Tag Archives: Illinois Wildflowers

Showers of Wildflowers

“All we have to do is turn off our phones, use our senses, and take note of the bewitching beauty that turns up on almost every walk, often in the smallest of things—lichen, moss, insects, raindrops. Anyone can cultivate the capacity to marvel.” — Annabel Streets

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Freeze warning. Monday evening, I cover the newly-planted violas in light of the forecast. I bought a few six-packs in a fit of enthusiasm a month ago. They’ve given me joy on my sheltered front porch. Flowers! Color. I’ve brought them in most nights, keeping them from the worst of the bitter temperatures. This weekend, the thermometer hit 80 degrees and I planted out one of the six packs as well as some of my spring garden vegetables. Normally, the sugar snap peas, onion sets and other early veggies would have gone in two weeks ago. But it’s just been so darn dreary and cold.

Rainy day at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The hot weather this weekend was a nice break from all the rain, rain, rain. Our backyard is wet in the best of times. With the recent rainfall it’s a quagmire. Our knee-high waterproof boots, caked with mud, stand at the ready by the door—necessary for any trip to the compost bin, or to check on the status of new backyard prairie plant shoots. On one trip outside, I pick a bouquet of daffodils and find a sleepy native miner bee snuggled into the flower folds, out of the rain.

Mason bee (Osmia sp.) on daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

My marsh marigolds are relishing the rainfall. When we moved to our tiny suburban yard 24 years ago, one of the first things we did was dig a small pond and plant one marsh marigold on the edge. Yup, just one plant. Two dozen years later, they have spread, a golden necklace that says “spring” to me each season.

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

Some folks, seeing how rambunctious these marsh marigolds are, are suspicious. “Are you sure they’re not fig buttercup?” they ask, referring to a pernicious invasive plant, sometimes known as “lesser celandine” or even, “pilewort.” Although some sources say this invasive plant isn’t in my Illinois county, we know better. A wet area in the subdivision across the street has a large spread of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna, or if you prefer the old name, Ranunculus ficaria). It looks a lot like my marsh marigolds from a distance, doesn’t it?

Lesser celandine, or fig buttercup (Ficaria verna), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Take a closer look. One easy way to tell the invasive lesser celandine from the native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is to flip the blooms over.

Lesser celandine ( Ficaria verna, left) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris, right), Glen Ellyn, IL.

See the (somewhat blurry) three green sepals on the back of the lesser celandine on the left (top image)? The back of the marsh marigolds on the right are a solid yellow. There are other differences as well in the leaves and the flowers, but this is a quick and easy method for distinguishing the two. If you want to become better acquainted, grow the marsh marigold in a swampy place in your yard. Their exuberant blooms will cheer you every spring, even in the throes of our exasperating Midwestern swings of weather.

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

As you hike the prairies and woodlands this week, look for the marsh marigold blooming in the wetter areas. And think of the other wildflowers you’ll see! Hepatica, an early spring woodland favorite, keeps its old leaves through the winter. You can spot their dark maroon and bright green lobed leaves in the lower left-hand side of this image below.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…and also, palest pearl.

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.

False rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.

Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

More wildflowers are in bloom, and many more are on the way. Who knows what else you might see? Daily, the blooms change as new species open and others decline.

As I hike, a burst of tangerine and black distracts me from the wildflowers.

Eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s an eastern comma butterfly! It flutters across the woods, then lands in a patch of sunshine. Yes, I know it’s a common Illinois butterfly, but it’s my first butterfly sighting of the year. Delightful if only for this reason.

So many joys! So much to see.

Spring ephemerals, however, are just that….ephemeral. Blink! And they’ll be gone. Why not go for a hike this week and see them while you can? Who knows what marvels you might discover?

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The opening quote for today’s blog is from Annabel Streets’ “52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” One of my favorite passages is this: “Seek out the work of naturalists and nature writers, who can alert us to the miraculous spots of sublimity we might not otherwise notice. Knowledge doesn’t counter mystery; it enlarges it.” Absolutely.

