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5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

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February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

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This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

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All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

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Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

Winter Prairie Wonders

“The twitter of a chickadee, a flurry of juncos defying the wind, the industry of a downy woodpecker at the suet won’t warm the day, but they do warm the human heart.” — Hal Borland

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Color January gray so far, with a few bright spots.

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It’s been a wet one, as well, with precipitation in all its myriad forms.

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As I wash dishes one morning, I watch the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window battle over birdseed.

They bicker and flutter and knock each other off the perches in their search for the very best position. I try to broker a truce by bringing out more sunflower and safflower. More peanuts. But as I step outside, I stop short. Listen! The northern cardinal—is singing! The first time through, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then he pealed out the notes again.  Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! The sound of spring.

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Or maybe not exactly “spring.” After reading more on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I learn the males and females both sing; males may sing all year. Ah! So much for spring thoughts.  I regularly hear the “chip! chip!” at dusk and dawn when the cardinal resupplies at the tray feeder. But I hadn’t heard the cardinal’s full-throated song for a good long while. It makes me happy.

Dishes finished, that sweet music is enough to pull me out of the house and out for a prairie hike.

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No cardinals sing in the savanna, but there is a bit of woodpecker hammering and a lone squirrel or two loping silently through the trees. The  pewter skies and sleet, snow, rain, and ice accentuate the colors of the January prairie.

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As I hike through the prairie savanna, admiring the trees blacked with moisture and bright with lichen…

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…snow falls harder. I wrap my scarf  tightly around my neck to ward off the wet. Everything is soaked.

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Late figwort drips with snowmelt diamonds.

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Hiking along Willoway Brook…

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…I admire the winter water transitions.

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Trees lay everywhere, a reminder of other transitions going on. One tree’s life ends, a multitude of new lives begin from that downed tree. Fungi. Mosses.  These fallen trees will serve as homes and food for members of the savanna community; bringing slow change to this transitional place.

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Emerging into the tallgrass from the savanna, the only sounds are the scrunch scrunch scrunch of my boots in the snow, and the occasional hum of traffic from nearby I-88.

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Other than a few light breaths of wind, the tallgrass is motionless. Willoway runs quiet and clear. This silence suits me today. I value the prairie’s opportunities for quiet and reflection.

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And yet, there are many other reasons besides personal ones to appreciate what I’m a steward of here.

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I’ve been reading more this week about prairies as carbon sinks in preparation for a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum. What are carbon sinks? Why do they matter? I think about this as I stroll the trails.

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A carbon sink is simply a place where carbon is stored. The prairie soil acts as a “carbon sink.” Unlike a forest, where the carbon is mostly stored above ground, in prairies, carbon is taken in and then, stored (or “sequestered”) in the deep roots of prairie plants.

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That’s good news.  It matters, as this carbon sequestration helps keep our planet healthy.  And, I’m more aware of my impact on the world these days, from the miles I drive or fly, to the choices I make in what I eat, what I put my food in (paper or plastic?), whether I use a straw or sip from a glass, or the amount of trash I generate. My personal consumption habits could be overwhelming and depressing, if I let them be. But that would suck all the joy out of life, wouldn’t it?

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And so. I try and balance the despair I feel sometimes over the brokenness of the world and its dilemmas with the gratitude for the beauty and wholeness I find on my prairie walks. The delights of my backyard prairie patch and pond. Or, the enjoyment of watching the birds at my backyard feeders squabbling with the squirrels.

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One reason I’m a prairie steward is this: caring for a prairie reminds me why my personal choices matter. Seeing the tallgrass in all seasons, in its diversity and transitions, helps me remember the legacy I want my children and grandchildren to have. Prairies, the Nature Conservancy tells us, “clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Caring for this prairie as both a place for quiet hiking and reflection—and a place that has value in keeping our world a healthier place—gives me a sense of making a difference. It is a touchstone of hope.

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We live in a beautiful world full of wonders. bridgeoverwillowaySPMA12520WM.jpg

No matter what the future holds…

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…I want these prairies to be here for the next generations; places for my children’s children to hike, for them to find room there to reflect, and to enjoy and delight in all its diversity.

