Tag Archives: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie

August on the Prairie

“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher

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August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.

All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.

On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.

My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…

…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.

…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.

I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.

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At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.

A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.

In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.

It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.

Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.

And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.

Nearby, a chickweed geometer moth shows off his colors. I learn later that the antennae are “bipectinate” —feathery, or “toothed like a comb.” These bipectinate antennae are a male feature that has to do with detecting pheremones; the female’s antennae are more “threadlike.”

A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.

I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.

Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.

In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.

All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.

Great blue lobelia.

As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.

August is drawing to a close.

Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.

The prairie is waiting.

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Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsium discolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online”
Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! 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. Classes are limited to 50. Register 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. Watch for registration information coming soon.

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

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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. 

A Year of Reading Prairie

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” –Jane Austen

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December is here, and my bookshelves are overflowing. Some books are stacked on the floor; other shelves have two rows of books instead of one. And yet…. my Christmas list includes more books. Where will I ever put them all?

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I’ve tried to pare down some of my inventory. But when I get to my prairie books, the winnowing stops. I thumb through old favorites. Sigh over a few that I’ve skimmed and want to spend more time with. I run my fingers over their book jackets and add them to the piles of books already on (and under) the nightstand.

By reading these field guides and coffee table books and essays on the tallgrass,  I’m building my relationship with the prairie. That feels good, especially on a day this week when 60 mph winds roared across the tallgrass and kept me indoors.

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When I was an independent bookseller, I believed for every question, there was a book that might help me wrestle with the question—even if the answers were still fuzzy.  As a prairie steward and naturalist, I love the wide range of literature that helps me explore the natural world. You too?

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As 2019 draws to a close, it’s time to take an annual romp through my prairie bookshelves together. The books below are not a comprehensive reading list by any means. Some of the prairie books I own are out on loan and don’t appear here; some of them are temporarily out of sight (likely in that pile by the coffee table) or being used as coasters (!!!). I didn’t have room to include books on gardening with native plants, like the passionate A New Garden Ethic by Benjamin Vogt or Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home…. or even the biographies of prairie heroes, such as Arthur Melville Pearson’s excellent book on George Fell, Force of Nature. These books that follow also have more to do with prairie plants than other members of the prairie community (so no field guides given here on butterflies, mammals, dragonflies–another bookshelf full of great reads to discuss on a different day).

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All are ones that as a prairie enthusiast, prairie lover, and prairie steward I spend a lot of time browsing, recommending, or giving as gifts. They focus specifically on prairie history, prairie restoration, and prairie plants. Ready? Let’s go!

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Is that a prairie plant—or a weed? I get this question a lot. And the answer isn’t always as simple as you’d think. When I first hiked the tallgrass prairie in 1998, I didn’t know foxtail grass from Canada wild rye. I’m still learning my plants. As I wrangle with questions about tallgrass prairie plant ID’s, I look to great field guides like the Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers Falcon Guide (Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle) (available new and used in several editions). My copy, which replaced a falling apart earlier edition, is dogeared fromuse in the field. Ditto for my well-thumbed Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb. An updated edition is available now, although I’d find it difficult to trade my old annotated one in. I appreciate Newcomb’s for general wildflower ID, in the prairie, woodlands, and wetlands.

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I’m a big fan of Andrew Hipp’s Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges. His easy-to-use guide, with the smart drawings by the talented Rachel Davis, give me hope that maybe this season I’ll learn a few more members of my prairie, wetland, and savanna community. Sedges are hard.

The book behind Andrew’s is Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa. My first edition is long out of print, but the awesome  folks at University of Iowa Press published a second edition with better photographs; check it out here.  Short ethnobotanical stories for each prairie plant make this book a winner, with a bit of explanation on plant scientific names.

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If you’re really serious about learning your grasses and wildflowers—and you live in the Chicago Region—you’ve probably already purchased Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region.

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With 3,200 plant species in the 22-counties it covers described along with each plant’s neighboring plant associations, insect associations, and “C” value (plus some awesome illustrations), this unique book belongs on every prairie steward’s bookshelf.  At $125, the holidays are a good time to put it on your wish list. My copy weighs 10 lbs, so I get a good workout just carrying it around.  After a morning taking notes in the field, I sit down at the kitchen table and browse through its pages.  The essays and other auxiliary matter are absorbing reads for anyone who loves prairie.

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Sure, you can use the excellent, free iNaturalist app on your cell phone for basic prairie plant ID. I use it too! But  there is no substitute for a good field guide.

In preparation for the spring season, I’m working on prairie seedling ID. Like sedges, those new shoots and leaves are a challenge to figure out.  Sure, some seedlings are distinctive from the start, like prairie alum root or wood betony. But the grasses? Tough.

Two books have been particularly useful to me this year: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Seed and Seedling Identification in the Upper Midwest by Dave Williams (another great Bur Oak book) and the Prairie Seedling and Seeding Evaluation Guide (Paul Bockenstedt, et al.) I picked up the spiral edition of Prairie Seedling on a visit to University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum Bookstore on a whim, and was glad I did.

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The Tallgrass Prairie Center’s guide has color photographs that highlight the critical points of identification, as well as seed sizes and characteristics. Take a look.

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The Prairie Seedling guide’s spiral format makes it easy to use in the field, and its nod to look-alike plants are a useful tool. Although not comprehensive, it has a solid 54 prairie plants and 26 weed species.

