Tag Archives: ethnobotany

Aldo Leopold’s Compass

One of the first prairie plants I learned the name of and remembered was the compass plant. It towered over my head in August– unmistakable! Identifying it gave me the confidence to learn the names of other prairie inhabitants.IMG_8321

The compass plant’s name refers to the leaves, which point loosely north and south. It’s an adaptation  to help the leaves retain moisture during Illinois droughts. Smart plant.

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The tall, old woody stems are a favorite dickcissel perch.

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I wouldn’t want to rely on compass plant leaves as a true compass if  I needed to get somewhere. But I’m taken with the notion that this plant knows something about finding your way home when you’re lost.

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In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes about finding a compass plant, Silphium laciniatum,  tucked into an unmowed patch of tallgrass in an old cemetery.

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He wrote: Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.

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It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county.

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Leopold continued: What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

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Isn’t it ironic that a compass plant, named for its ability to show the way forward,  symbolizes something we’ve lost?

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Whenever I see the compass plants, towering over my head in August on the prairie, I’m grateful. Grateful for Aldo Leopold who gave us motivation and direction to move forward with restoration. Grateful we have some of these plants —that once tickled the buffalo bellies— left to admire.

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I’m reminded that the compass plant points the way forward: To a future filled with the hope of restoring a wounded and broken world.

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No matter how hopeless that effort sometimes seems.

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Every small step forward, each action we take toward healing what is broken, makes a difference.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (Top to bottom: Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant leaves, SP; dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;compass plant leaf, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant bloom, SP; compass plant leaf, SP; bison, NG; compass plant leaves, SP; compass plant buds and bloom, compass plant leaf close up, SP; prairie trail with compass plant, SP.)

Quoted text is from Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac (1949).

A Little Prairie Soul Medicine

Ahhhhhh—chooo! 

Echinacea – the name almost sounds like a sneeze, doesn’t it?

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So perhaps it’s not surprising that the pale purple coneflower of the Illinois prairie, Echinacea pallida, is one of the three coneflowers used for medicine. Specifically,  for fighting colds.

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Two other species used medicinally are purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and narrow-leaved purple coneflower or “black Samson” (Echinacea angustifolia). I have the purple coneflower, purpurea, in my backyard garden. Pretty! The goldfinches love the seeds.

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Native Americans smeared the juice of coneflowers on their hands, then plunged their hands painlessly into boiling water or were able to handle hot items without flinching. When chewed, the coneflower root helped numb toothache pain. Coneflowers were also made into concoctions used as a remedy for sore throats and as an antidote for snakebite.

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The scientific name for pale purple coneflower comes from the Greek, echinos, meaning “sea urchin” or “hedgehog.” Take a look at the center dome. Yup. Appropriate, isn’t it?

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The Mayo Clinic notes that Echinacea sales make up to 10 percent of the dietary supplement market, but offers cautions as to results. There might be better cold remedies than this prairie icon.

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Maybe the best use of the pale purple coneflowers is as eye candy on days when the world seems like it is lacking in beauty.

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Or perhaps, the coneflower’s best use is as medicine for the soul.

Feel your spirits lift just looking at them? Me too.

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Against a backdrop of white wild indigo and bright blue spiderwort, could anything else be prettier? And yet… we could lose them all unless we continue to care for our prairies.

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As the poet Ranier Maria Rilke wrote,

…simply to be here is so much

and because what is here seems to need us,

this vanishing world that concerns us strangely —

us, the most vanishing of all.

***

All photos of pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; except garden photo of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) with bee balm (Monarda didyma, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and gold flame honeysuckle (Lonicera x hecrottii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; bottom landscape photo of Schulenberg Prairie includes pale purple coneflowers, blue spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis, and  wild white indigo, Baptisia alba.

Rilke quote is from 9th Duino Elegy. Mayo Clinic information is found online: http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/echinacea/background/HRB-20059246.  Info on medicinal uses and scientific meaning of the coneflowers is from Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa and Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman.

The Buzz About Shooting Stars

Seeing shooting stars in the suburban Chicago area’s light-polluted night sky is challenging at best. But on the prairie in May, there’s a universe of shooting stars available 24/7, for anyone who takes time to look.

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The May prairie is a panoramic, ever-changing Persian carpet of leaf shapes, textures, blooms, and insects. To really pay attention to it, drop to your knees. Quiet your mind. Most blooms and grasses are still low, from a few inches to about a  foot tall. Some of the blooms are hidden under the growing grasses, so you have to pay attention to really see what you’re looking at.