A world full of wonders.

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The opening quote is from Hal Borland’s book: Twelve Moons of the Year, excerpted from his “nature editorials” in the New York Times written before his death in 1978. Borland wrote more than 1,900 of these observational articles for the NYT, and selected 365 for this book. He was a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Borland wrote more than 30 books, most about the natural world; the genres spanned poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biography, short stories, and even a play. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal in 1968 for Hill Country Harvest.

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All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted (top to bottom): trees in the fog, East Side; melting snow on late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); video of birds and squirrels at the author’s backyard bird feeders, Glen Ellyn, IL; male and female cardinals ( Cardinalis cardinalis, photo from winter 2019), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie in January, glimpse of Willoway Brook through the savanna; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; bridge and tallgrass; reflections in Willoway Brook; Schulenberg Prairie in January, blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) with snowmelt; prairie grasses in January; native evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa); Schulenberg Prairie savanna; tall goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis); bridge over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

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Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION: January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here. (Sold out–call to be put on a waiting list)

The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and Open to the Public! Book signing follows.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com 

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“Keenly observed, the world is transformed.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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A sunrise and sunset in glorious technicolor bookended Monday this week. Pink lemonade. Orange sherbet. Smudges of charcoal and lavender. It’s not winter yet, but these sky-works feel very much of that season to me. One of the bonuses of the shortening days is they enter and exit with such pizzazz.

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The bigger part of a November day’s sky is often more subtle in its allure. Less color. Less drama. Nuanced.

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On the prairie, the palette is all rich metallics.

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Where we relied on sight and of smell and sound during the warmer months to experience the tallgrass, November is a time of texture. The sense of touch comes into greater play.

The woolly seedhead of the thimbleweed stubbornly holds on to its treasures. Touch it. It’s soft, but not silky. More like cotton.

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There’s a new appreciation for shapes, like the curve of a goldenrod gall ball against the backdrop of an angled Indian grass stem. Run your finger across the surface of the sphere. It’s lightweight and surprisingly smooth.

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As the carrion flower fruits fall apart, we become more aware of the vine’s lines and spirals.

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There is the sparse loveliness of the blazing star, when all evidence of life has fled.

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Even the regimented grasses with their tops hacked off are a testimonial that someone cares about this prairie remnant; cares enough to have cut and gathered the seedheads. Were they out here working on a gray, bone-chilling morning? Perhaps these seeds will be used to strengthen the prairie here, or help begin a future prairie restoration planting.

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November’s range of colors may be less dazzling at this time of year, but what it has lost in color, it has gained in contrasts.

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Forbidding and rough; the seeds long gone inside.

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Other prairie plant seeds remain, so delicate a breath would seemingly cause them to float away. And yet, they hang on.

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The November prairie reminds me to be grateful for seeds and seedheads in all their forms. They promise to take the prairie forward, into the future. A walk through the prairie this month reminds me to thank the stewards and volunteers who pour hours of their lives into keeping prairies vibrant and healthy. Without them, the prairie would fail to thrive, and eventually, disappear. It’s a month to appreciate the tallgrass’s underlying structure; that suite of wildflowers and grasses with deep roots. To offer thanksgiving that prairie remnants and restorations continue to exist—and continue to shape the hearts and minds of those who call it home.

In a time when we may feel jaded, cynical, or even in despair over the state of the world, a walk on the November prairie is an act of thanksgiving. An act of hope.

I finish each hike, feeling grateful.

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Gretel Ehrlich‘s (1946-) The Solace of Open Spaces, from which the opening quote is taken, is one of my all-time favorite reads. “Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are,” she writes. Her book is set in Wyoming.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL unless noted otherwise: sunrise, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray skies over Belmont Prairie in November; mixed prairie plants, thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed; goldenrod ball gall; carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrahta); rough blazing star (Liatris aspera); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks before 2019 ends:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL. Information: 815-479-5779.  Book signing after the talk. Free and open to the public.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading!

The September Prairie’s Greatest Hits

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems–especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” –― Barbara Pym

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Open windows. Cool breezes. That low slant of light. Autumn is here.

