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The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

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It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

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The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register 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. Register here.

Orchids in the Tallgrass

“It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.” –Susan Orlean

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Even the most loyal prairie lovers may find themselves hungry for a little bright color in February. Sure, there are the russets and silks, still out there until the first licks of flame from a prescribed burn turn them to memories.

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But don’t we always long for that which we don’t have?

If you want a jolt of bright colors in winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show is a pretty good bet. Wander through the greenhouses, and you’re immersed in pink, purple, and orange.

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And ohhh! That smell of humidity and moist earth! If I close my eyes and inhale, I can imagine I’m on the prairie after a July thunderstorm.

Here, at the Chicago Botanic, I learn a few things about the cultural and social significance of the flowers. Orchids, I find, are often a symbol of wealth. Turns out Beyoncé had 10,000 of them flown in for her wedding. On a lesser scale for us mere mortals, perhaps you had an orchid corsage for your high school prom or an Easter outing. The Orchid Show may prompt a flood of these types of orchid-related memories.
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But not all blooms are of the corsage type. There are orchids in simple, clear lemon-colored zen forms…

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…orchids in every possible combination of colors…

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…and many crazy patterns.

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The white orchids are stunningly elegant in their simplicity.

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Beautiful, yes?  Yet, they still fail to delight me like the orchids on the prairie.

Orchids on the prairie? What’s that, you say?

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Illinois has 45 different species of native orchids, I learn at the show, including the small white lady’s slipper in the photo above. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, as their exotic cousins do.

But perhaps the native orchids are prettiest in bright white. Like these nodding ladies’ tresses in the autumn tallgrass.

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Mmmm– that scent! Light and vanilla-ish.

Some of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s exotic orchids are scented, as well. This orchid smells like chocolate.

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There are spectacular non-native pink orchids on display at the Orchid Show.

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Although they are beautiful, I still prefer the pink lady’s slipper orchids, like this one I found up north, around Lake Superior.

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I admire the blooms at the Chicago Botanic’s Orchid Show.  They bring sunshine and a touch of the exotic to my Midwestern winter.

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But, attending a flower show is a different experience than the joy I feel when I find an native wildflower, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid, while out for a hike on the prairie. That feeling can’t be replicated in any hothouse, no matter how beautiful the display.

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Once you know the location of a particular orchid, you follow its existence with a bit of parental anxiety. Sort of like a mom waiting up for her teenager when curfew is long past. Will the orchid bloom again this season? When? Will the weather conditions favor it? What about trampling animals; lack of pollinators?  Will the orchids show up?

Blink–and you’ll miss them.

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Which makes finding native orchids each season a treasured moment. Imagine the happiness I felt when the little patch of  lady’s slipper orchids I’ve watched over like a mother had twelve blooms this spring, instead of six, as they did the year before.

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No floral display –not even one with 10,000 orchids–can replicate the tallgrass prairie landscape with its native orchids, and its attendant serendipities and disappointments from year to year.

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But until spring comes to the prairie, the exotics will stand in. And they are welcome for their color, variety, and scent, just as the natives will be as the weather warms up.

Soon. Very soon.

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Susan Orlean (1955-, whose quote opens this essay,  is the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998), based on an article she wrote for the New Yorker about Florida orchid growers and poachers. Her book was later made into the movie, Adaptation. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from University of Michigan. Orlean was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) with tiny green pollinator (likely metallic green sweat bee, genus  Agapostemon), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL;  pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) with yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) and Canadian bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Burlington Prairie, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois DNR, Burlington, IL.