will the prairie and garden offer this week?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is by Henry Mitchell (1923-1993) from Henry Mitchell on Gardening. His sense of humor reminds me to keep smiling, even when the bunnies nibble my new native prairie plantings and the squirrels make off with the tomatoes…again. Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post for almost 25 years.
Join Cindy for a Program in September!
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Spend a 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. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.
“…And the soft rain—imagine! imagine! the wild and wondrous journeys still to be ours.” —Mary Oliver
It begins before dawn, with a tap-tap-tap on the windows. At last! Rain.
In my backyard, the plants perk up. From the Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes (everyone’s favorite this summer)…
…to the mixed kale…
…to the prairie patch along the backyard fence…
…it’s as if the earth heaves a sigh of relief. The rain perks me up, too. When was the last time we had a rainy day? I can’t remember.
Water drops bead and splash from Queen of the Prairie, its flowers fading to seed.
The wild asparagus drips, drips, drips.
I walk through the grass in the rain and admire the insects braving the wet. A cucumber beetle peers over the top of a spent Royal Catchfly bloom. No cucumbers here, buddy.
The Wild Quinine, Common Mountain Mint, and the last blooms of Butterfly Weed fall together in the best sort of bouquet.
Wait—what’s this? Many of my zinnia’s petals have been neatly stripped off, leaving only the centers. I don’t have to look far to find the culprit, just behind the bird feeders, eating Cup Plant seeds.
With two sock thistle feeders and plenty of feeders full of birdseed across the backyard, why eat my wildflower seeds? Ah, well.
Agastache—Hyssop—attracts a different kind of crowd.
I have a lot of Hyssop this year, gifted to me by generous friends. Last summer, I plopped it into an available space right by the patio without checking to see how tall it would get. Surprise! It towers over my head. Another surprise—sometimes Purple Giant Hyssop is sometimes…white! I won’t win any landscape design points for placing it where I did. And yet, I’m glad it’s where it is. Even in the rain, every little pollinator wants to stop and sip.
The pale pearl buds of blazing star will open any day.
August and anticipation go hand in hand.
Summer is passing. Walking through the yard in the rain, I feel it. Goldenrod shows its metallics. Wildflowers go to seed. Autumn whispers: Not too long, now.
My camera lens fogs up again and again. It feels like 100 percent humidity here, but I’m not complaining about the sauna treatment. Because it is raining! Finally.
Welcome back, rain. We missed you.
The opening quote is from Mary Oliver‘s poem, “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me,” from What Do We Know. Oliver (1935-2019) was a force of nature who opened so many of our eyes and ears to the complexities and joys of the natural world. Read the full poem here.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public. Join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael
I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.
Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.
When the leaves come falling down.
When the leaves come falling down.
Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.
In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.
Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.
I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.
Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.
The savanna is striking in the falling snow.
But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.
“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …”
In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… .Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.
In November, grass slips into the starring role.
The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.
It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.
Why not go see?
The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spiritfor the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.
“Mornings were cooler and crisper than before. The ever-lengthening shapes of afternoon shadows seemed drawn more irresistibly into the night. Fields were rough and tweedy, as though an old brown woolen jacket had been thrown over them to ward off the chill.” — Vincent G. Dethier
Oh, wow, October. The prairie is stunning. Although it’s not to everyone’s taste.
“No flowers,” say some of my friends. Yes, the blooming flowers now are few. Goldenrods. Asters.
They melt into the grasses, slowly becoming invisible. Going. Going. Gone—to seed.
Most prairie wildflowers have closed shop for the season.
They surrender to the inevitable with elegance.
Ravenous insects glean whatever is left for the taking.
So many insects.
They make themselves at home in the prairie wildflower remains.
Autumn trickles through my fingers.
Each day seems over before I’ve fully woken up. I remind myself, “Pay attention!” But—the prairie is beginning to blur. I rub my eyes and try to focus. So many seeds. So much grass.
It’s all about the grass.
Loops and whoops and swoops of grass.
Even my old enemy, the invasive reed canary grass on the prairie, shimmers in the morning dew.
The wind sighs as it sifts the grasses. The coda is near.
What new wonders will unfold?
I only know this: The wonders will be more nuanced. Less easily available as immediate eye candy than when in the growing season. But no less remarkable.
We’ll have to pause. Think. Absorb. Take time to look. To really look.
Why not go for a hike and see? Now. Before the snow flies?
The prairie is waiting.
Vincent G. Dethier (1915-1993) was an entomologist and physiologist, and the author of Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos from which the opening blog post quote was taken. This is a delightful book and accessible to anyone who loves natural history, or who has found joy in the grasshoppers, crickets and katydids of the tallgrass prairie. It takes a little extra work to find the book at your library. Well worth the effort.
Thanks to Nature Revisited Podcast for their interview with Cindy about dragonflies and prairie! Click here to listen to it on Youtube.
