Tag Archives: gardening

September’s Prairie and Garden

“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen; of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were; with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair…”—J.R.R. Tolkien

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It’s the first week of meteorological fall, although most of us won’t feel like it’s autumn until the autumnal equinox on Thursday, September 22. Summer, where did you go?

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You can see the beginnings of seasonal change in the garden, where there is a turn from harvest to decay. The tomatoes have slowed down production. The tomato foliage is yellow and browning, especially on the species that aren’t as disease resistant. Despite my efforts to experiment with mesh bagging the best ripening fruit on the vines, the squirrels have triumphed.

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yup. Bites right through the bags. Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking about cutting my losses and asking Jeff to pull out most of the tomato plants for me this week. Perhaps use the tomato real estate for some quick growing lettuce or kale as the season winds down. We’ll see. Nearby, in the long prairie border, a flush of goldenrods brightens the garden. Solidago speciosa, Solidago ohioenses, and that old invader, Solidago canadensis.

Prairie planting, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The gold flowers are a magnet for insects like this Hover Fly.

Thick-legged Hover Fly (Syritta pipiens) on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (ID corrected)

At least…I think that’s what it is! In Heather Holm’s remarkable book, Pollinators of Native Plants, it shows some of the incredible variety of insects that visit goldenrod and other prairie plants. Holm notes that square-headed wasps, which I first confused this insect with, perch on plants to scout for flies, which make up their primary meals. There are more than 1,500 square-headed wasp species! Wow. And I’m continually amazed at how many other types of wasps there are to learn. And, evidently—hover flies!

Unknown wasp on asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

It’s tough to change your relationship with a group of insects like wasps from one of avoidance to appreciating them for their diversity and their work as pollinators. Knowledge and curiosity pave the road to understanding and enjoyment. But sometimes it’s a long road.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

It’s going to take a little time—and more reading—to not automatically flinch when a wasp hangs out with me on the back patio.

Beggarticks (Bidens sp.) with a little unknown wasp, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL

A brief shower this weekend gave us a respite from watering the garden and prairie plantings. I took a stroll around the backyard in the splattering rain and marveled at what the doctor-mandated “no weeding” looks like after two weeks. Morning glories twine everywhere, the remnants of a planting a decade ago.

Morning Glory (Ipomoea sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Sweet Autumn Clematis I planted 20 years ago (and quickly realized was a mistake) rampages through the spicebush, old roses, and bird-sown asparagus.

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sure, the Sweet Autumn Clematis is pretty! And it smells lovely. But how I long to yank it all out!

Sweet Autumn Clematis (Clematis terniflora) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a menace. I’ve spent the last two decades pulling it from the garden and prairie plantings. Every fall, I think I’ve eradicated it. Every fall, when it blooms, I realize I’ve failed. Garden catalog copy mentioned it was “vigorous.” Seasoned gardeners know when you hear the word “vigorous” alarm bells should go off. If I could turn back time, I’d order Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), a native vine that might have played more nicely in the garden. It pairs beautifully with asters. It’s almost identical to the non-native Sweet Autumn Clematis, although the leaves are shaped a bit differently.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) and asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2010).

I love how Virgin’s Bower looks when it goes to seed on the edges of the prairie.

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL. (2018)

I make a mental note to order Virgin’s Bower in the spring. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Sweet Autumn Clematis show for another September.

In my prairie plantings, the rambunctious native Grey-headed Coneflower finished blooming, and has left me with delicious, lemony-fragrant seedheads. I love crushing them between my fingers and inhaling the scent. Mmmmm.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The grassy mounds of prairie dropseed planted under my living room windows spray the air with buttered popcorn fragrance. Such tiny seeds to make such an olfactory difference!

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

Swamp milkweed seeds refuse to parachute from the mother plant. Instead they damply cluster in the rain. I think of all the possibilities wrapped up in those seeds.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hope for the future.

There’s plenty to look back on in this first week of September. And so much to look forward to as a new month is underway.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.

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The opening quote was made by Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The old hobbit sang these verses to Frodo as he reflected on his years on Earth and readied Frodo for his quest to destroy the “one ring that ruled them all.” The three books in the series plus The Hobbit are well worth revisiting.

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Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn

Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register.

August in the Prairie and Garden

“Gardening is a long road, with many detours and way stations… .”–Henry Mitchell

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Listen? Can you hear it? It’s the sound of summer winding down. Crickets and cicadas. A school bus passing by. The chatter of children walking home from school. My first-year front yard prairie pollinator patch (try saying that three times fast) is full of bees and insects working the wildflowers.

