“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao
At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)
Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.
Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.
In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.
It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.
There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.
I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.
A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”
Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.
After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.
This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.
Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.
Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.
A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.
The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…
…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.
There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…
…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.
As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!
We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.
As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.
We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.
They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.
This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.
So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…
…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.
The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.
Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.