Tag Archives: may

After a Prairie Storm

“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.”  — Josephine W. Johnson

*****

Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

False Solomons Seal SPMA52719WM.jpg

Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.

The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.

goldenalexanders52719WM.jpg

Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails.  I should have brought my kayak.

SPMAsubmergedtrails52619WM.jpg

On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…

blue-eyedgrassSPMA52619WM.jpg

…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.

This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.

palebeardtongue52719WMSPMAFIRST.jpg

Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.

creamwildindigoWMA52419WM.jpg

Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.

wildstrawberry52719WM.jpg

Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color.  I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?

virginiawaterleaf52719WMSPMA.jpg

The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.

shootingstarSPMA52419WM.jpg

May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.

SPMAafterthestorms52719WM.jpg

Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.

*****

Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In  The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.

*****

All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:

Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).

Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here. 

Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)

Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).

Find more at cindycrosby.com

Finding Joy on the Prairie

“…It is time for a different, formal defense of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is its ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.” –– Michael McCarthy

*****

May draws to a close. June bugs beat against the porch lights in the evening. An almost “Full Flower Moon” rises on Memorial Day, not quite technically “fully-full” but looking complete.

Fullmoon52818wm.jpg

The sun intensifies its gaze after dawn. It’s hot.  In my backyard, the garden blazes into bloom. Giant allium attracts some tiny pollinators.

giantalliumGECROSBY52518wmpsd.jpg

The poppies open their crinkled blooms. Just in time for Memorial Day week.

poppy52418wm.jpg

Their knock-out color is only matched by the screaming scarlet of the prairie’s Indian paintbrush. The hummingbirds rejoice to see so much red!

indianpaintbrush52418PRMAwm.jpg

Castilleja cococcinea Indian PaintbrushwmPRMA.jpg

Speaking of scarlet, the red-winged blackbirds, wearing their red and yellow epaulettes, sing territorial warnings. Get too close to a nest, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.

rewingblackbirdSPMA52218.jpg

The prairie puts away its spring wardrobe in exchange for summer. Goodbye to the smooth wild blue phlox along the shaded prairie edges.

wildbluephlox52218wm.jpg

Hello, shaggy little fleabane!

daisyfleabane52218wm.jpg

The asparagus-like spears of white wild indigo unfurl their leaves. Soon their white flower spikes will turn heads on the prairie. For now, they bide their time.

whitewildindigowmSPMA52218.jpg

Golden Alexanders begin to fade in the suddenly intense heat. The ants frantically work the blooms, knowing their time with this flower is getting shorter.

goldenalexandersSPMA51818wm copy.jpg

The sedges humbly make their presence known, mostly overlooked by people wowed by all the new prairie blooms.

Carex blanda SPMA52218wm.jpg

It’s the annual transition from spring to summer. So much joy! So much anticipation. What will happen next, here on the prairie?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is from Michael McCarthy’s (1947-) “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.” By turns it is poignant memoir, elegy, and a passionate call to fall in love with the natural world.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: May’s “Full Flower Moon,” about 12 hours before it is “fully full;” giant allium (Allium giganteum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), DuPage County, IL; Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), DuPage County, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; marsh fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common wood sedge (Carex blanda), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Thanks to Sherry Rediger and Andrew Hipp for helping make this blog post possible this week.

The Fault in Our (Shooting) Stars

“Cherish your science but understand it as a finite guide to the immensities of time and space…Look far. Dance with the world rather than try to explain it away. Consider the boat, not just the planks. Seize knowledge. Ask hard questions. But know, too, that your intellect is a small window and that its views can be surprisingly incomplete. Feel deeply.” — William J. Broad.

******

What a week it is shaping up to be on the tallgrass prairie! Rain and cool weather are bringing out the blooms. Small white lady’s slippers are in their full splendor. Like tiny white boats floating in a sea of grass.