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If you love the tallgrass prairie—but are more interested in its stories than figuring out the plant names—-the best place to begin is with John T. Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. Price presents essays on the prairie chronologically from the 19th to 21st Century. To read the almost 400 pages from start to finish is to begin to understand how people have viewed prairie over time—and how our ideas about prairie have changed. (Full disclosure: I’m delighted to have an essay in this compilation.)

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Another of John Price’s books, Not Just Any Land, explores our relationship to prairies through personal experiences. Paul Gruchow also loved the tallgrass prairie and wrote volumes about it; his Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (Milkweed) includes the iconic essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us” that I’ve read aloud and shared with numerous nature writing classes, my prairie volunteers, and my tallgrass ecology students.

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Another of Gruchow’s marvelous books, Journal of a Prairie Year is a series of reflections and hikes on the prairie, month by month. I re-read it every year.  Other books that explore our relationship with prairie include William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, specifically focusing on Chase County, Kansas; Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, with Paul Johnsgard’s passion for prairie birds front and center; Buffalo for the Broken Heart which tells of Dan O’Brien’s work with bison and prairie in the Black Hills; and two books of spiritual essays, Jeffrey Lockwood’s Prairie Soul, which includes an exploration of religion and science, and my own By Willoway Brook, which I wrote on prayer as I was beginning to explore the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum.

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Tom Dean and I released a reflective book of full-color photographs and essays this spring that explores the connections between people and prairie: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.  Short “conversations” are paired with images of prairie as we explore how the prairie has much to tell us about wonder, loss, home, joy, change, restoration, healing, and more.

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Tom and I are both big Paul Gruchow fans, so you’ll see Gruchow’s influence in the book.  There’s a little poetry in the pages as well.

 

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Images have a lot of power to engage people with the tallgrass prairie. In the books below, the photographs and drawings make a compelling combination. John Madson and Frank Oberle team up for the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie; Aimee Larrabee and John Altman put their talents to work in the gorgeous coffee table book accompanying their PBS documentary,  Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie; the incredibly talented artist Liz Anna Kozik puts a new twist on prairie restoration in her Stories in the Land; and Michigan’s prairies get a shout-out in the lovely Prairies and Savannas in Michigan by Ryan O’Connor, Michael Kost, and Joshua Cohen.

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Prairie aficionado? Plant nerd? Either way, these three books below on prairie ethnobotany — how people have used plants over time—will absorb you for hours on end. Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman is a compilation of the human uses of 4,000 plants, including many of the prairie, by specific tribes. Fascinating reading! Kelly Kindscher’s dynamic duo Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie and Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie are geared toward the prairie plants of Kansas, but I find plenty of useful information  when I teach prairie ethnobotany in Illinois. Plus, all three books give you a glimpse of a different time, when we were tightly connected to prairie as our grocery store, pharmacy, hardware store, craft supply, and love charm shop.

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What if you’re just beginning your journey to know and understand the prairie? These three books are a good place to start.  The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction assumes no prior knowledge of the prairie and invites the reader to explore, engage with, and build a relationship to this amazing landscape of home. I wrote it for my new prairie volunteers, prairie visitors, and friends and family members that were intrigued by the prairie, but didn’t want a long or complex read. Like longer books? Richard Manning’s engrossing Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie is a satisfyingly deep dive into the subject, as is the poetic and beautifully written Where the Sky Began by the late John Madson.

For the prairie steward, restoration landowner, or prairie volunteer in your life who is serious about restoration and management techniques, check out these three books: The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) is one of my go-to guides when I’m trying to figure out what to plant, herbicide, burn, or collect next. The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States is a terrific guide from the generous and inimitable blogger (The Prairie Ecologist) and Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, Chris Helzer.  I learn a lot from Chris! Stephen Packard’s and Cornelia Mutel’s edited volume of essays, The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook is a classic, and one of the first books I purchased on prairie almost 20 years ago (there’s a newer edition available now) .

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There are beautiful prairie books for young readers.

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I confess I enjoy reading them myself. I love Carol Lerner’s out-of-print Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie, which has solid information for elementary aged kids and up. Look at the page on deep roots, as one example.

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Claudia McGehee’s A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet, (a beautiful Bur Oak book shown next to Carol’s book on the left),  is not just for kids. Check out this entry for the letter “X.” Wow.

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Any children’s book that has a sphinx moth and eastern prairie fringed orchid on the same page has my heart. ♥

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These are just a few of the books I turn to in order to deepen my relationship with native plants and the tallgrass prairie. These books have been mentors, friends, and companions in the field. They are a way to connect with prairie when the cold winds and weather keep me inside with a hot beverage and a warm afghan. They remind me that others are musing over the same questions I have about prairie ID and prairie stewardship; they help me feel companionship as I hike the prairies and reflect on how others have experienced them over time.

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This list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, it is presented here for your enjoyment and discovery. Maybe some will end up on your bookshelves!

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What prairie books do you reach for? Drop me a note here so we can share book recommendations.

Wahoo!   Books are so much fun…

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…especially on a cold December day. Don’t you think?

Happy reading!

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The opening quote is from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Although her most famous line is likely “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” I prefer her quote about books. Read more about Jane Austen here.

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All non-book photos copyright Cindy Crosby and listed here (some photos appeared previously): unknown seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Carolina saddlebags in May (Tramea carolina), Ware Field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Will County, IL; wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Please join me for these upcoming classes and talks!

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! $5 per person, registration recommended, details here.

Saturday, February 22 —Writing and Art Nature Retreat — at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Details and registration information here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next online course in March. Register here.

Nature Writing Workshop: on-line and in-person begins March 3, 2020. Register here.

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com