Front yard prairie pollinator patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Common Mountain Mint is a popular hangout.

Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) on Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bees whiz over the last few Butterfly Milkweed flowers. And look—seedpods! Not bad for a first-year planting.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with an unknown bee, Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Blazing Star blushes color; it won’t be long before it bursts into bloom. Are those spider silks trailing along the buds? I’m not sure.

Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the backyard, the garden shifts into high gear. The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds are ready for it. They wreak havoc on the tomatoes, eggplant, and anything else that catches their fancy. I find big, impudent bites out of my best, almost-ripe “Delicious” and “Supersteaks.” What to do?

This week, I covered green tomatoes and some of the eggplant with drawstring mesh bags to deter any furry or feathered noshers.

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’ll see if it works. My yard is wildlife-friendly, and I like it that way. But this summer, it’s been a little too wildlife-friendly for the garden. Although the mesh bags make the garden look a little strange, hopefully this will slow hungry varmints down a little bit.

Meanwhile, I try to stay a day ahead of the critters by picking a little early. Sometimes, it works.

Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)—Delicious, Better Boy, Supersteak. (Glen Ellyn, IL)

Fortunately, the birds, bunnies, and squirrels don’t seem interested in okra. I would grow Burgundy Okra just for its flowers alone. I also love okra in soups and gumbo. And wait—is that a Yellow Jacket? Or a Paper Wasp? They are tough to tell apart.

Possibly an Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) on Burgundy Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This week, I’ve been reading Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. As I’ve read, I’ve put aside a few of my prejudices against these varied and diverse insects. I learned there are tens of thousands of named wasp species in the world! My apprehensions about wasps are slowly being replaced by curiosity. There is so much to discover.

Next to the okra, the arugula is in bloom. It’s so…stripy! Attractive enough that I haven’t pulled it yet. Soon, I’ll need its garden spot for lettuce or beets. But for now I’m enjoying the flowers.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Nearby, the green beans tower six feet high over my head. This June, after the bunnies sheared off the early green bean leaves, I fenced my raised bed. The beans slowly put out new leaves and took off. Now, at the end of August, I finally see the results. Green beans for dinner! At last.

Kentucky Blue Lake Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The backyard prairie patch is shorter this season, likely due to the lack of rain here. However, some of the toughest plants are flourishing. Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) with an unknown bee, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cup Plant thrives. (Although, when does Cup Plant not do well???)

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The goldfinches love drinking the rain that collected in Cup Plant’s leafy “cups” after this weekend’s brief shower. Nearby, Obedient Plant is so short it is barely noticeable. But still the bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies seem to find it.

Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) with some tiny pollinators, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Speaking of hummingbirds and butterflies, what’s that by the pond? Great Blue Lobelia is in bloom! One of our backyard’s prettiest August wildflowers.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Close to the Great Blue Lobelia I see our first Cardinal Flower of the season. What a beauty.

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

It’s a lovely surprise. With the recent lack of rainfall, I wasn’t sure we’d see Cardinal Flower at all this summer. It makes me wonder—what other surprises will the prairie and garden offer this week?

I can’t wait to find out.

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The opening quote is by Henry Mitchell (1923-1993) from Henry Mitchell on Gardening. His sense of humor reminds me to keep smiling, even when the bunnies nibble my new native prairie plantings and the squirrels make off with the tomatoes…again. Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post for almost 25 years.

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Join Cindy for a Program in September!

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.

August Prairie Rain

“…And the soft rain—imagine! imagine! the wild and wondrous journeys still to be ours.” —Mary Oliver

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It begins before dawn, with a tap-tap-tap on the windows. At last! Rain.

In my backyard, the plants perk up. From the Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes (everyone’s favorite this summer)…

Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes (Tomato Lycopersicon lycopersicum ‘Sun Sugar’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…to the mixed kale…

Mixed varieties of kale (Brassica oleracea spp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…to the prairie patch along the backyard fence…

Crosby’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…it’s as if the earth heaves a sigh of relief. The rain perks me up, too. When was the last time we had a rainy day? I can’t remember.

Water drops bead and splash from Queen of the Prairie, its flowers fading to seed.

Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The wild asparagus drips, drips, drips.

Wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I walk through the grass in the rain and admire the insects braving the wet. A cucumber beetle peers over the top of a spent Royal Catchfly bloom. No cucumbers here, buddy.

Striped Cucumber Beetle (Acalymma vittatum ) on Royal Catchfly (Silene regia), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Wild Quinine, Common Mountain Mint, and the last blooms of Butterfly Weed fall together in the best sort of bouquet.

