Tag Archives: gray-headed coneflower

Five Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling

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Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.

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2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.

It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.

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I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.

There’s always a new discovery.  Shifts of weather. A different slant…

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…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.

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Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.

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I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.

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You, too?

With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.

#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.

Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?” bigbluestemhorizontalfogSPMA11020WM.jpg

It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.

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Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.

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I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.

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Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.

#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.

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Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.

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Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!

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However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.

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But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.

#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!

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Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.

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Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.

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When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August?  (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)

 #4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.

In this early August prairie mix….

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…blue vervain takes the spotlight.BlueVervainSPMA8220WM.jpg

In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…

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…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.

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Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.

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As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  All we have to do to see it is show up.

#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…

Ironweed8220SPMAWM.jpg …from when you change  your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.

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Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.

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Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.

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An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.

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Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.

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Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…

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…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…

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…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.

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The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense);  light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Backyard Prairie Mothapalooza

“The night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” — Vincent Van Gogh

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Sunshine, thunderstorms, and wind. The heat index tips over 100 one day, then temperatures drop into the 60s the next.

The tallgrass prairie doesn’t blink. It adapts. Then adapts again. The prairie was made for these wild swings of weather.

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By day, the prairie explodes with blooms. July is its zenith for wildflowers.

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So many interesting flowers to see on a hike through the tallgrass!

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So many interesting creatures in my backyard prairie.

SilverSkipperwithbeebalmWMGEbackyard72520And that’s just in the daytime.

Just think of what goes on…after dark.

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Last week was National Moth Week, In the spirit of celebration, Jeff and I put on a “mothapalooza” near our backyard prairie patch. I knew, as a prairie steward, that moths depend on specific associated plants for their caterpillars to survive and thrive. Would the native (and non-native) plants in my backyard be enough of a draw to nurture a thriving moth population?

I didn’t know what moths were nearby, beyond the occasional gray-ish ones that banged away at our front porch light and a sighting of a Beautiful Wood Nymph last summer which stuck around by the front door for a few days. Armed with a Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths, we were about to find out.

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As I read up on moths, I learned there were between 150,000 to 500,000 different species in the world. New moths are discovered all the time. While most are creatures of the night, some fly during the daytime. That made sense. I see the snowberry clearwing moths nectar at the Schulenberg Prairie’s  bee balm blooms….snowberryclearwingWM hummingbird sphinx moth SPMA71419.jpg

…and the hummingbird moths nectar at my native bee balm —- and not-so-native hanging basket of petunias.

But after dark….that was a mystery. Other than a few moths I had seen on my nocturnal front porch visits,  what else might I discover? it was time to find out.

Two of our grandkids, age 4 and 7, were spending the night with us this weekend. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce them to moths. First we built a moth trap. There are many good instructions for inexpensive moth traps online; we adapted one from this video by a precocious young British kid — check it out. After watching it, we were able to pull a moth trap together mostly from odds and ends I had in the garage, and some donated egg cartons from our friend, Hinsdale Prairie Steward Kath Thomas. The egg cartons are stacked inside the bucket for the moths to rest in, like rows of tiny cubicles.

The whole effect is not pretty, but as it turned out, it was functional. It is also catch and release, so the moths can return to the backyard in the morning.

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We also painted a board with moth bait, a stinky concoction of brown sugar, stale beer, and bananas. Some moths, it seems, like this better than lights.

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The UV light was the most expensive part of the set-up, and was a birthday gift from Jeff ordered from Bioquip, where I get my dragonfly supplies. (Thanks, Jeff!) We decided to combine the moth trap and baited board with a moth sheet that we hung on the porch.

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Waiting for dark was made a little easier by setting up our backpacking tent and reading stories to the little ones.

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Then, about the time the fireflies lit up, we began seeing moths.

Small ones, like this Orange Wing moth.MothNightWMorangewing72520GEBackyard

Beautifully colored ones, like this Woody Underwing.

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Seriously cute ones, such as this Giant Eucosma. Its host plant is cupplant. Our prairie patch has plenty of it!

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From time to time, we’d leave the backyard and check the front porch to see what had shown up under the porch light. Most of our photos were taken with my cell phone. Even so, you can see how beautiful this little Venerable Dart moth was. Those fuzzy antennae! Those beautiful wings. We looked in the field guide and saw its host plants include chickweed and tomato plants. Yup! We have both.