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After dragonfly migration is finished, I always feel a bit of a letdown, as you might after the end of a long-anticipated party.  Summer is over.  But it’s impossible to feel too melancholy as the prairie ramps up its fall extravaganza. This year, the Indian grass, big bluestem, Maximilian sunflowers and tall coreopsis loom high, shooting toward the sky. Lush. Lanky. Resplendent. Many tallgrass trails are impassible and choked with thick vegetation. The recent deluge of rain left sunflowers too top-heavy to stand upright. Gold spills into the mowed paths.

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The smell of prairie dropseed and damp earth permeates the air. The soundtrack of goldfinch chirps and blue jay calls is augmented by the insects tuning up each evening, a static that I sometimes don’t notice until it goes silent. The cacophony is already winding down; soon, we’ll lose this chorus altogether. Goldfinches are ravenous. It seems they can’t get their fill. They work over the prairie patch in my backyard like a bus full of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

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An occasional crow inks its way across a mackerel sky, and I’m reminded to be grateful for each bird I see and hear, on the prairies and in my backyard. Bird conservation news has been dismal this week, and birds of the grasslands are faring the worst of all. It’s another reason to encourage establishments of new prairies, and to care for existing remnants and restorations.

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September is arguably one of the most enjoyable months in the tallgrass. Have you been for a hike on the prairie this month? Do you need motivation to go? Consider a few of the September prairie’s “Greatest Hits.” Maybe one of them will give you a push out the door.

Compass Plants and Other Silphiums

As I wandered through my backyard prairie patch this week, I suddenly realized my prairie dock and compass plants failed to flower this season. Why didn’t they flower? I’m not sure.  This flower-less state is not unprecedented, both in my backyard and on the prairie. Some years, they just… don’t flower! Anecdotally, it seems like the compass plants and prairie dock take a “rest” every few years from making flowers and seeds, the production of which is a huge output of energy.

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I missed the tall bloom stalks of compass plant and prairie dock this summer, with the occasional goldfinch or hummingbird resting on top. The hummingbirds that sojourned through my backyard had to settle for the tall zinnias as surveillance platforms instead.

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There are four members of the Silphium genus most prairie stewards concern themselves with: compass plant, prairie dock, rosinweed, and cup plant. (Read more about cup plant in a previous post here.) On Sunday, I went for my first big prairie hike since my surgery six weeks ago, visiting Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove for a half an hour. I compared their compass plants and prairie dock with my own backyard plants. The trails were cut back, making it easy to hike (thank you, Belmont prairie stewards and volunteers!) Woven compass plant leaves ranged from vibrant green to various stages of senesce.

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Some leaves have already turned crisp and brown, curling into base clefs. Or perhaps, chocolate shavings.

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Others were somewhere inbetween “vibrant” and “crunchy.”

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I looked for prairie dock seedheads and came up empty.  I only found desiccated leaves.

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I did find rosinweed—the less showy of the Silphiums—which had flowered and gone to seed.

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Click here and you can see what rosinweed looks like in bloom. Pretty. But I love it in the seed stage, each September seed cluster more intricate than its straightforward bright yellow flowers of summer.

The other three Silphiums are always show-stoppers; in bloom or in seed, or —if blooms fail—just for their changing leaves. Each member of the quartet has its individual charms. Especially this month.

Dazzling Asters and Glorious Goldenrods

September is peak time for asters and goldenrod. Yes—as I wrote last week—aster ID can be frustrating. It’s nice to be on the prairie, where many of the asters are easily identifiable. Tiny leaves help ID the pearly white flowers of heath aster (now with its unwieldy new genus name of Symphyotrichum ericoides).

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The smooth blue asters have—as you’d expect—smooth stems and leaves. Here, they mix with the vibrant and colorful spent stems of flowering spurge. More about that plant in a minute.

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September is the month for the eye-popping purple haze of the familiar New England asters , which to me signals the prairie bloom season’s grand finale.

