Tag Archives: ephemeral

Skipping Spring; Planting Prairie

“Nor does frost behave as one expects.” — Eleanor Perényi

******

Spring? We seemed to have missed it this year. Rather, it appears we are jumping from winter to summer in a week. Migrating birds are moving through, including this jelly-loving scarlet tanager. A first for our backyard!

Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With temperatures steady and warm—even hot—in the next few days, there is the annual gardener’s dilemma. To plant the tomatoes? Or not? It’s tempting. Meanwhile, they harden off on my covered front porch. I’m particularly excited about a new tomato called “Three Sisters,” which promises three types of tomatoes on one plant. Sort of a gee-whiz kind of thing, but that’s part of the fun of gardening.

Mixed vegetables, herbs, and bedding plants, ready for the garden.

Woodland wildflowers waited until the last possible moment to bloom this season, then threw themselves into the process. “Ephemeral” is right. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I go look. And soak up everything I can see to file away in my memory. Later, after they’ve disappeared, I’ll recall each one with joy.

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I especially admire the native Virginia bluebells, now bursting into bloom in the woodlands. What a week for this wildflower! They vary in hue from a bluebird blue…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

… to bi-colored…

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…to pink.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Supposedly, this color variation is common with members of the borage family (of which bluebells are members). I imagine there is some normal color variation too, just as there are with other wildflower species. Depending on what you read, the color changes have to do with the acidity of the soil or whether or not the flowers have been pollinated. Hmmm. I’m not sure what to believe. All of these plants shown above were in the same general spot.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) with a pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

I can’t see Virginia bluebells without the lines of writer Anne Brontë ‘s charming poem The Bluebell running through my head (written in the early 1800s). She was likely writing about the English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but I’ve appropriated her poem for our American species, Mertensia virginica.

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

******

On our Mother’s Day weekend journey to the Indianapolis area, we made a quick detour to Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana. Imagine—8.400 acres of prairie, wetlands, and savannas. Those big skies! The bison there are always a magnet for our attention.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And we almost—literally—ran into another member of the prairie community as we bison-watched.

Bull snake (Pituophis catenifer), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Why did the snake cross the road? Likely to find some toads for dinner. I followed this one into the tallgrass until it disappeared into a watery ditch. I wasn’t brave enough to go any further.

Overhead, a flock of birds—perhaps a murmuration of starlings?—formed and reformed in the sky. But I’m not sure they were starlings. Aren’t those white wings in the center? Cornell says there is often a falcon near the edge of a murmuration.

Flock of unknown birds, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I wasn’t able to ID these birds in the photo above, but the next ones (below) were unmistakeable. Turkey vultures! They checked us out, then decided we were too lively to be of much interest.

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

We left Kankakee Sands and continued driving home on backroads home to Chicago, with a brief get-out-and-stretch at the Biesecker Prairie in St. John, IN.

Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Someday, I’d love to spend time at this 34-acre remnant with someone who knows and loves it. We only had time for quick look around. Traffic cruised by, but the preserve was mostly empty, except for a red-winged blackbird that kept us company.

Red-wing blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

Amazing to think these wonderful prairies are less than two hours away from Chicago’s western suburbs. I’m grateful.

******

Mother’s Day. One of my garden goals is to have prairie represented in the front yard. It’s embarrassing to have our “Conservation at Home” sign among the hostas and daffodils. With that in mind, my Mother’s Day gift this year was a new prairie plant plot for pollinators. (Thank you, Jeff!)

Crosby’s front yard prairie pollinator plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re starting small, with less than two dozen prairie plugs: three golden alexanders (now in bloom), three pale purple coneflower plugs…

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…one pint-sized pot of flowering spurge—barely up. Three blazing star, three Ohio goldenrod, three sky blue aster, and three showy goldenrod. I hope to add some butterfly milkweed from a native plant sale this week, and perhaps move some of my Culver’s root from the backyard to the front. Neighbors are already asking about it. Hopefully, this little patch will spark more conversations about native plants with dog walkers, parents with strollers, and our community.