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

Wait—what’s this? Many of my zinnia’s petals have been neatly stripped off, leaving only the centers. I don’t have to look far to find the culprit, just behind the bird feeders, eating Cup Plant seeds.

With two sock thistle feeders and plenty of feeders full of birdseed across the backyard, why eat my wildflower seeds? Ah, well.

Agastache—Hyssop—attracts a different kind of crowd.

Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia) with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I have a lot of Hyssop this year, gifted to me by generous friends. Last summer, I plopped it into an available space right by the patio without checking to see how tall it would get. Surprise! It towers over my head. Another surprise—sometimes Purple Giant Hyssop is sometimes…white! I won’t win any landscape design points for placing it where I did. And yet, I’m glad it’s where it is. Even in the rain, every little pollinator wants to stop and sip.

Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The pale pearl buds of blazing star will open any day.

Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

August and anticipation go hand in hand.

Jack Be Little Pumpkin (Curcubita pepo), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Summer is passing. Walking through the yard in the rain, I feel it. Goldenrod shows its metallics. Wildflowers go to seed. Autumn whispers: Not too long, now.

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

My camera lens fogs up again and again. It feels like 100 percent humidity here, but I’m not complaining about the sauna treatment. Because it is raining! Finally.

Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome back, rain. We missed you.

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The opening quote is from Mary Oliver‘s poem, “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me,” from What Do We Know. Oliver (1935-2019) was a force of nature who opened so many of our eyes and ears to the complexities and joys of the natural world. Read the full poem here.

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Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public. Join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

Skipping Spring; Planting Prairie

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

April Prairie Snow

“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery

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It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.

Wild bergmot (Monarda fistulosa), Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.

View from the pavilion, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.

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Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.

Forecast April 17, 2022.

Surely nothing will stick.

But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…

A dusting of snow.

Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.

Violas (Viola sp.) in the snow, Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie smoke…

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…

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

…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.

Never a dull moment on the prairies.

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The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).

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April Events (find more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .

The Trouble With Milkweed

“We have to convince the nursery industry that native plants are about more than just looks.” — Doug Tallamy

*****

Lately, I’ve been diving into seed and plant nursery catalogs. Making elaborate lists. Planning new pollinator gardens. Is there a better way to spend these rainy April days? Other than going for a hike, of course!

Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As I thumb through the catalogs, planning to plant more prairie at home, I’m amazed at the number of “native” plants now on offer. Natives are hot, hot, hot! I wonder if the push for us to support monarch butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators may be having a positive influence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, 2016.

As I flip the catalog pages, I take a closer look. Wait a minute. I know this plant—the wonderful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a favorite of mine in my backyard prairie patch and a magnet for monarch butterflies and monarch caterpillars. But what is ‘Hello Yellow’ Milkweed? Hmmm… . Not the orange version I see on the prairies in the summer.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2014).

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, is another favorite of mine. It loves the wet spots in my backyard prairie planting and attracts plenty of monarchs. I page through another nursery catalog and there it is. Or…is it? The scientific name is the same. But it’s called ‘Soulmate’ Butterfly Flower. And here it is again…yet another catalog lists the same scientific name, but the milkweed is white and called Swamp Milkweed ‘Milkmaid.’ Is this the same plant I see on my prairie hikes?

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Are these native milkweeds? Do I want them in my garden?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2021).

What’s in a name, anyway? As it turns out…a lot.

Many cultivars—sometimes called nativars— are popping up in garden catalogs, right alongside the native plants (or even touted as natives). It’s confusing isn’t it?

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Time to begin searching for more information.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Some of these “native” plants in the catalogs are cultivars, or sometimes called nativars. Cultivars are—simply put—a species that has been selected for certain traits, such as a particular color, and then bred to ensure the subsequent plants of that species exhibit those traits. On the positive side, many native plant cultivars have increased vigor. That’s good, right? As a gardener, I like that in a plant. But does it perform in the same way, if it finds its way to our natural areas?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I’m not sure we know. Yet.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

How can you spot a native that’s a cultivar or nativar? A good clue here is a fancy name, vibrant color, a doubled flower, or a larger-than-normal size. Look for a cute name in quote marks (i.e., Echinacea purpurea ‘Purple Passion’). These native cultivars may appeal to gardeners who want more jazzy blooms than the native itself might offer. Echinacea —coneflowers—often get this treatment. Evidently milkweeds are getting it too. And why, I wonder, when the native itself is so pretty?