Thanks to Benedictine University for airing:Conservation: The Power of Storywith Cindy as part of their Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum “Science Speaker Series.” See it on Youtube here.
Thank you to Mark and Jess Paulson for their tour of the Great Western Prairie this week. I was so grateful to see it through your eyes!
Join Cindy for a Program or Class!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology: Opens online Monday, Nov.1 –Are you a prairie steward or volunteer who wants to learn more about the tallgrass? Do you love hiking the prairie, but don’t know much about it? Enjoy a self-paced curriculum with suggested assignments and due dates as you interact with other like-minded prairie lovers on the discussion boards. Then, join Cindy for a live Zoom Friday, November 12, noon to 1 p.m. CST. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. See more details here.
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Please visit www.savebellbowlprairie.org to learn about the planned destruction of a special gravel prairie remnant by the Chicago-Rockford Airport in Rockford, IL. Ask them to reroute their construction. Discover how you can help save this home of the federally-endangered Rusty Patched Bumble Bee. The remnant is slated for bulldozing on November 1. Every small action by those who love prairies will help!
“There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky.”–Dejan Stojanovic
Do you know your August prairie ABC’s? Let’s go for a hike in the tallgrass together and take a look at a few.
A is for Ashy Sunflower, a harbinger of late summer.
B is for Big Bluestem, Illinois’ state grass; Missouri’s as well.
C is for TallCoreopsis, in full bloom at a prairie near you. Collecting seeds from this plant in October is an exercise in smelly hands. Such a pretty plant; such stinky seeds.
D is for Dragonfly, those glints of glowing color across the grasses.
E is for Echinacea, the purple coneflower, attracting pollinators. Its sister plant, the pale purple coneflower, is more likely to be found on prairies in my area.
F is for Flowering Spurge, Euphorbia corollata, in the same genus as poinsettia.
G is for Gaura, one of the few August pinks.
H is for Hawk, which spirals on thermals high overhead. Sometimes, a little reminder floats down into the tallgrass.
I is for Indigo, now going to black-podded seed. Will the weevils save any seeds for us? Difficult to know. This pod has been ransacked.
J is for Joe Pye Weed, that butterfly magnet on the prairie’s edges.
K is for Kankakee Sands, where bison roam.
L is for Liatris, in full purple splendor this month.
M is for Monarch, the Midwest’s poster child for pollination and conservation. Glad they are having such a good year in Illinois.
N is for New England Aster; the first blooms are all the buzz on the prairie.
O is for Oenothera biennis, the common evening primrose, that staple of every farm lane and roadside wildflower stand. It’s native and occurs in every county of Illinois.
P is for Prairie Dropseed. Love the smell? Or hate it? People are divided! I’m a fan.
Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace, that pretty invasive that is celebrated in a Mary Oliver poem and the impetus for many volunteer workdays on the prairie.
R is for Ragweed, an unwelcome native. Poor, innocent goldenrod! It often takes the rap for ragweed’s allergy-producing pollen. Aaaahhhhhh-choo! Although goldenrod isn’t completely innocent. It’s a take-over specialist on the tallgrass prairie.
S is forSilphiums; the cup plant, prairie dock, compass plant, and rosin weed. They are having a banner year in my part of prairie country.
T is for prairie Trails, that lead to adventure.
U is for Underground, where prairie roots plunge 15 or more feet deep, sequestering carbon. Like an upside-down forest.
V is for Vervain, both blue and hoary.
W is for Waterways; the ponds, streams, and rivers that cradle life on the prairies.
X is for sphinXmoths, which pollinate rare plants like the eastern prairie fringed orchid. Here’s one enjoying a wild bergamot bloom.
Y is for Yellow. The prairie is sprinkled with gold this month.
Z is for the Zip and Zag of black swallowtail butterflies, fluttering from flower to flower.
Now you know my August ABC’s. How many of these plants and prairie critters can you find on a prairie near you? What favorites would you add to my August prairie alphabet? Leave me a comment below, and let me know. Then go for a hike and see them for yourself.
Dejan Stojanovic (1959-), whose quote opens this blog post, is a Serbian poet.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver
Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.
Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.
Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.
I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.
I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.
I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.
Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.
Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.
The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.
Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.
I enjoy the July transitions.
A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.
Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.
Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.
I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.
In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.
I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.
Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.
If only we could be present to them all.
In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.
The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.
So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.
It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.
I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.
The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.
Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!
“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”— Jim Dent
It’s hot, hot, hot. The thermometer cruises past 90 degrees. My suburban backyard prairie plantings grow lush and tall by the minute, embracing the temperature. So many blooms!
Now starring in my backyard: hot pink.
The first pink party-time flowers of queen of the prairie cause me to yearn for cotton candy, and its burnt-sugar fragrance and melt-on-your-tongue sweet flavor. I see queen of the prairie and remember my first bicycle at age six: hot pink. As I admire the blooms from my kitchen window, I feel an impulse to make a batch of strawberry lemonade. Think pink! The memories flood in. Queen of the prairie flowers are a sure-fire nostalgia trigger.