Crosby’s front yard prairie plot, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love new beginnings, no matter how small. We put our prairie pollinator garden where we can expand it a little bit each year. And now our “Conservation at Home” sign looks more “at home.” A little less turf grass. A better use of the space we’re responsible for. Of course, native prairie plantings in our suburban yard will never have the grandeur of wide open skies, such as we saw at Kankakee Sands, or the wildlife that these large-scale landscapes can provide for. But I think of Ray Schulenberg, an expert in prairie restoration who reconstructed the fourth oldest institutional prairie planting at The Morton Arboretum, 60 years ago.

Ray Schulenberg, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Photo circa 1970s, courtesy of The Morton Arboretum archives.

In an interview before his death in 2003, Ray talked about the despair he felt over world events. He didn’t think anything would halt the destruction of our planet. But, he said, “I don’t let that stop me from doing what I can.”

Confederate violet (Viola sororia priceana), Glen Ellyn, IL.

That’s stuck with me in a week filled with news about war, Covid stats rising, inflation, and other woes. For now, I’m going to try to emulate Ray’s motto.

To do what I can.

*****

The opening quote is from Eleanor Perényi (1918-2009) from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She gardened on an estate in the present day Vynohradiv, Ukraine —formerly, Nagyszőlős, Hungary—and later, in her new home in Connecticut. Green Thoughts is an arrangement of short essays from “Annuals” to “Weeds,” and her wildly-ranging views as an amateur gardener. Many of her ideas on plants are not for us Midwestern gardeners (she mentions buckthorn as good for hedges, which will strike horror into the heart of any prairie steward), but I enjoy her take on everything from annuals to chicory to gardening failures. Perényi worked as managing editor at Mademoiselle and editor at Harper’s Bazaar, plus as a contributor to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Later in her life, she lived and gardened on the Connecticut coast. She is also the author of a biography of Franz Liszt (nominated for a National Book Award) and More Was Lost, a memoir of her marriage to a Hungarian baron. Green Thoughts is a charming classic, although I’m more a fan of her prose than her gardening advice.

*****

Thank you, Dulcey Lima, for passing on the article about Ray.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. More information coming soon.

June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

*****

Time is running out for one of Illinois’ last prairie remnants. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org

Prairie by the Numbers

“It was, at last, the time of the flowers.” — Paul Gruchow

****

Oh, what a difference a little rain makes!

raincominginGE5418.jpg

Spring has arrived in the Chicago region—at last, at last! The savannas and prairies are awash in color and motion. Warblers and butterflies everywhere you look…

redadmiralGE5618wm

…garter snakes sashaying out in the bright light to sun themselves…

gartersnakeapril2018SPMAwm.jpg

…and of course the wildflowers, in all their amazing complexity.

dutchmansbreeches5518wmSPMAsav.jpg

My Tuesday morning prairie team is busy updating our plant inventory, a daunting task that has run into its second season. This spring, we are looking for a hundred or so plants out of the 500 from the inventory that we couldn’t find in 2017. The last complete prairie inventory was wrapped up in 2005, so we need a check-in on what’s still here, and what has disappeared or moved into the prairie. Knowing the plants we have will help us make better decisions on how to care for the site.

This is a high-quality planted 100-acre prairie, wetland, and savanna, which is almost in its sixth decade. Some call it the fourth oldest planted prairie in North America! So we feel the heavy weight of responsibility to get our numbers right.