SPMA51918wm.jpg

The first bright pops of hoary puccoon show up along the trail.

hoarypuccoonSPMA51918wm.jpg

Nearby, another pop of orange. An immature female eastern forktail damselfly. So common—and yet so welcome right now.  Emergence of dragonflies and damselflies has been slow this spring, due to the cool, wet weather.

femaleeasternforktailSPMA51918wm.jpg

Cream wild indigo doesn’t mind the cool conditions. It jumps right into its opening act.

Mayontheprairie51918.jpg

creamindigo51918wm

The wild hyacinths add their delicate scent and good looks in washes of lavender across the prairie.

wildhyacinthtrioSPMA51918wm.jpg

So many beautiful prairie wildflowers blooming this week, you hardly know which way to look. And oh, the juxtapositions! This blue-eyed grass is swirled into an embrace by wood betony.

woodbetonyblueeyedgrassSPMA51918wm.jpg

While nearby, a butterfly conducts surveillance runs across the low grasses and forbs.

americansnoutspma51918wm.jpg

But the literal star of the prairie stage this week is Dodecatheon meadia. The shooting star.

 

shootingstarSPMA51918wm.jpg

Its pink clouds of flowers are so unusual. Look at that bloom shape!

shootingstardreamySPMA52918.jpg

Now, think “tomato blossom.” Or the blooms of eggplants and potatoes. Similar, no?

shootingstarallstagesSPMA51918.jpg

Shooting star is a tease. She beckons bumblebees with her good looks. They zip by, then pause, perhaps shocked by all that floral abundance. Buzz in for a closer look.

shootingstarcloseup51918wm.jpg

What the bumblebees don’t know right away is this: Shooting star has no nectar reward. The only “fault” in this star to speak of! Nonetheless, you can see this bumblebee in the photo below stick out its tongue. Looking for nectar? Grooming itself? Or perhaps letting me know it is time to quit taking photos?

shootingstarbumblebeetongue51918.jpg

As the bumblebee clings to the underside of the bloom, it vibrates its strong wing muscles. They emit a high-pitched buzz. This causes the pollen to be shaken out of the anthers onto the underside of the bee. The process is known as “buzz pollination” or “sonication.” Honeybees can’t do it. Their muscles aren’t strong enough.  Which emphasizes the need for native bee conservation, doesn’t it?

Can you see the pollen in the photo below? Like yellow dust.

shootingstarbumblebeepollenSPMA51918.jpg

As the bumblebee moves on, it carries some of the pollen with it, cross-pollinating other shooting star flowers as it visits each one. Bumblebees also eat pollen, and feed to their bumblebee young.  Click on  this great video for more info that’s been helpful to me in understanding the process.

clusterofshootingstarSPMA51918.jpg

Watch the shooting stars. Listen to what they have to tell us.  They are another reason to care about the natural world and all its creatures.

Then pause.

“Dance with the world rather than try and explain it.”

Make a wish.

*****

The opening quote from William J. Broad’s The Oracle was taken from Flora of the Chicago Region by Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha.

All photos and video this week are from The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (top to bottom) small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum);  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), female; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); cream indigo (Baptisia bracteata) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the background; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) with wood betony (Pedicularis candadensis); possibly American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) although the “snout” isn’t clear;  constellation of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee performing buzz pollination (note the tongue sticking out!); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee (unknown species) vibrating out the pollen; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) close up; video of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) waving in the breeze. 

10 Reasons to Hike the Prairie This Week

“The pleasure of a walk in the woods and the fields is enhanced a hundredfold by some little knowledge of the flowers which we meet at every turn.”–Mrs. William Starr Dana

*****

Buckets of rain have doused the prairie to life in the Chicago region. Color it technicolor green. Even under cloudy skies.

rainydaySPMA51318

In the neighboring savanna, oaks leaf out and invite exploration to see what’s emerging. They seem to say: “Go deeper in.”

SPMAsavanna51318wm

So much new life all around us! Still need a push to get outside? Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week.

