Tag Archives: downer’s grove

New Year’s Prairie Resolutions

“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle

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It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.

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1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.

Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.

Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL (2020).

It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL (2022).

Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.

St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL (2019)

We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.

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2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.

One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?

Native butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.

Native pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and a striped sweat bee(Agapostem sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2018)

What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.

Stay tuned.

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3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.

One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.

Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (2019)

The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!

Orland Grasslands, Orland Park, Il. (2017)

Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.

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4. I will plant an oak.

When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

All told, for someone who teaches at The Morton Arboretum, I sure haven’t paid enough attention to trees in my yard. When I paged through Doug Tallamy’s books Nature’s Best Hope and The Nature of Oaks, it nudged me to invest in oaks in 2023. Sure, I have concerns—-oaks, like many other trees, are under threat from disease and from climate change.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL. (2020)

But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.

Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.

Mixed oak leaves (Quercus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.

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5. I will keep a regular eBird list.

Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (February, 2020).

This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2016)

Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.

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6. I will expand our native plantings.

When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2022).

2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.

Marine blue butterfly (Leptotes marina) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL. This species is a rare migrant to Illinois.

In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.

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Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.

Pollinator, possibly a carpenter bee? (Xylocopa sp.) heading for blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!

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The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.

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Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.

November Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle

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What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.

Unknowns insects catch the light like snowflakes, with the native but aggressive Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) in the foreground, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairie ponds are our own version of Monet’s “Water Lily Pond.”

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

What an autumnal palette!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Subtle shadings in the grasses.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Bright pops of unexpected color.

Sulphur butterfly (Colias sp.) on the non-native red clover (Trifolium pratense), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

A few surprising fliers, late in the season.

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

So many different ways to see gold.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Prairie Pond Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

An endless procession of color; from lemon to ochre to rust.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

You can see the season’s lateness in the skeletal trees, the lone bird’s nest devoid of its occupants.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Everywhere, seeds spill.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The last wildflowers are in bloom.

Asters (probably Symphyotrichum pilosum or lanceolatum), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You might hear the red-winged blackbirds singing, high above the grasses.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

October passed in a blur.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.

What an exciting month to go for a hike!

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The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

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. Register here.

Rainy Day on a Remnant Prairie

“I feel like it’s raining…all over the world.”—Tony Joe White

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Rain lashes the tallgrass prairie.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Wet. Wild. Windy, with gusts of 50 mph. I plunge my hands deep into my coat pockets and put up my hood.

It’s a day for hiking. A day for contemplation.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I’m walking Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a small remnant prairie of 10-plus acres sandwiched between houses, a golf course, and apartment complexes. There are shopping centers and recreation parks. Railroad tracks and an interstate. This prairie remnant is a favorite of mine. It is as old as time itself.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

It co-exists with the people and the trappings of civilization and development. Peaceably.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I think about the people who saved this tiny remnant prairie. They saw something special when they looked at it; something irreplaceable.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

We don’t know how to replicate a remnant prairie that functions in the same ways as the prairies we create from scratch. Sure, we plant prairies. And that’s a good thing. I’m a steward on a planted prairie, and it is full of delights and marvels. But it’s not a remnant prairie. There are very few high-quality remnants left in Illinois. Each one is unique. Each one is a small masterpiece of survival.

American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I think about the Bell Bowl Prairie remnant at Chicago-Rockford International Airport.

It’s slated for destruction November 1.

Belmont Prairie Parking Lot, Downers Grove, IL.

Less than one week away.

I’m no activist. I like to live without conflict. And yet. I can’t get Bell Bowl Prairie out of my mind.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairies have given me a lot over the past 23 years. Places to walk, to write, to go to when I need to sort out my thoughts. I teach prairie classes. Give programs on prairie. Write prairie books—and write about the tallgrass here each week. I sketch prairie. Take my children and now, my grandchildren on prairie hikes and prairie picnics. The prairies have always been there for me. Now, it seems, I need to be there for them.

The questions in my mind come thick and fast.

“Do you love the prairie?”

Monarch migration, Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL.

“Does the rasp of big bluestem and Indian grass swaying in the October winds send a tingle down your spine?”