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Most moths show up a little later than bedtime for little ones. They didn’t last past 10 p.m. After tucking them in, I kept things going outside until about 1 a.m., when I finally left the moth trap to work its magic and went to bed.

In the morning, still in our PJs, we rushed out to check the trap. Not a lot in there; mostly very tiny moths and a lot of night insects. I can see our moth trap is going to need some work. But one find at the bottom of the trap that wowed the grandkids: a Harnessed Tiger Moth, nestled into one of the cups of an egg carton.

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I’ve seen tiger moths on the prairies, but never in my backyard! I read in my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths that this species depends on dandelions and clover as host plants for its larvae–or caterpillars. Another reason to not treat our yard with chemicals.

The four of us gently lifted the egg carton out of the bucket and watched as it flew into the gray-headed coneflowers.BackyardGE72520WMgrayheadedconeflowerliatris.jpg

Moth identification is tricky; I’m learning a lot from the Moths of the Eastern United States Facebook Page and my field guide. Buguide.net is also a terrific resource, and iNaturalist, a free app for my phone, did a lot of legwork getting my moths identified—at least to genus. But like learning dragonflies or damselflies or any insect, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

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Such an exciting adventure—the realization that a lifetime will not be  long enough to discover all there is about moths.

Each moth needs a particular plant or several specific plant species in order to survive. Every time I choose to put a host plant in my garden for moths—or leave a “weed” that they depend on for survival like clover or dandelions—I increase the chances of a more healthy and diverse moth population in my little corner of the world.BlackeyedSusanHinsdalePrairieWM72520.jpg

The night is full of amazing creatures. Now, I’ve met a few more of them. Just think of what you might find in your backyard prairie patch or your favorite prairie….after dark.

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Artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) whose quote opens today’s blog is considered one of the  most influential painters of all time. His paintings have commanded some of the highest prices at auction in the world, and his painting, “Starry Starry Night” inspired a song by musician Don McLean. Listen to it here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken in Cindy’s backyard, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Hinsdale Prairie remant, Hinsdale, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus); Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) with non-native petunias (Petunia sp.); homemade moth trap; moth board with painted stinky bait; sheet moth lighting for mothapalooza; REI half-dome tent; Orange Wing moth (Mellilla xanthometata); Woody Underwing moth (Catocala grynea); Giant Eucosma moth (Eucosma gigantica); Venerable Dart moth (Agrotis venerabilis); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); blazing star (Liatris sp.) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium); black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

Thanks to Trevor Dean Edmonson who is my moth mentor! Any moth mis-identifications will be happily corrected; I am a rank beginner with moths, and delighted to learn whatever I can.

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Join Cindy for an online class!

Last call for “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through the end of July. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Bringing Prairie Home

“But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener.” — Doug Tallamy

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I’ve always been glad I planted prairie in my backyard. But perhaps never so much as this summer, when I, like other Illinois residents, am spending a lot more time at home.

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My suburban backyard 20 miles west of Chicago is less than a quarter of an acre, and bordered closely on all sides by some of the 300-plus homes in our subdivision. Our yard lies downslope of two others, and is often wet—if not downright swampy. When Jeff and I moved here, there were giant arborvitae, a few yews, and not much else. Gardening was difficult. After removing most of the Arborvitae and all the yews, we planted a border of prairie plants across the backyard. Their deep roots helped absorb some of the water.

Over the years, we’ve added numerous raised beds for vegetable gardening…

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…a small pond, and a mixture of native plants and favorite non-natives. I confess to a passion for zinnias; the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds go crazy over them.

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Our goal has become one suggested by University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy: plant at least 70% of your yard (by biomass) with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses native to your area. Why? It will nourish wildlife. When we plant, we try to keep insects and wildlife in mind. What plants are good nectar sources? How might we attract more butterflies? Which plants have good seeds for birds? Which plants are host plants for moth caterpillars?

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Diversity. We try to think about different plant heights, bloom times, and mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and bloom sizes in the yard. July is a good month to step outside and sit on the patio for a while. Observe. See what is working. What’s not working. Let’s take a look.

Currently, queen of the prairie at the back of the yard is a showstopper. That pink! And so tall—over six feet. Although the flowers have no nectar, they offer pollen to flies and beetles.QueenofthePrairieGEBackyardBestWM71920

A pawpaw tree behind the prairie patch is a host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

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I’ve not observed either of these in our yard, but I’m on the lookout! Meanwhile, it’s the eastern black swallowtails I see, drawn to the blazing star blooms by the patio.