10. Pasque flowers are going to seed, as marvelous in this new stage as they were in bloom. Maybe even more beautiful.

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAwm

9. Prairie violets are out in profusion.  Not your ordinary lawn violet. These are something special.

prairievioletSPMA51318wm.jpg

8. Bastard toadflax spangles the landscape with white. The name alone is worth going to see it!

bastardtoadflax51318.jpg

7. Wood betony is spiraling into bloom. Looks like a carnival has come to the prairie, doesn’t it?

woodbetonySPMA51318wm.jpg

6. There’s nothing quite like the smell of wild hyacinth opening in the rain. Breathe deep. Mmmm.

wildhyacinthSPMA51318wm.jpg

5. New Jersey tea—a prairie shrub—spears its way through the soil and bursts into leaf.

NewJerseyTeaSPMA51318wm

NewJerseyTeaSPMA51318wmleaf

4. Common valerian is in full bloom this week. Such a strange little wildflower! Supposedly, it smells like dirty socks, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of any unpleasant fragrance.

commonvalerian51318wm.jpg

3. Jacob’s ladder covers whole patches of the prairie, adding its bright baby blues.

JacobsladderSPMA5138two.jpg

2. Wild coffee is about to flower. Its other quirky nicknames, “tinker’s weed” and “late horse gentian” are as odd as the plant’s unusual leaves, blooms, and later, bright orange fruits.

 

  1. Shooting star blankets the prairie in low-lying, pale-pink clouds. You don’t want to miss these wildflowers!  Like their name implies, they’ll be gone before you know it.

shootingstarSPMA51318WM.jpg

Ten very different reasons to take a hike. But I could find a hundred reasons (and not just the wildflowers) to put on a rain jacket, get out of the house, and go for a  walk on the spring prairie this week.

What about you?

***

The opening quote for this post is from How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893) by naturalist Francis Theodora Parsons, aka “Mrs. William Starr Dana” (1861-1952), a book I have long coveted and which my wonderful husband gave me for Mother’s Day.  Parsons was educated at a school taught by Anna Botsford Comstock, who is noteworthy for her role in establishing the Nature Study Movement and especially, empowering women to explore the natural world. Parsons’ life was marred by several tragedies. After the loss of her first husband, Parsons went walking with her friend, the illustrator Marion Satterlee, for comfort. From those walks, the book came about. My 1989 edition has 100 lovely black and white drawings from Satterlee, plus 25 rich color illustrations from paintings by the artist Manabu C. Saito.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum (top to bottom): Rainy May day on the prairie; oaks (Quercus spp.) leafing out; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) going to seed; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) in bloom; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) in bloom; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) in two different stages; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans); wild coffee from afar and close up, sometimes called tinker’s weed or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum);  shooting star  (Dodecatheon meadia).

Purple Prairie Haze

“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
********
There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.

P1070642 (1).jpg

Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.

P1070403 (2).jpg

And its close kin, prairie violet.

P1070226 (2).jpg

Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

P1070366

Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

P1070495.jpg

Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.

P1070419.jpg

Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.

P1070320 (1).jpg

After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.

P1070362.jpg

The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!

P1070587.jpg

Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.

P1070609.jpg

No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.

An hour that is always well-spent.

***

Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is  a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.”  She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.

Rush Hour in the Tallgrass

Sure, it may look tranquil– from a distance.

IMG_5369

But on the last day of May, you can feel the urgency on the prairie. Things get a little crowded; plants begin to jostle each other for available space.

IMG_5374

The urgency is there in the alien-looking pale purple coneflowers, which merge into the tallgrass. Then they push, push, push their petals out into the fast lane.

IMG_5196 (2)

IMG_5320

IMG_5318

 

You can feel the nature putting her foot down on the gas pedal. Dragonflies shed their underwater nymph status, pump out wings, then lift to the sky. What a ride!

IMG_5458.jpg

Other commuters, like the damselflies, are deceptively still. They startle you when they suddenly dart out into air traffic to snag an unwary insect near the water’s edge.

easternforktailNGClearCreek52016.jpg

New blooms appear each day, bumper to bumper. Each has its host of pollinators. They fuel up, then collect their tiny bags of gold dust. They share the wealth, from bloom to bloom.