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Do you delight in the crystallized compass plant rosin? Do you love to tell the story of how Native American children chewed it like Wrigley’s Spearmint gum? Do you marvel at all the stories these plants have to tell us?”

“Do you walk the prairie in the rain, admiring the way it brings out contrast in the grasses and seedheads?”

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

“Are you grateful for what Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things” in the world, in a time when so much is conflict and unrest?”

I ask myself these questions and more. What kind of world do I want to leave my children and grandchildren? Am I willing to step outside of my comfort zone to leave them things that really matter?

Henslow’s sparrow (Centronyx henslowii), remnant at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2018).

So much about the future is unknown.

We build upon the past. But what happens when we lose our heritage?

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with tiny pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There is a lot I don’t know. There is much that I don’t understand. But I do know this: Each small “cog” and “wheel” has meaning as part of the whole. The wild things—even those in the middle of developments, or maybe especially those—are worth caring about.

Citrine forktail damselfly (Ischnura hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

When we lose any member of the prairie community—plants, birds, pollinators—-we lose something priceless.

Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Aldo Leopold wrote in his foreword to A Sand County Almanac: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a finite number of prairie remnants in North America. There is no original prairie anywhere else in the world. Once each remnant is gone, it is gone forever. There are no “do-overs.”

St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie remnant, Carol Stream, IL.

I’m thankful people spoke up and this remnant I hike today—Belmont prairie—was saved. I’m thankful for so many other wild places, including the prairie remnants, that were preserved through vision and the power of people’s voices. I say a few of the prairie remnant names out loud, speaking them as a prayer. Nachusa Grasslands. Hinsdale Prairie. St. Stephen. Wolf Road Prairie. Great Western Prairie. It grieves me to think of Bell Bowl Prairie missing from this list. Losing these wild places hurts everyone. This is one wild place that doesn’t have to be lost.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

As uncomfortable as it is sometimes to speak out, I owe the prairies this space today.

Thank you for listening.

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How Can I Help 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 International 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! Make a quick call, tweet or FB a note to your friends. Time is running out.

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Tony Joe White (1943-2018) whose quote opens this post was nicknamed “The Swamp Fox” and wrote a number of songs, including “Poke Salad Annie,” made famous when Elvis Presley and Tom Jones both did covers. He also wrote songs covered by Tina Turner (“Steamy Windows” and “Undercover Agent for the Blues”). But my favorite is “Rainy Night in Georgia,” from which the opening line is taken. Listen to the beautiful version by Brook Benton here.

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.

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

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The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! 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. Registration information here.

Wild and Wonderful Prairie Wildflowers

“I perhaps owe having becoming a painter to flowers.” –Claude Monet

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Everywhere you look on the prairies and savannas in mid-May, there’s magic.

Starry false Solomon’s seal (Smileacina stellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So many wild and wonderful wildflowers.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Let’s go for a hike and take a look.

The shooting star are scattered across the prairie, pretty in pink.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You might find a better way to spend an hour than to sit and watch the shooting star gently bowing in the breeze. Maybe.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018).

Or maybe not. Even the leaves are worth a second look.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The wild hyacinth opens its blooms from the bottom up.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Its light scent is difficult to catch. Unless you get down on your knees and inhale.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Try it. You might want to stay there for a while, just enjoying the view.

Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schuleniberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

For fragrance, consider the common valerian. Native Americans cooked the tap root as a vegetable, which supposedly has “a strong and remarkably peculiar taste and odor.”

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I enjoy it for the bands of silver hairs that outline the leaves like a very sharp, white pencil.

Common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Its neighbor on the prairie, wood betony, was once valued as a love charm. It spins its blooms across the prairie; a dizzy showstopper.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wood betony’s newly emerged deep red and green leaves are almost as pretty as the flowers, and were eaten by certain Native American tribes. I love discovering wood betony paired with hoary puccoon.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Those bright citrus-y colors! Eye-popping.

In some years, when you’re lucky enough to see the small white lady’s slipper orchid…

Small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region, Illinois.

… you are astonished. And then you ask yourself—How many other wildflower marvels are waiting to be discovered that we’ve missed? Often, right under our noses.