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Culver’s root lights its flower candles in the prairie patch each July—the white so bright against the green! Bees of all kinds love it, as do moths, wasps, and butterflies.

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Nearby are the velvet flame-petals of cardinal flowers. Their bright scarlet screams across the yard.  Look at us! We can’t tear our eyes away. Red is an unusual color for prairie plants, and I watch for these in July, fingers crossed.  Sometimes they jump from place to place in the yard. Some years they’ve disappeared altogether. A few weeks ago I wondered if they were still around. And then—here they are.

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The hummingbirds love cardinal flowers. So do the swallowtails. And, when the cardinal flowers bloom, I begin anticipating the great blue lobelia, another favorite, which blooms a few weeks later.

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Each lobelia, a close relative of cardinal flower, is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. They mingle together along the edges of my small pond.

Cupplant just popped into bloom this week; sunny yellow flowers towering over my head. The plants’ joined leaves hold moisture and create a favorite watering hole for goldfinches after a rain or a particularly dewy morning.

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We have a saying in our prairie group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plant!” It’s such an aggressive plant in the right garden conditions, spreading every which way and dominating the prairie patch. Then, I see a bright goldfinch drinking from the cupped leaves in the summer or enjoying the seeds in the fall. It quenches my resolve to dig them up.

Today, I spy a monarch, nectaring on the blooms. Yes. I think I’ll keep cup plants around.

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Near the cup plants are masses of joe pye weed, which hint at the promise of a flower show in August. The blooms will be a big draw for the yellow tiger swallowtails that wing their way through our backyard.

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Wild bergamot—both the native Monarda fistulosa in lavender….

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…and an unknown species — likely a close relative of Monarda didyma--given to me by a friend, lure the hummingbird moths at dusk.

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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By the patio, the gray-headed coneflowers mingle with a wild asparagus plant, the ferny leaves shooting over my head.

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The asparagus came up wild; likely from a seed dropped by the birds at our eight bird feeding stations.  Or maybe we should call them squirrel feeding stations? These bird feeders, plus the native plants with their maturing seedheads in the fall, the water in our small pond, and heated birdbath in winter are a big draw for birds.

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The pond is a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies, including this great spreadwing damselfly sighted last season. I’d never seen it on the larger prairies where I monitor dragonflies, so what a delight to find it—right here, in my own small backyard.

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I’m on the lookout for it this month, but so far, it has eluded me. I commit to spending more time, sitting by the pond, just quietly looking.

Along the edges of the patio, well-behaved prairie dropseed forms beautiful clumps next to the second-year new jersey tea shrub. In August, the prairie dropseed sends up sprays of seeds that smell of buttered popcorn. It’s not a smell to everyone’s taste, but I love it.

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You can see my backyard is a little bit messy, a jumble of natives and non-natives, lawn and prairie. Weeds? You bet. Our lawn is a mix of species, from clover to violets to oregono and wild strawberries. The rabbits approve. But not everyone in my neighborhood understands.

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It’s important to me that my neighbors see our intentions for the yard—and not just see it as a jumble of plants. I want to woo them away from their drug rugs (as conservationists like my neighbor Jerry Wilhelm calls chemically treated lawns) and toward a more healthy yard. For this reason, we have several signs, including a Monarch Way Station from Monarch Watch and a Conservation at Home sign from The Conservation Foundation. I hope when they see the signs, and the butterflies, birds, and blooms, they’ll be a little curious. What’s going on over there?

I want them to know: Prairies are one of the most fragile, nuanced, and diverse places on earth. Full of amazing creatures and interesting plants.

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Every year, our yard moves a little closer to being more healthy. We’ve still got a long way to go. But the journey of bringing prairie home is a marvelous adventure, full of beautiful surprises.

It all starts with a single plant.