P1190167

Its a prairie with some beautiful blooms—and some quirky ones as well. This week, our “oohs” and “ahhs” are for common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), a high-quality—and despite its name—uncommon prairie plant. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it the highest possible plant score — a perfect “C” value of “10.”

valerianSPMA5618wm.jpeg

We’ve been hot on the trail of three more common but elusive plants that we’d missed in the spring of 2017: skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, and rue anemone.  Some adventurous members of the team discovered the skunk cabbage in April, poking through the muck in a deep gully. Now, two weeks later, it is much easier to see.

skunkcabbageSPMAsavWM5318

The marsh marigold listed on our 2005 inventory, a beautiful spring native wildflower…

marshmarigolds5618wmGE.jpg

…turned out to be a single plant, hiding among some fig buttercup (Ficaria verna) a pernicious, non-native invasive wetland species. We’ll remove the fig buttercup so it doesn’t spread across the waterway.

The missing rue anemone went from invisible to visible last week after storms moved through the area and greened up the savanna. Such a delicate wildflower!  Easy to miss unless you find a large colony.

rueanemoneSPMAsavwm5318

Looking for specific plants as we’re doing now results in some serendipity. Our plant inventory team found harbinger of spring for the first time in our site’s history while looking for the marsh marigold. A new species for our site —and so tiny! Who knows how long we’ve overlooked it here.

harbingerofspringWMSPSav5118.jpg

In addition to the inventory, most of us are weeding garlic mustard, a persistent invasive plant that infests disturbed areas around the prairie. One of the perks of weeding is we make other discoveries, such as wild ginger blooms. You might flip hundreds of wild ginger plant leaves over before you find the first flower. Pretty good occupation for a warm and windy afternoon, isn’t it?

wildgingerMASPsavWM4418.jpg

The rains also prompted large-flowered trillium to open. These won’t last long.

sideviewwhitetrilliumlargefloweredwmSPMAsav5418.jpg

Look closely below behind the trillium and you’ll see the white trout lily gone to seed. All around, blooms are throwing themselves into bud, bloom, and seed production. Sometimes, seemingly overnight.

SPMAprairietrillium5518wm.jpg

Updating a plant inventory plus a little judicious garlic mustard weeding will teach you how little you know about what is happening in your little corner of the plant world. I see plants that look familiar, but their name eludes me. It takes numerous trips through my favorite plant ID guides to get reacquainted. I also look in vain for old favorites which seem to have disappeared. (Where, oh where, is our birdfoot violet?)

Spring keeps you on your toes. It reminds you to be amazed. It constantly astonishes you with its sleight of hand; prolifically giving new species and flagrantly taking them away. And as always, there are a few surprises.

P1190088

Ah. The “elusive, rare” red tulip! Where did that come from? Huh.

Just when you think you know a flower, it turns up a a little different color, or gives you a new perspective on its life cycle. To see the wood betony at this stage always throws those new to the prairie for a loop. Almost ferny, isn’t it?

woodbetonySPMAwm5418.jpg

Barely a hint now of what it will be when it grows up. Same for the prairie dock, tiny fuzzy leaves lifting above the ashes of the burn.

prairiedockSPMA5418wm.jpg

Or the hepatica, most of its petal-like sepals gone, but the green bracts now visible. Looks like a different plant than when it was in full bloom.

hepaticaSPsav5418.jpg

Pasque flower is now past bloom. As stewards, we turn our thoughts toward the first seed collection of the season and propagation for the next year. If a species is gone, or seems to be dwindling, we’ll consider replanting to maintain the diversity of the prairie.

pasqueflowerspostbloomSPMA5318wm copy.jpg

We tally up the numbers, check off plant species. Update scientific names which have changed. But no matter how the spreadsheets read, we know one thing for certain.

What a glorious time of year it is! Spring on the prairie is worth the wait.

*****

The opening quote is from Journal of a Prairie Year by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Worth re-reading every spring.

***

Unless noted, all photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): thunderhead moving in over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the prairie; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria); gravel two-track greening up in the rain; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus); marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides); harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); large-flowered white trillium (Trillium grandiflora); prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum); red tulip (Tulipa unknown species); wood betony (Pendicularis canadensus); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) emerging; hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba); pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) fading.