Large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

So many unusual prairie wildflowers. Even the smallest and least colorful are tiny packages of wonder.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

They’ll be gone soon.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Why not go look now?

Experience the magic for yourself.

*****

Claude Monet (1840-1926), whose quote begins this post, was a French painter and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. He valued “impressions” of nature, and turned the art world upside down with his paintings incorporating loose brush strokes and a feeling of light. Check out his series of water lilies paintings here.

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Join Cindy for a program or class online!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Fire Season

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner

*******

The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.

Fire! Prescribed fire.

At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.

It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.

Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.

I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.

This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.

Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.

Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.

They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.

As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.

It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.

Change is on the way.

*****

Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.

The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.

Last autumn, the woolly bears I found had a larger cinnamon stripe than this season, indicating a mild winter. I riffled through the old digital records on Google and discovered that in 2019-2020, we had the fourth-warmest December through February period on record.

Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.

We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.

Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.

I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

New beginnings are ahead.

I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

*****

The opening quote is from Gilda Radner (1946-1989) an original cast member of the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” One of her best-quoted lines, “It’s always something.” She died from ovarian cancer.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) 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 here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Prairie Migration

“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”

—Maxwell Anderson

*****

They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.

Where are these dragonflies going?

South.

It’s migration season in the Chicago region.

Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?

My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.

In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:

A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.

A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.

These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.

There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.

September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.

Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.

A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.

Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.

Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.

I needed that this week. You, too?

It’s been bird migration time here in the Chicago region; more than 30 million birds were estimated to pass through Illinois in one 12 hour period last week. Jeff and I sit on the back porch and count the nighthawks high overhead; marvel at the hummingbirds that zoom in to fuel up at the feeder.

I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.

But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!

When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.

See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.

*****

The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.

Join Cindy for an Online Class or Talk this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“A Tallgrass Conversation”Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

SPMA61720PalePurpleConeflowerWM

With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

palepurpleconeflowerwithpollinatorBelmontPrairie62020WM

Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

BelmontPrairieflowers62020WM

Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

blackeyedsusanBelmontPrairie62020WMWM

To barely open…

blackeyedsusanjustopenBelmontPrairie62120WMWM

…to just opening…

blackeyedsusanBelmontPrairiejustopeningbarely62120WM

…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

blackeyedsusanfullbloom62120WMBelmontPrairie copy

Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

purplemilkweed61720WMSPMA We don’t have much of it on the prairie where I’m a steward, so spotting its bright buds is a delight. It’s a fine contrast to the first blush orange that washes across the butterfly weed. Monarch caterpillars in my backyard and on the prairie seem to prefer this milkweed species.

Butterfly Weed BelmontPrairie62120WM

Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

honeybeeon muskthistleBelmontPrairie62120WM

I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

muskthistlebud62120BelmontPrairieWM

Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

prairiesundropsOenotherapilosellaSPMA61720WM

Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

SilverspottedskipperSPMA61720WMwhitewildindigo

Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

VioletDancerVariableDancerWM61720SPMA

This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

UnknownfemalemeadowhawkBelmontPrairie62120WM

So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

12spottedskimmerBelmontPrairieWM62120

The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

blackswallowtailDickYoung61820WM

In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

*****

John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

*****

Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

A Belmont Prairie Stroll

“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver

******

May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.

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Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.

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Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.

Spring in Illinois.

Clouds over Backyard Prairie 52020WM

In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

BelmontPrairie52120pathWM

The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.

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The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.

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Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.

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Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.

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As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie.  Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.

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I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.

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Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.”  In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.

There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.

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Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.

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The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.

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Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.

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Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”

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I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.

False StrawberryWM BelmontPrairie52120

Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.

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It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.

Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!CompassPlantBelmontPrairieWM52120

So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.

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Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.

CROSBY Monarch 816 My backyardWM

Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.

As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.

Hummingbird GE 2016WM

There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.

The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.

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I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.

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The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.

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John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.

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All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

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It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

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In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

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…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

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Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

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Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

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Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

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And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

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Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

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Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

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Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

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Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

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This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

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“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

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At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

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As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

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Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

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There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

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I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

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…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

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Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

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A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

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Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

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The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.