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The opening quote is from Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Wild Ones Native Landscapers recently put on a webinar with Tallamy that emphasized the need for at least 70% biomass of native plants in yards in order to sustain insects, birds, and the natural world. We’re still working on our yard—and we still have a long way to go. You, too?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL , unless designated otherwise (top to bottom):  red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax ), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raised garden beds (thanks to John Heneghan, carpenter extraordinaire!); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on zinnias (Zinniz elegans) (photo from 2019); backyard planting mix of natives and non-natives; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) with a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) behind it;  eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) on blazing star (Liatris spp.); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) (photo from August 2019);  cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus);  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum);  mixed natives and non-natives; unknown monarda, received as a gift (possibly Monarda didyma?) with hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.); grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); author’s backyard pond; great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), photo from 2019); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum); July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m grateful to the Wild Ones Native Landscapers for their work with homeowners and native plant gardening in suburban yards, and The Conservation Foundation for helping gardeners  make our yards healthier and more wildlife-friendly. Thanks also to John Ayres for the cardinal flower seeds that helped me increase my population. Thank you to Tricia Lowery for the liatris and unknown monarda. Both are pollinator magnets!

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Discover “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Imagining the Prairie Year

“If the world is torn to pieces, I want to see what story I can find in fragmentation. –Terry Tempest Williams

“*****

Snow is in the forecast. A lot of snow. But how many times has the forecast promised a snowapocalypse, only to be be followed by a little rain; a “powdered sugar” dusting? Weather forecasting is an inexact science, even in an age where it seems we have so many answers at our fingertips.

On Sunday, I went for a hike on the Belmont Prairie, where the 56 degree weather and bluer-than-blue skies had melted most of the recent snow.

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The spring-like wind and warmth were in sharp contrast to  snowstorm predictions for the coming week.  On the prairie, everything looks frayed and chewed.

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Worn out.

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Broken.

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Even the compass plant leaves had disintegrated, their last leaf curls clinging to what is past and will soon be burned.

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A few seeds remain. In September, when the prairie brimmed and frothed with seeds, these might have gone unnoticed.

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As I walk at Belmont, I think of my coming stewardship work on the Schulenberg Prairie, which begins in April. What will we plant? What will we remove?  My head is full of plans and scenes of what is to come on the Midwestern prairies, imagining the prairie year ahead…

March

March is fire season.  Soon, very soon, we’ll burn the Schulenberg Prairie—-if the snowstorms fail to materialize and the weather cooperates.

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March, the time of fire and ice, will also bring transition.  It’s the first month of meteorological spring. It’s also mud season.

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April

April is the season of flowers—at last! I think of the hepatica, sunning themselves in the savanna.

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Everywhere, there will be signs of new life.

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May

I imagine the glorious shooting star in flower, a swaying coverlet of bumble bee enticing blooms. The prairie will hum with pollinators.

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The small white lady’s slipper orchid will briefly unfurl her flowers, hidden deep in the grasses.   I’ll drop to my knees in the mud to admire the blooms. More lovely, perhaps, for their fleeting presence here.

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June

In June, prairie smoke, in its impossible pink, will swirl through the grasses. Or will it? This wildflower has gone missing the past few years here. One of my management goals as a prairie steward is to see it bloom here again.

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There is no shortage of spiderwort that will open…

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…and mornings on the prairie will be washed with violet.

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July

Fireworks of a quieter kind will light up the tallgrass this month. Butterfly weed, that monarch caterpillar magnet, will explode with eye-popping color.

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Bees and other butterflies will make frequent stops to nectar.  This brilliant milkweed is a front row seat to the cycle of life on the prairie.

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August

We’ll be seeing red in August. Royal catchfly, that is. Not much of it. But a little goes a long way, doesn’t it?

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Its less finicky neighbor, gray-headed coneflower, will fly its yellow pennants nearby. Cicadas will begin playing their rasping music. The hot, steamy days of August will have us thinking longingly of a little snow, a little ice.

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September

The end of this month brings the first waves of sandhill cranes, headed south.

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While on the ground, the buzz is all about asters…New England asters. Good fuel here for bees, and also the butterflies.

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October

October is a season of goodbyes. Warblers and cranes and other migratory birds are moving in bigger waves now toward the south. The last hummingbird stops by the feeder. On the prairie, we’ll be collecting prairie grass seeds and wrapping up our steward work.

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Winding up another prairie growing season.

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November

Everything crisps up in November — except the carrion vine, which still carries its plump seeds across the prairie.

 

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The bison are ready for winter, their heavy coats insulation against the coming cold.BisonONE-CROSBYBison-NG fall 2017CROSBYWM.jpg

 

 

December

Temperatures drop.

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Snow falls, outlining the prairie paths. Winter silences the prairie.

