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Three Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

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June is underway, throwing curveballs. How about a 90 degree-plus day? A little severe drought, followed by the promise of thunderstorms? The prairie yawns. No problem.

Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) and other species on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is both fragile and resilient; broken and strong. Over years it has almost vanished, but now, with the help of volunteers and stewards, we’re seeing more prairies planted and prairie remnants cared for. Even though we can’t replicate the original remnant prairies we’ve lost, it’s a start. In June, these prairies are full of marvels. As the month unfolds, wonders unfold as well. Here are three reasons to go for a hike this week and see some of these wonders for yourself.

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1) Discover who has been spitting on the prairie plants: You’ve seen it–gobs of gooey bubbles on prairie wildflower stems and leaves. This is not hiker residue! It’s a sign of the spittlebug. As the insect nymph feeds on plant sap, it blows bubbles to form a protective froth that keeps it hidden from predators. The bubbles also serve as insulation against temperature swings and keep the spittlebug moist during times of drought.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In my part of the tallgrass prairie region, I discover, our species is the “meadow spittlebug” Philaenus spumarius. You might also hear folks call them “froghoppers.” The bubbles are composed of air mixed with excess sap, which the nymph blows out its… er…. backside. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison, the tiny insect can blow out as many as 80 bubbles a minute! That’s a lot of bubbles.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

If you don’t want spittlebugs on your garden prairie plants, the Illinois Extension suggests hosing them off. It will slow the little bubble-makers down a little—but of course, they’ll still hang around. . In my backyard prairie patch, I’ve never had enough of them to worry much. I enjoy seeing these “tiny bubbles” (sing it with me!) on the prairie, and thinking about yet another unusual and memorable citizen of the diverse prairie community.

Dewdrop on unknown grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

2) Frequent Fliers are Out: Skippers, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are showing up in larger numbers now on the prairie. I’ve had my Illinois skipper ID book out for the first time this year, trying to ID some orange-tan look-alikes. This one appears to be the “Hobomok Skipper”, although I’m never 100 percent sure with these little critters.

Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok) on red clover (Trifolium pratense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I have more ID confidence with the female common whitetail dragonfly; a frequent sighting on the prairie in June.

Common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ditto for the first calico pennants, one of my favorite prairie fliers.

Calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even though the male eastern forktails are one of the most numerous damselflies in the Chicago region, they always awe me with their bright blue abdominal tip; their vibrant neon green thorax stripes. And those eyes and eyespots! “The better to see you with”—indeed!

Male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

3) New wildflowers open each day: I know I keep saying it each week — but there are so many new blooms on the prairie to discover! Seeing the first pale purple coneflower on my workday June 1 was a great way to usher in the first day of meteorological summer. Have you seen them yet?

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I enjoy the different prairie pairings, such as the way the giant prairie dock leaf mingles with this not-yet-blooming pale purple coneflower.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And I wonder. Why do the stems of the pale purple coneflower twist and turn? One of my prairie volunteers asked me this question—and—I have no idea! But I love the sense of motion they bring to the tallgrass; almost as if they were swaying underwater.

Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They seem to be dancing to some unheard music that only coneflowers can hear. If you picked a song for coneflowers to dance to, what would it be?

Insects and spiders have been hard at work, doing June tasks on the prairie. How did this spider capture a golden alexanders plant so completely? I’ve been on this particular prairie for more than two decades, and have never seen a weaving quite like this one.

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

One of the joys of the June prairie is finding the panic grass in full “bloom.”

One of the panic grasses (Dichanathelium sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And these “bugs” and blooms are only a few of the wonders unfolding. The grasses are complex—and already, making their presence felt among the wildflowers.

Squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Spending time on the prairie—walking it in all weathers, touching the leaves, admiring the wildflowers and grasses, marveling at the spiders and insects — is a way to come into relationship with a small part of the natural world. As one of many volunteers who love and care for this prairie through acts of restoration, I feel satisfaction helping heal a system that has been broken.

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus),Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And, as I hike, I find that the prairie helps heal some of what has been broken in me.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Good reasons—all of them—to go for a hike on the June prairie.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer (1953-) is the author of the bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass. My favorite of her books is Gathering Moss. If you haven’t read both books, you’re in for a treat.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, to poetry, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden witnew eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST–Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies:Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

A “Prairie Love” Shack

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

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Some people swear they need to see Bob Dylan in concert before they die. Others vow they’ll climb Mt. Everest. Or aspire to drive the length of historic Route 66.

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But for many of the almost 200 people who gathered for The Aldo Leopold Foundation‘s  “Building a Land Ethic” Conference in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this past week, their goal was  this:

To see “The Shack.”

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No, not the “Love shack, baby,” (with apologies to the B-52s). Although this shack is “set way back in the middle of the field” as the song says.

“The Shack” is a remodeled chicken coop and iconic Wisconsin weekend retreat that provided inspiration for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949.