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Upcoming Events and Programs (more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

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

May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.

May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).

May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

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Time is running out for our prairie remnants in Illinois. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .

Three Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock

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Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.

August at Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.

1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.

Showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.

Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) with (possibly) a potter wasp (Parancistrocerus leinotus), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.

Cream gentians (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:

The maples flare among the spruces,
                   The bursting foxgrape spills its juices,
                   The gentians lift their sapphire fringes
                   On roadways rich with golden tenges,
                   The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers,
                   The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers,
                   The squirrels scurry, never stopping,
                   For all they hear is apples dropping
                   And walnuts plumping fast and faster;
                   The bee weighs down the purple aster —
                   Yes, hive your honey, little hummer,
                   The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”

I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!

Blazing star (possibly Liatris pycnostachya), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.

2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bees, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with an unknown bee, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.

Late figwort ( Scrophularia marilandica) with an unknown insect, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.

This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.

Least skipper (Ancyloxpha numitor) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?

Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.

Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.

So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…

3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.

Dragonfly migration swarm, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…

Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2016).

…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.

Black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.

Bison unit, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?

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The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

Cardinal Rules on the Prairie

“The contours and colors of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others, and to places.” — Robert MacFarlane

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Cardinal rules on the prairie in early August… that is, cardinal flower rules. Suddenly, she mysteriously appears in the wetlands. Pops up beside the ponds. Strikes scarlet poses throughout the wet prairie.

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Her spiky raceme of racy red is unmistakable.

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Swallowtail butterflies like her. The hummingbirds approve. In my backyard prairie patch and pond they hover, drawn to that screaming scarlet. Come closer, the red flowers seem to entice the hummers. Wait until you see how sweet we taste.

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Read the field guide descriptions. Showy. There’s talk about her corollas, those lips! Juicy. Moist-loving. Look again. You can’t not think of a tube of bright red lipstick; maybe a mid-life crisis sports car. This is a sensual flower, make no mistake about it.

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Read on. This plant is “temperamental.” Her ecological value to wildlife is categorized as low. But really, who would expect something so ravishing to be useful as well as beautiful?

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Although… some Native American tribes found cardinal flower roots and flowers important in the making of love charms. The ground-up roots were slipped into food to end arguments and as an anti-divorce remedy. Fitting, perhaps, for a flower so striking, to have these supposed powers.

The prairie is not prodigious with its reds. Sure, there is a little royal catchfly sprinkled around. But not a whole lot else that’s scarlet. Purples?

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Oh my, everywhere from spring to fall. White — plenty of it. Yellows?

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The prairie seems to always have something yellow going on. Blue has a voice in August.

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Pinks. Yup.

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Even pink with a little orange thrown in for good measure.

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But red… now, that’s special.

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In my backyard, the cardinal flower is elusive. Some years it blooms. Others, it disappears and I wonder. Is it gone for good? This August, just as I gave up, a few bright spots appeared around the pond.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Because what would August be in the wet prairie without those splashes of scarlet?

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The opening quote is from Robert MacFarlane’s (1976-) Landmarks, a book that explores the critical importance of naming the natural world.  Read a review of Landmarks here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadow Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) , Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis,) Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL: blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus divarcatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; bee and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; Joe Pye weed  (Eutrochium purpureum) with viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Special thanks to John and Lisa Marie Ayres for permission to photograph Nomia Meadows Farm and its restored prairies and wetlands. If you haven’t stayed at their Bed and Breakfast, please take a look: Lincoln Way Inn Bed & Breakfast, Franklin Grove, IL. The most beautiful B&B I’ve ever stayed in; some lovely prairie-themed rooms.

Factual information and some good reading about the cardinal flower came from here: Illinois Wildflowers.

Ethnobotanical information on the cardinal flower is from page 312 of Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press). Fabulous book! Check it out.