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I continue looking for information, and learn multiple sources recommend avoiding double-flowered native plant offerings, as they can be tough for pollinators to gain access to pollen and nectar. Some cultivars of particular species may not set seeds. As seeds are valuable for wildlife, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

I also learn that cultivars that have purple or red leaves may be tougher for caterpillars to feed on. The National Wildlife Federation also notes, “Presumably, the more variegation (in foliage), the less nutritious the plants are for wildlife.” Does this mean none of my plants should have variegated foliage or have purple leaves? Of course not. But learning about these plant features reminds me to be intentional when I plant. My desire for these attractive features would need to be balanced by including other wildlife-friendly plants. And in my small yard, how much room do I want to give to plants that aren’t pollinator or wildlife-friendly?

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I found this article compelling from the National Wildlife Federation: “Native, or Not So Much?” It includes a wonderful interview with Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, and helped me clarify my thinking as I prepared my catalog order.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I also appreciated this article: The Nativar Conundrum. It reminded me that cultivars can offer us disease resistance and bigger fruits in garden plants, like trees and shrubs. There are benefits! But there is so much we still have to learn about native prairie plants and cultivars. For now, with my prairie natives, I will choose the originals first. Until we know more, I’d rather stay with the tried and true. I’m not ready to trade in the original species. I’ll like to know more about the impact of the fancier cultivars on pollinators—and our prairie communities.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Which brings us back to the milkweeds. While deciding what milkweeds to plant this season, I learned all milkweeds are not necessarily beneficial to monarchs when planted in my state. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a great example, as it is not native to the United States, and has been noted as detrimental to monarch butterflies when planted in the Midwest. Monarchs love tropical milkweed—and their caterpillars seemingly flourish on it. When I read this article from Xerces Society, I learned the damage this beautiful milkweed may cause the monarch population, including breeding confusion, potential toxicity to caterpillars as our climate changes, and migration interference. Who wants to be a part of that?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Back to the catalogs. There are so many tempting “natives” to consider buying! But–because I receive a lot of catalogs from all over the United States, many of the “natives” they list aren’t native to the place where I live. Yes, even some milkweeds! If I’m not sure about a plant, a good source for determining if a plant is native to my area is to use the USDA website. I’m also leery of the “prairie mixes” touted by various catalogs. So many of the species aren’t native to my region. Better to buy the species I know.

Are all my garden plants native? No! I have a mix of about 70 percent natives in my garden and 30 percent traditional garden plants. I doubt I could part with my zinnias!

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But I want to continue increasing my native plant percentages. And I want to know what I’m buying—is it the “true native” or a cultivar?—and make my decisions thoughtfully and intentionally. Every plant I grow needs to earn its place in the garden. I’m still learning about native cultivars, and as more studies are done, I’ll keep an open mind. The trouble right now is we just don’t have enough information.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

With milkweeds, I’m finding the decision this spring is easy. In Illinois, there are more than 20 species of milkweed native to our state. A good list of milkweeds found in the Chicago region is listed here from Wild Ones. Or click here for the list of milkweeds found in Illinois, and to see images of these beautiful monarch magnets.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

Seeing these lists makes my milkweed buying decision easy this spring. No trouble at all. With so many beautiful native milkweeds available to me, why settle for less than the real thing?

*****

The opening quote is from Janet Marinelli’s National Wildlife Federation interview with Doug Tallamy, which can be found at Native, or Not So Much? All of us who love the prairie need to keep learning and keep an open mind as new developments occur in the native plant arena, and work toward a healthier, more diverse natural world that benefits all creatures. Tallamy’s books are excellent reads, including Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks. Thanks also to Lonnie Morris of DuPage Monarchs, who brought the tropical milkweed issue to my attention.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program in April! (Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more).

Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL. Open to the public (in person). Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online only, and open to the public. Register here.

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

Wild and Wonderful March Prairie

“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt

*****

Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.

It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.

Crocus (Crocus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!

Daffodils (Narcissus sp.) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”

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

A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…

Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.

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

Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.

Crosby’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.

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

My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Other natives like prairie smoke….

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re one week into the month of March.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.

View from the prairie, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?

Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.

I can’t wait.

****

The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

March 8, 7-8:30pm — Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers in the Garden at Twig and Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. More information here.

March 9, 1-2:30 pm— Illinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park, IL (Open to the public). Details here.

March 26, 10-11:30 amIllinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Brookfield Garden Club, Brookfield, IL. (Closed event for members only)

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL. Contact the club here for details.

The Many May Delights of Prairie and Woods

“Let all thy joys be as the month of May”—Francis Quarles

*******

Is there a more beautiful time in the Midwest than mid-May?

It’s been a week for the birds. Migrating birds, that is. In the woods, the great crested flycatcher calls. Such a distinctive voice!