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In his series of essays, Leopold eloquently writes about the tension between humans and nature. He was inspired by the prairies, marshes and woodlands that surrounded The Shack, as well as other places he had worked at or traveled to. Leopold’s words are an eloquent plea to change the way we think about–and care for—our world.

 

In the 1940s, not every publisher thought people were ready to hear this University of Wisconsin professor’s conservation ideas. Look at this letter Leopold received from a publisher considering his manuscript:

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Thank goodness Leopold persisted in keeping his “monotonous” ecological theories in the book!  Although he died before A Sand County Almanac went to print—with a different publisher—he had the joy of knowing his conservation ethics would be shared with a larger audience.

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What Leopold couldn’t know was that his ideas would become the foundation upon which we build many of our conservation ethics today.

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For those who care for prairies, woodlands or other natural areas, it is difficult to choose a favorite Leopold quote. One of his most famous is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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A favorite of mine: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”

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Or this quote, which is frequently circulated in prairie restoration circles: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” A bit depressing, isn’t it?

The Silphiums refer to four prairie plants:

Compass plant, which blooms right around the summer solstice, sending periscopes of yellow flowers across the sea of grasses.

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Cup plant, whose opposite leaves join around the stem to “cup” water after a rain. The perfect goldfinch drinking fountain.

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Rosin weed and prairie dock complete the quartet.

I think Leopold would be happy to know that today, almost 70 years later, many of us are restoring tallgrass prairie.

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We won’t reclaim all that was lost, but perhaps we are following his direction: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”

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The Silphiums are just four of those many critical “cogs” and “wheels” we plant, tend, and celebrate. Today,  at larger prairie restorations in the Midwest, it’s possible to see a thousand acres of prairie—with Silphiums–“tickling the bellies of bison” again.

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Leopold’s love for prairies, woodlands, marshes, and the natural world continues to influence and inspire those of us who volunteer and work in restoration today.

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Visiting “The Shack” reminds us of the power of words. They can change the world.

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Which of Leopold’s words resonates with you?

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The opening quote is from the foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). His groundbreaking ideas continue to influence the way we care for the natural world today. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There), consider beginning with one of these essays: “Thinking Like a Mountain,”  “A Marshland Elegy,” or “Good Oak.” To discover more about Leopold and his conservation ethics, you might also read Curt Meine’s excellent book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; outside “The Shack” with daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; outside Aldo Leopold’s Shack, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI;  inside looking out a window of “The Shack”, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; yellow hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI; letter,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI: foundation with prairie planting,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI;  spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), The International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; bison (Bison bison) with their ten offspring, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goat’s rue–also called “the devil’s shoestrings” (Tephrosia virginiana) Leopold Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin; hairy beardtongue (Penstemen hirsutus), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI. 

Prairie Bloom, Doom, and Zoom

“All things seem possible in May.” –-Edwin Way Teale

The dickcissels sing a coda for spring; on its way out. But so much more is on the way in.

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Something big has been set in motion. No stopping the cycle now.   Even as the first spring blossoms wither, something new opens each day to take their place. The prairie overflows with wildflowers.

Wild columbine hangs its blooms wherever it can find an open spot.

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Insects emerge. Bumblebees zip and zoom. Close up, the wild columbine serves as a landing strip for hover flies.

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The genus name for columbine is Aquilegia from the Latin Aquila which means “eagle.” Named for the talon-like petal spurs on the flower. It does seem to embody flight, doesn’t it?

Panic grass—an awesome name!–staccatos itself across the prairie.

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Zoom in a little closer and—hoverflies again! They find the panic grass a great place for a romantic tryst.

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Shooting stars fizzle and form seeds.

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Prairie smoke signals the end of its bloom time with a Fourth of July-ish fireworks finale.

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Common valerian finishes fuzzy, sparking seeds. Its stems gradually turn bright pink, making it more noticeable a month after flowering than during its bloom time.

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Meadow rue loosens its grip on its tight-fisted buds, ready to throw out its tasseled blooms.

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The first flush of prairie phlox whirligigs across the prairie…

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…and deep in the leaves, the odd little flowers of wild coffee open. Some call it “tinker’s weed, “feverwort,” or “horse gentian.” Which nickname do you prefer?

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The beautifully-named springwater dancer damselflies emerge.

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While the more plain-Jane-named prairie ragwort begins to bloom.

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Beardtongue dazzles. Hirsute-ly hipster.

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May is over. Finished. Done. Kaput.

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June is ready to launch, full of surprises.

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Will you be there to see them?

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Edwin (Arthur) Way Teale (1899-1980), whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL, not far from where these photos were taken. He was a naturalist, photographer, and staff writer for Popular Science for many years. Teale’s book, “Near Horizons,” won the John Burroughs Medal (1943) for distinguished nature writing. One of his non-fiction books,  “Wandering Through Winter,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with hoverfly (Toxomerus spp.), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.) with hoverflies (Toxomerus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee, feverwort, horse gentian, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.