Tag Archives: east woods

Wonders on the Prairie’s Edge

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

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If you want to get to know a flower, sit with it for an hour. Put down your camera and break out a sketchpad. I reminded myself of this truism as I marveled at the bloodroot in bloom this week. There is a large colony, right on the edges of the prairie proper. Before the prairie becomes a riot of wildflowers later in the spring, there is a chance to really focus on single species.

Little on the prairie is in flower right now, other than the pasque flowers beginning to fade, in their dreamy sort of way of saying goodbye…

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…and the wood betony crinkling into the promise of bloom—soon!

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Meanwhile, bloodroot is throwing a party on the prairie edges. In one sunny patch, I counted more than 500 blooms. I’ve always thought the best way to really get to know a plant is to sit with it for a while. So, I found a little bare patch in the colony and settled in for an hour with my sketchpad.

When you draw a plant –regardless of your artistic skill–you see it with new eyes.

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As I sketched, I thought about some reading I did about bloodroot recently in preparation for teaching my spring wildflower classes. I ran across a scholarly, yet charming, article for the Virginia Native Plant Society from W. John Hayden at University of Richmond. The bloodroot’s life strategy, Hayden says, is “Hurry, wait, and hedge against uncertain fate.”

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Because bloodroot blooms so early in the spring, Hayden tells us, it has some fascinating ways to ensure pollination. Flowering so early is risky. Bloodroot flowers close during cold, drizzly spring weather and also at night, making it tough for insects (mostly bees) to pollinate the plant.

bloodrootclosedEWMA42718.jpgSo bloodroot hedges its bets. The third day a flower is open, Hayden says, the stamens of the flower bend inward, bringing the anthers and pollen into direct contact with the stigma. In other words, if all else fails, the flower can pollinate itself and seeds will be produced.  I looked closely at a few older bloodroot blooms, and saw what Hayden was talking about.

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Pollinators were busier on this sunny day than jets over Chicago O’Hare International  Airport. Honey bees from our prairie hives regularly dropped in, probably disappointed to discover the bloodroot flower is devoid of nectar. Pollen, however, it has in spades.

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Bee flies—fuzzy flies that imitate bees—were frequent visitors as well.

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Plus a host of other insects that moved too fast for me to try and ID them.

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As I sketched different plants in various stages of emergence and bloom, I looked closely for the first time at the way they held their leaves.

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Jack Sanders, author of The Secrets of Wildflowers, compares emerging bloodroot to a mother protecting her baby with her cloak (the veiny scalloped leaf wrapped around flower stalk and bud). Apt description, isn’t it?

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As I sketched one bloodroot bud, I was astonished to see it begin to unfold! I grabbed my camera. In less than 60 seconds, it went from almost closed to completely open.

 

As the bloodroot seeds drop to the ground, ants pick them up and carry them back to their nests. The seeds hold a fleshy treat called elaiosome, which the ant will enjoy. Try saying that word out loud! It sounds like a secret password for something exciting, doesn’t it? (Elaiosome!)

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The discarded seed is dispersed away from the mother flower, and has fertile ground—the ant nest—to sprout from. The second vocabulary word for me of the day was myrmecochory, a tongue-twister which means simply means “seed dispersal by ants.”

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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The complexity and relationships of just one species of wildflower are a good reminder of Muir’s observation.

I put away my sketchpad and marvel.

How can we not?

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Artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-)  grew up in Wisconsin, one of seven children. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also in New York. She married Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and art dealer. Known for her renderings of flowers, O’Keeffe died in 1986, almost completely blind at 98, but still finding ways to paint.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with bee fly (Bombyliidae family) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown flying pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) opening, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring Arrives on the Prairie

“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” –Henry Van Dyke

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Ephemerals. It’s what we call spring wildflowers. Why? Ephemeral simply means “fleeting,” “transitory,” or “quickly fading.” Most years, they are here and gone like a whisper in a dark room. You only have a moment to try and register their presence, and then—well—you wonder if you imagined them.

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Here in the Chicago region, I’ve been teaching wildflower field classes, despite the recent snow-covered landscape and the late prescribed prairie burns. Up until this weekend, there haven’t been a lot of blooms to see.

SPMA42218watermark.jpgOn the prairie, rattlesnake master is singed; its emergence paused temporarily by the fires.

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Give it a week or two, and it will perk back up. Same for the tiny loose cabbages of pale Indian plantain, persevering through the cold and snows of last week.

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Leaves don’t excite most folks much, but I feel a thrill of seeing the earliest sign of a prairie wildflower. It’s fun to see the pale Indian plantain at this stage, knowing it will be as tall as I am this summer.

If you look closely, there are a few wildflowers in bloom on the prairie proper. Pasque flowers are the stars of the burned prairie—if you can find them. Camouflaged perfectly against the bare soil. The spider hiding in the bloom is an added bonus.

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Pretty big shadow for a tiny insect, isn’t it?

Because of the snow and the prescribed burn, my wildflower “field classes” ended up with a lot of  PowerPoint to supplement our trail time. Even if the blooms aren’t cooperating on the woodland and the prairie, we can always have blooms on the screen, right? But, cheerful looking and necessary as those images may be, no PowerPoint image substitutes for the real thing. I can’t duplicate the smell of damp earth and leaves as we brush them aside to appreciate the new growth of Dutchman’s breeches in bud…

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…or the delight we feel when we see the green of hepatica leaves that survived the winter.