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January

Ice plays on a thousand prairie creeks and ponds as the snow flattens the tallgrass.

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Blue snow shadows transform the prairie.

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And then, we will have come full circle to…

February

Here at Belmont Prairie, where I snap out of my imagining. I remind myself to enjoy the present moment. This February is so short! And each day is a gift to be marveled over. Only a few days remain until March.

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I wonder where I’ll be a year from now. Hiking at Belmont Prairie? I hope so. Marveling again at the last seeds and flowerheads, catching the late winter sun.

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Thinking of spring! It’s in the red-winged blackbird’s song.

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The prairie season goes ’round and ’round. A snowstorm today? Maybe. Spring? You can almost smell it in the air.

Today, anything seems possible.

****

Terry Tempest Williams (1955-) quote from Erosion: Essays of Undoing, opens this post. She is the author of many books including: Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Williams is Writer-in-Residence at Harvard Divinity School, and lives in Castle Valley, Utah.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in February, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; broken black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie brome (Bromus kalmii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) track in ice, Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy IL); hepatica (Hepatica noblis acuta); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s nest, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); small white lady’s slipper orchid(Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum Visitor Center, Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) and butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) and butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; royal catchfly (Silene regia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area,  Medaryville, Indiana; bumble bee on New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: seed collecting, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion flower (Smileax spp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL: path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bridge over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy IL); path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy for a class or event!

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction– February 29, Saturday 10-11 a.m.,  Aurora Public Library,  101 South River, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register by March 1. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

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

A Twilight Prairie Hike

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  — Rachel Carson

******

December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

******

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

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. 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.

Prairie Tricks and Treats

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” — Annie Dillard

******

Mother Nature pulled out her bag of tricks this weekend. First up: tropical storm Olga. She swept into the Chicago region Saturday, washing out roads and flooding creeks. Pools of water stand on the prairie. Wind decoupages the savanna trails with sifted leaves.

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Willoway Brook muscles over its banks, surging and submerging.

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Our resident great blue heron watches the weather unfold from a high bare branch.  Despite the bird’s great size, it weighs only five or six pounds. Why? Its bones are hollow.

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I watch the heron, and wonder. Male? Or female? Cornell, my favorite bird resource, tells me the female heron is smaller; otherwise, males and females look mostly similar.  Huh. Not much help, I’m afraid.

Olga, her temper tantrum spent, moves on and Sunday dawns to a scoured-blue sky. Jeff and I stroll the Belmont Prairie  to celebrate. The storm burnishes the Indian grass and big bluestem to bronze, copper, and golds; puffs of soaked seedheads soften the metallic stalks. The post-storm light so bright it almost hurts. It’s a treat after all that gloom and rain.

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Water-soaked rattlesnake master dries its seedheads in the sunshine.

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Its sharp-spined leaves are as striking as its seedheads, and makes it easy to spot in the tallgrass.

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Signs of recent restoration seed collection are everywhere. Clumps of Indian grass are lopped off. Some forbs show signs of positive pilfering. Belmont prairie volunteers have been busy! However, most thimbleweed seeds are still around, in all possible stages of seed production.

Tight and “green.”

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Q-tip topped.

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A few are full-blown. Ready for collection.

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All at once, or so it seems, the tall coreopsis leaves have turned the colors of a sunrise. A treat for the eyes.

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Tricks of the cold? Or of the shorter days? I’m not sure. I only know that autumn has come calling, and the prairie is transformed.

*****

Sunday’s sunshine gave way to fog on Monday. The Schulenberg Prairie is wreathed in mist.

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As I hike, the rising sun briefly lights the prairie.

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I watch it pull over the horizon, then sputter to a spark.

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It disappears behind the clouds. Poof! Gone.

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Even without much light, the prairie glows in the fog. Little bluestem and stiff goldenrod thread themselves into an impressionistic tapestry.

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The savanna offers its own colorful morning treats. Sumac. Boneset. Pale prairie plantain.

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Joe Pye weed and woodland sunflowers swirl seed-clouds under the changing leaves.

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Simple pleasures.

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Familiar seedheads, like these tall coreopsis, seem unfamiliar in the fog.

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Tricks of the light.

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The smell of sweet decay after the storm is oddly energizing. In less than a week, rain has soaked the prairie. Sun has baked it. Cold changed its colors. Now, the mist acts as a moisturizer. Fog dampens my skin. There’s a low hum of bird chatter low in the grasses; a nuthatch beeps its toy horn call from the savanna. My jeans are soaked.