Great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

I’ve read that the great crested flycatcher weaves unusual items into its nest: snakeskin, cellophane, plastic wrappers. Wouldn’t I love to spot one of those nests! This is the first great crested flycatcher I’ve ever seen. How did I miss it all these years? Likely I was busy looking down, not up: at the wildflowers.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphyllagone) with seed capsule, Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Seeing the flycatcher is one of the wonderful benefits of hiking with knowledgeable birding friends. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been looking at wildflowers, and likely missed it.

Probably white baneberry or doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

In his poem The May Magnificant, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Question: What is Spring–Growth in everything–Flesh and fleece; fur and feather; Grass and green world altogether… .” As we hike through the green, green, green woods, we discover a single, random feather. Our birding friends tell us it may be a young owlet’s. I would love to know how it came to be here along the trail.

Young owlet feather, Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

High in a tree, an indigo bunting surprises us. I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description of the bunting; “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), Norris Woods Nature Preseve, St. Charles, IL.

Most of the “blues” I see in the bird world belong to the blue jays that stop by my feeder. This past week, there’s been the color orange as well—the Baltimore orioles who love the grape jelly and orange halves we put out for them.

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

This weekend, while I listened to the birds at the feeders, I dug newly-purchased prairie seedlings into my prairie patch. White wild indigo.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meadow rue.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie coreopsis. Great angelica. Prairie smoke. Anise hyssop. So many plants! When I ordered earlier this season, where did I imagine I could put them all? At the end of the day—a lonnnnng planting day—every plant had a seat in the prairie. Now it’s up to them and the weather.

As I turned on the hose to wash the dirt from my hands, I heard the first American toad of the year in our little pond. I turned the water back off to listen. Have you ever heard the American toad? No? You can hear it here. At night, when we crack open our bedroom window for the breeze, the sound can be deafening. In the forest preserve wetlands, lakes, and ponds, the American toad trillllllllll is a warm weather soundtrack for our hikes.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Birds! Toads. Plants. Wildflowers. The writer Ellis Peters wrote, “Every spring is a perpetual astonishment.” It’s difficult to know where to look. So much is happening on the prairies and in the woodlands. How can I choose where to hike? And so much is happening, right under my nose, here in my yard!

Near my prairie patch, the pawpaw tree is in bloom. Such an unusual flower color! That brownish-maroon reminds me of wild ginger blooms. For fun, I try to match the flower color to a lipstick shade. The closest I find is “Cherry Cocoa” or maybe, “Love in Maroon.” What do you think?

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) tree in bloom, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterflies pass me as I examine the pawpaw flowers. Cabbage white butterflies showed up early this spring, stopping to lay a few eggs on my overwintered kale and kohlrabi. I don’t grudge them a few leaves. Especially since this year’s overwintered crop is a bonus. A gift to share.

Overwintered kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group) and kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea, Gongylodes group) going to seed, Cindy’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I saw my first tiger swallowtail last week, and a few friends have reported monarchs. Pearl crescent butterflies pass through the prairies and savannas, taking a moment to pause and let me admire their bright colors. They’re a common sight, and will continue to be throughout the summer. But no less delightful, for being so ubiquitous.

Pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

The pearl crescent butterflies enjoy a wide variety of flowers. There are plenty of blooms to choose from in the middle of May. Wild geraniums are still going strong on the prairies and in the woodlands. Is it my imagination, or are they lingering longer this year? Maybe it’s the cool weather?

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2017)

I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Prairie, woodland, and savanna spring wildflowers are best seen up close.

Examining the wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then, when something unusual comes along, you’ll have a ringside seat.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) on wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

And—you’ll thank your lucky stars—so grateful and glad that you went for a hike in the middle of May.

*****

The opening quote is by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), an English poet. One of his descendants was the poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a celebrated poet and author.

****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

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.

Thanks to Tricia Lowery and John Heneghan for the afternoon hike, the gift of the prairie plants, and help with spotting wonderful flying critters this week.

Winter Arrives on the Prairie

“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver

******

Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.

Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.

As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.

Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.

Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.

I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?

More for the compost pile.

*****

Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.

The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…

…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!

I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.

As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.

Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.

Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.

As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.

But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.

I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.

On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.

I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.

There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.

Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?

Why not go see?

*****

The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).

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

THIS FRIDAY! Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world 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 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 by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Or pick them up at your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org 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!

5 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath

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First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.

Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.

In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?

Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.

1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.

Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”

New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.

2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.

Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.

Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.

Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.

3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?

The clouds?

Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.

Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.

4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.

There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.

The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.

But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.

5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.

Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.

Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.

Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?

I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…

… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.

*****

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.

All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m 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.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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 enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.