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The delights of a hike include finding the tiniest hepatica blossoms I’ve ever seen…

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…or  the serendipity of discovering pollinators flying their spring reconnaissance missions. Bloodroot makes the perfect landing pad.

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There’s joy watching the play of light and shadow on bloodroot blooms…

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…and stopping to admire the various stages of a trout lily’s emergence, backlit by the afternoon sun.

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This week, we watch—with our fingers crossed—as the temperature climbs. 35 degrees. 40 degrees. 50 degrees plus.  You can see the hope on people’s faces. Anticipation is building. Do you feel it?  This is going to be a big week in the wildflower world. When the blooming starts, it will be like rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.

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Will you be there to see them bloom? Make your plans now. Block your lunch hour. Set your alarm to get up early. Plan an outing in the evening after dinner. But don’t put it off. Once these spring ephemerals begin blooming, nothing will stop them. They are only here for a moment…and this year, their moment may be especially fleeting.

Get ready. Spring is here. For real, this time.

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And it’s a beauty.

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The opening quote is from Fisherman’s Luck and Other Uncertain Things by clergyman and writer Henry Van Dyke. (1852-1933). His books included The Other Wise Man, and his most famous sermon focused on hearing God’s voice through nature. A poet himself, he also wrote literary criticism, including a volume on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry. He was Professor of English Literature at Princeton University (1900), and served as ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson. He and his wife had nine children.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie eleven days after the prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium or Cacalia atriplicifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown pollinators, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trout lily (Erythronium albidum) emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches in bud (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wonderful, Wicked Wildflowers

“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” — Shakespeare.
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Woodland and prairie wildflowers are praised in poetry and prose; celebrated in song, and immortalized in art. Those colors! That fragrance! Innocent. Fragile. Such beautiful blooms.

And yet. These lovely blooms have a darker side.

Take a walk through a spring woodland. In the Victorian language of flowers in which blooms symbolized certain sentiments from the giver, anemones were often associated with bad luck, illness and death.

Anemones are also known as “windflowers;”  from the Greek wind God’s name, “Anemos.”  You can see why.

Or look at this colony of trilliums below, edging the prairie.  What name would you suggest? Something pretty, right?

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Nope. They are known in the vernacular as “the bloody nose flower” or “the bloody butcher.” Memorable? Yes. But most of us would rather settle for “red” or “prairie” trillium.

Even this elegant woodland trillium…

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…bears the common name, “drooping trillium.”  Not quite as bad as a bloody nose flower, but not a peppy moniker for something so stunning, either.

On the prairie in early spring, the “common valerian” looks like a sweet little flower. But give it a sniff…

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…and you’re reminded of the smell of dirty socks after a work-out at the gym. Not a repeater.

When wood betony blankets the early spring prairie, you immediately think of snapdragons, yellow fireworks, or even carnival rides that swirl and turn.

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Its other common name is— “lousewort.” This, in the once-mistaken belief it repelled lice on livestock. Could have used some help from marketing, don’t you think?

“Lousewort” might not be the worst name on the prairie, however. When I began volunteering in the tallgrass, this flower was one of the first ones I learned.

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Bastard toadflax. Not a lot to love in that name. But a favorite plant of any school group I take out on a walk in the tallgrass, and one they are sure to remember.

Not far from the bastard toadflax is the ethereal wild hyacinth. Its name is nice, but it is associated with an unfortunate Greek legend that goes somewhat like this: When two gods fought for the love of a Greek boy named “Hyakinthos,” one of the gods murdered the boy in a jealous rage. Where Hyakinthos’ blood was spilled, a flower grew. The “hyacinth.”

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A crime scene? Not what you’d think of when you see something this exquisite, is it?

The delicate trout lily below–also exquisite–is valued for its medicinal qualities, including as a possible cancer-fighter. Too bad its unfortunate side effect is inducing vomiting. Lots of it.

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Who would have thought something so sweet looking could be so nauseating?

And blue cohosh seeds, once used as a coffee substitute, were found to be toxic when not roasted correctly. That’s a bad cup of coffee. Stick to Starbucks.

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These are only a few of the wicked wildflowers and their traits. So many beautiful blooms, both on the prairies and  in the woodlands!

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But don’t be fooled. They’re not just pretty faces.

Which makes them just that much more interesting, doesn’t it?

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright, and widely believed to be one of the greatest writers in the English language. The opening quote in this blog comes from Act 4- Scene 1, of Shakespeare’s play “MacBeth.” The phrase has been widely used in a number of other literary works, including as the title of a murder mystery by Agatha Christy (1890-1976) and a book by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).

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The information above about wildflowers was sourced from a variety of books and online sites. A few of my favorite resources include “The Secrets of Wildflowers” by Jack Sanders; “Native American Ethnobotany” by Daniel E. Moerman;  “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie” by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa; and “Wildflowers of Illinois Woodlands” by Sylvan Runkel. Great books! Go give them a look.
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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides or Anemonella thalictroides (older name) ), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) white trout lily, (Erythronium albidum) East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.