I’m fully awake. Fully relaxed. Content.

The prairie at the end of October is a treat for the senses. It’s tough to see the month go.

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Goodbye, October.

We hardly knew ya.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread this book every year, and learn something new each time I do so.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  leaves on the savanna trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in flood, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie at the end of October, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccaolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreoposis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in the morning fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  morning fog over bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the sun, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizochryum scoparium) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown sumac (Rhus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join Cindy! Upcoming Speaking and Events

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

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

See more at www.cindycrosby.com   

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

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.

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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.

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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.

August’s Prairie Marvels

Note to readers: This week’s Tuesdays in the Tallgrass is a special Sunday edition! I’ll be back to publishing on Tuesdays and our regular schedule next week. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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“The starting point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.” — Carl Linnaeus

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When the impatiens open their conical orange and yellow freckled flowers to the delight of the ruby-throated hummingbirds and long-tongued bees, I know that summer is slipping toward autumn.

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Look at enough impatiens’ blooms, and you’ll discover the holes chewed by bumblebees in search of nectar. You can imagine their thoughts: Why work so hard when there are shortcuts to be had?

It seems like an August kind of mentality; slow moving days, high humidity, blue skies and sunshine interspersed with some welcome rain. Listening to the zithering of the cicadas; watching fireflies from the back porch. So much to marvel over.

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The ruby-throated hummingbirds work the cardinal flowers in my backyard, blurred streaks moving from scarlet to scarlet. Each year, I worry that I’ve lost the cardinal flowers, then splash! There they are popping up around the pond; scattered through my prairie patch.

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Goldfinches work the cup plants for water and early seeds as monarch butterflies swarm the Joe Pye weed blooms that tower over my head.

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The black swallowtails love the wild bergamot, as do the bumblebees and sphinx moths. This swallowtail below lost a bit of wing—to a bird, perhaps, or other predator—but still nimbly eludes me when I try to follow it deeper into the tallgrass.

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Hiking the Belmont Prairie this week in Downer’s Grove, IL, I saw the first large groups of dragonflies massing —- for migration? It seems early.  I’m unsure. Last year’s swarms came at the end of August. Almost all of the 80 or so individuals I count are green darner dragonflies; with a few golden wandering gliders mixed in. If you blow up this photo on your computer or phone, you’ll see at least 32 individuals silhouetted against the sky.

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On the Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL; the first New England aster opened this week like a purple omen, noting the seasonal transition in process. They always say “autumn” to me.

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More late summer notes are struck in the ripening of seeds of the spring wildflowers, like prairie parsley (below). As August slides toward its inevitable conclusion, more blooms will be replaced by seeds, gradually tipping the balance from flowers to future progeny.

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Tiny calico pennant dragonflies, less than the length of my pinky finger, chase the breezes, then alight for a moment on the grasses.

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They’re often mirrored by a Halloween pennant or two close by, forging  an uneasy truce for territories.

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Each time I see these two species I wonder if it will be the last time, as their numbers taper off this month. In a week or two, they’ll only be memories.

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The goldenrod opens, offering its sweet nectar to greedy insects.

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The prairie oils the gears of transition. The compass plants point the way.

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These inevitable transitions on the prairie remind me that change, even when not particularly welcome, shakes things up. Jolts us out of our complacency. Reminds us to marvel at what’s happening right now.

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I’ve tried not to take the prairie for granted this summer season.  Each day, each week, I marveled at the joys each particular day offered. But June and July went by too fast and now August seems to be half over. There’s melancholy in the lowering slant of sunshine; the tallgrass elbowing the wildflowers out of the way, the first gold leaf-coins dropping from the trees on the prairie’s edge.

A potent reminder to enjoy the marvels of every summer day on the prairie that we have left.

Let’s go!

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Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) a Swedish botanist, was dubbed the “Father of Taxonomy” and helped formalize the way we organize the natural world. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly early migration swarm of green darners and wandering gliders over the Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley seeds (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; edge of the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and chalcid wasp (Leucospis affinis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plants (Silphium lacinatium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Gerard Durrell for his great description of cicada music from My Family and other Animals.

Cindy’s speaking events and classes can be found at www.cindycrosby.com. Drop by!

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

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Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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