The first thing I find hidden in the grasses is bastard toadflax, whose tiny white flowering stars are in their full glory right now. The seeds were once enjoyed as tasty trail snacks.

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Lift your eyes a bit, and little mounds of cream indigo plant with its silvery leaves come into focus, dotted around the prairie. This was a favorite plant of Native Americans, who used the seedpods for baby-pleasing rattles and the mashed up root rubbed into tiny tummies for colic. Early settlers didn’t like it so much. Livestock often died if they ate too much of its toxic foliage.

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Eye- popping orange hoary puccoon is also in bloom, as are wild geraniums and the last swirls of wood betony.

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But the real show-stoppers are the shooting stars.

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Pink. Shading from white-pinks to lavender-pinks. Plus the rosette of leaves, from a birds-eye view, have pleasing streaks of maroon.

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In order for shooting stars to reproduce, they must be buzz pollinated. Tomatoes, nightshade, blueberries, potatoes and cranberries require this process for efficient pollination as well. Bumblebees are the main heroes of this performance for which there is no nectar reward. The pollen, deep in the shooting stars’ anthers, is shaken loose when the bumblebee grasps the flower and rapidly moves its thoracic wing muscles. This sets up the vibration.

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As the flower vibrates, the pollen is shaken loose. Writer Peter Bernhardt says watching the pollen grains fall from the anthers looks a lot like salt grains falling from a salt shaker. You may also hear this process called sonication.

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When you see the big bumblebees, buzzing across the prairie in the mornings,  send them a message of gratitude. Without them, our prairies would be missing one of their most welcome May wildflowers.

Thanks.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. From top to bottom: Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellate), NG; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) The Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) NG; shooting stars, SP; shooting star foilage, NG; shooting stars, NG; shooting stars, NG.)

For more information about sonication or buzz pollination and shooting stars, check out The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt.

More than Bison

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The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring

In the days of long ago,

Ranged where the locomotives sing

And the prairie flowers lie low…

–Vachel Lindsay

I went for a hike a few days ago at Nachusa Grasslands, 90 miles west of Chicago, where I volunteer as a dragonfly monitor. Nachusa has been in the news in Illinois quite a bit over the past several months.

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The spotlight on this amazing 3,200-acres-plus mosaic of prairie, wetlands and woodlands revolves around Nachusa’s successful bison introduction last fall.

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The first baby bison birth announcements have hit the front pages of the newspapers. There’s a lot of excitement over these charismatic megafauna and their cute offspring, and deservedly so. But, it’s easy to forget some of the more humble inhabitants — more than 700 species — who live at this beautiful place.

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One of these inhabitants – and one of the first prairie wildflowers to bloom at Nachusa — is one of the most fleeting and difficult to see.

The pasque flower.

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Also known as the Easter flower, wild crocus, prairie crocus, or windflower, pasque flowers (Anemone patens) bloom for a week or two in early spring. The pale lavender blooms are almost invisible against last year’s prairie grasses. Then, before you can blink, they’re gone.

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We’re at the southeasterly boundary of the hairy pasque flower’s range in upper Illinois. Looks furry, doesn’t it? Native Americans said the Great Spirit gave the pasque flowers those hairs to serve as a warm furry robe, in gratitude for helping a young man.

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In “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest” authors Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa tell us the pasque flower is highly toxic; none-the-less used by Native Americans and early settlers medicinally. Various concoctions were used to treat “nervous exhaustion.”

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Runkle and Roosa also tell us when the Dakota Indians spotted the first pasque flower, they sang a special song.  Singing was believed to encourage the rest of the prairie to bloom.

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Paying attention, noticing the wildflowers, composing songs in honor of their blooms and the blooms to come…

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After a long cold winter, perhaps this pasque flower tradition — singing the prairie to life — is  the best medicine of all.

Thanks to Thomas Dean for introducing me to the poem, The Flower-Fed Buffaloes by Vachel Lindsay, excerpted above. The complete poem is available online at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/242582. The Native American story of the hairs of the pasque flower is found at http://galileo.org/kainai/pasque-flower/.

All photos above by Cindy Crosby, taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: Nachusa headquarters; two photos of bison; Prairie Pot Holes Unit;  and six different photos of pasque flowers in various stages of bloom and post-bloom.