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The yellows of goldenrod are a worthy pairing for the asters. Ask any quilt maker, and they’ll tell you purple and yellow are complementary colors, great for contrast. The prairie liberally juxtaposes the two in September. What a show!

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I’m imagining the faces of some of the prairie stewards and volunteers reading this right now. Goldenrod is a pain in the neck! you might say, shaking your head. I know, I know. When I began volunteering in natural areas almost 20 years ago, my first question to the steward was: “I should pull all this goldenrod, right?” I was surprised when the answer was “No!”, and to learn goldenrod was native to the Midwest.

If you spend time on a prairie or create a prairie in your backyard as I have, you may find goldenrod is—shall we say—a bit rambunctious.  Sure, you might end up weeding out some of this native plant that is also a take-over specialist to make room for more diversity. But think of the nectar goldenrod provides for bees and butterflies!  I became a goldenrod enthusiast when Jeff and I visited Kankakee Sands‘ prairies in September a few years ago, and we happened upon a monarch migration in progress. The butterflies were fueling up on stiff goldenrod.

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Not convinced about goldenrod? A short visit to Belmont Prairie this month is enough to convert even the staunchest goldenrod hater.

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Like all good things, goldenrod is perhaps best in moderation. But the insects love it. Which brings us to…

A Sweet Buzz

The bees are still with us. Bumble bees. Honey bees. Native bees in all patterns, sizes, and colors. In Illinois alone, there are 400-500 species of native bees!  Hiking the September prairie, or standing in my backyard prairie patch, it’s difficult to imagine that in a few short months, the buzz will go mostly silent.

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This week, I was reading a novel by British writer Barbara Pym when  I ran across the phrase, “Tell the bees… .” What was this?  I turned to Wiki for more information. Evidently, a European beekeeping custom is to let your bees know when important life events such as births, marriages, and deaths happen. If you fail to do so, so the folklore goes, the bees may leave their hive or fall into decline. You might also drape your bee hives in black if someone dies, or leave a slice of wedding cake next to the hives when a marriage takes place in the family.  John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) wrote a melancholy poem about this tradition, “Telling the Bees.”

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I’m considering what I might “tell the prairie bees” this week. Be strong. Multiply. We need you to keep our prairies healthy. Thank you.

Skipper Fiesta

The fiery skippers have thrown themselves into September with a zeal I’ve not experienced before. They hang out around the prairie patch; perch and nectar on the zinnias in the garden.

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The best way to see the skippers, I’ve discovered, is to sit somewhere close to a nectar source and pay attention.  Not rocket science, is it? But how often I seem to be too busy to just sit and look! In September, the skippers are a reminder to do just that.

Unexpected Prairie Fall Color

Who needs autumn leaves when you have the prairie? The golds of Indian grass, the wine-blue Andropogon gerardii—big bluestem, the copper-colored little bluestem. Together, they make the September prairie breathtaking. I also anticipate the flowering spurge’s post-bloom color each year; the leaves and stems are every bit as pretty as the sugar maple’s leaves.

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You can find these bright spots all across the tallgrass.

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From a distance, they look almost pink. A startling color, in September.

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Color. Textures. Buzz. Blooms. These are only a few of the September prairie’s greatest hits. What are your favorite sightings on the September prairie? Drop me a note, and let me know.

There is so much to enjoy on the prairie in September. So much to marvel about. The month is sliding to a close.

Why not go see?

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Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose quote opens this week’s post, was a British writer referred to as “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another great quote from Pym; ““Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”  I also love, “Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.” Pym died of breast cancer at 67.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in September, Downer’s Grove, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) enjoying evening primrose seeds, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; mackerel sky over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant in bloom (Silphium lacinatum), Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (from 2018); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceaum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrafolia), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL; heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sky blue asters, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) with New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (previously taken); monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) at Kankakee Sands in September 2017, Kankakee Sands Preserve, The Nature Conservancy Indiana, Newton, IN; asters and goldenrods in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.) with honeybee (Apis mellifera) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) on New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for a speaking event or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com to learn more.

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

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A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

They like my zinnias as well.Monarch Backyard GE 9219WM.jpg

Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

Eastern-tailed blue 2014 SPWM

Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.