The blossoms seem to float across the tallgrass like puffs of cumulus. Queen of the prairie is attractive in bud, too! Look at those tiny pink pearls.
Nearby, culver’s root glows in the partial shade. The bees adore it. It’s a little leggy in the good garden soil of my suburban backyard, but no less pretty for sprawling.
Cup plant helps hold it up. It’s aggressively pushed its way into more and more of my prairie planting. Hmmm. Looks like I might need to do some proactive digging and remove a few plants.
Not a job for a day with temps in the nineties, I convince myself. Maybe later.
Joe pye weed tentatively lobs its first buds above the leaves. It’s a butterfly favorite. Moths and skippers love it too, as do bees and other insects. See the visitor on the leaf?
Earlier this spring, I moaned about the loss of my new jersey tea shrub. The twigs looked lifeless. But look!
The once dead-looking twigs are flush with leaves, and it’s putting on height next to the house. Maybe it’s not a write-off, after all. New jersey tea is in full bloom on the prairies this month. I close my eyes and imagine these little twigs flush with foamy flowers. Someday. Someday.
The first week of July is a time to put the seed catalogs away and close down the planting season. It’s difficult to stop planning and planting; to throw in the trowel. The dreams I had for a front-yard pollinator garden? Maybe next year. My hopes for adding big bluestem to the prairie patch? I mark my calendar to put seeds in when the snow flies. Now, it’s time to focus on enjoying what I planted this season.
To pay attention to the creatures my backyard prairie attracts.
To learn the names of the weeds showing up in large numbers in my prairie plantings. Native? Or aggressive invader? Oops—was that prairie sundrops I yanked out? It was! Ah, well. I can plant more next season.
Blazing star is tipped with new blooms. They’ll continue flowering from the top down, like sparklers.
Prairie smoke, which I planted and lost many years ago, is flourishing in a new spot under the eaves with its prairie neighbors. When I threw prairie smoke plants into the big prairie patch, they trickled out, eventually disappearing. Perhaps they were bullied by the big rough-and-ready cup plants. Here, in the partial shade and dryness of the patio edge, they get lots of personal attention from the gardener. No blooms yet. Next year. I imagine the pink.
The prairie smoke rubs shoulders with prairie alumroot, as pretty in leaf as it is in bloom.
It doesn’t mind sharing space with whorled milkweed, which promises flowers for the first time this summer in my backyard.
An unusual milkweed, isn’t it? From the leaves, you’d never guess it was an Asclepias. But the monarchs know.
Jacob’s ladder is gone to seed, and a few slim first-year plants of prairie coreopsis jostle for position next to the whorled milkweed. But the piece-de-resistance is the butterflyweed, which I tried and failed with at least three times before finding its sweet spot. Look at it now!
No monarch caterpillars on it yet. I’m hopeful. Adult monarch butterflies loop through the lawn; lighting on common milkweed plants and nectaring from the rainbow blooms of cut-and-come-again zinnias. The hummingbirds like the zinnias too.
It won’t be long until the monarchs discover the butterflyweed.
This week, the bee balm—wild bergamot—opened. Hummingbird moths as well as the namesake bees use this pretty flower from the mint family. Bee balm contains thymol, an essential oil. If “prairie” had a taste, it would be the antiseptic bee balm leaves and flowers. So refreshing!
My backyard prairie compass plants, lagging behind the already-open blooms on the bigger tallgrass prairies, are closed fists ready to explode into yellow. When they open, the monarchs will be there, along with long-tongued bees and bumblebees and many other insects.
So much is happening in my small suburban prairie patch. It boggles my mind to think of the larger prairie preserves, and the sheer numbers of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and other insects going about their business of living. Whether it is the thousands of acres of prairies like Nachusa Grasslands or the tiny prairie patches such as my backyard, I don’t want to miss a moment. July will be over in the blink of an eye. I want to soak up as much as I can.
For now, in the 90-degree-plus-heat, I’ll pour another strawberry lemonade. Then, I’ll enjoy the view of the prairie from my hammock as I plan my next hike on the prairie preserves.
The opening quote is from Jim Dent, the author of Hops and History. Prairie in your backyard means less grass to mow, although not less weeds to pull. On hot days like these, it’s good to have an excuse to swing in the hammock with a cold drink and a book, and admire the prairie plantings we made. And –dream a little about next year.
All photos this week, unless indicated, are by Cindy from her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.
Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Register here.
“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver
Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.
Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.
As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.
Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.
Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.
I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?
More for the compost pile.
Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.
The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…
…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!
I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.
As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.
Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.
Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.
As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.
But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.
I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.
On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.
I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.
There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.
Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?
Why not go see?
The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
THIS FRIDAY!Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.