IMG_5288.jpg

 

The flowers range from jazzy, eye-popping hoary puccoon…

IMG_5189.jpg

..to the pale, meadow rue buds; unnoticeable like a family sedan…

IMG_5244 (1)

…and prairie alum root flowers, that sport some extra detail work, if you look closely.

IMG_5198

 

The earliest spring bloomers signal the work of flowering is over, and drive home seeds.

IMG_5323

 

Deep within the fast lane; amid the crush of the prairie blooms…

IMG_5331

 

…a thousand insect motors are idling. They accelerate into a buzz of activity, a hum of new adventures unfolding.

IMG_5447

It’s the last day of May on the prairie. Summer is on the horizon. What adventures await you in the tallgrass?

This is one rush hour you don’t want to miss.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three photos of pale purple coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) opening, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) with a pollinator, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospernum canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) going to seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox  (Phlox pilosa) and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) with grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bee on wild white indigo or false indigo (Baptisia alba v. macrophylla).

May Daze on the Prairie

“The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.” — Edwin Way Teale

On a sunny day in May, find a high place to survey the tallgrass prairie.

IMG_5015

 

Look for the lovely lupine, which paints patches of the prairie purple.

IMG_5016.jpg

 

Hike a trail, and hunt for May-apples. Gently lift an umbrella-like leaf and observe how the flower transitions to fruit.

IMG_4910.jpg

 

Prairie phlox blooms pinwheel through the grasses. Makes you want to do a cartwheel, doesn’t it?

IMG_5039 (1).jpg

 

The smooth, milky-white meadow anemones lift their petals to the sunshine.

IMG_4997 (1).jpg

 

Cream wild indigo is in full bloom; white wild indigo, looking like spears of asparagus, promises to follow. Soon. Soon.

 

Shooting stars flare, reflex their petals, fade; then move toward their grand seed finale.

 

IMG_5036

Wild geraniums finish their explosions of blooms and form seeds, with a tiny insect applauding the performance.

IMG_5059.jpg

 

Wild coffee shows tiny reddish-brown flowers, ready to open.

 

A few blooms of American vetch splash the grasses with magenta…

IMG_5056

 

…while the new buds of pale beardtongue dip and sway, ghost-like in the breeze.

IMG_5069.jpg

Have you been to the prairie yet this month? No? Go!

You won’t want to miss the flower-filled, dazzling days of May.

Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980) , whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL. He is best known for “The American Seasons;” four books chronicling his trips across the U.S. His book, Near Horizons (1943),  won the John Burroughs medal for natural history writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Clear Creek Knolls, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grassslands, Franklin Grove, IL; May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemones(Anemone canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and a pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two views of wild coffee (late horse gentian) (Triosteum perfoliatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American vetch (Vicia americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale beardtongue (penstemon) (Penstemon pallidus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Leaning into the Light

There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez

 

April rains soak the prairie. At last–May arrives.

IMG_3123

Days grow longer in the tallgrass. The prairie, burned just a few short weeks ago, is carpeted with emerald.  Sunshine warms the newly arisen plants.

IMG_4456

 

Prairie dock waves in the breeze.

IMG_4492

 

Compass plants unfurl their ferny leaves.

IMG_4467

The first few tentative blooms on the prairie appear.

Leaning into the light.

Violets spill over from the woodlands…

IMG_4393.jpg

 

Prairie smoke nods in shocking pink, ready to throw out its silks.

IMG_4302.jpg

 

Prairie dropseed spikes across the prairie in electric green.

IMG_4296.jpg

 

A few wild geraniums tentatively skirt the edges of the prairie, as does…

IMG_4368.jpg

 

… toothwort, spreading through the oak savanna.

IMG_4355.jpg

 

A barrage of bluebells stuns the eyes.

IMG_4288.jpg

 

A prairie trillium lifts its blood-dark bloom…

IMG_4326.jpg

 

…as wood betony spins its petals in swirls of butter yellow.

IMG_4414

 

Shooting stars appear as if from nowhere, arcing in a dance choreographed by the breezes.

IMG_4468.jpg

 

The long days of winter and darkness are over.  You can feel spring bubbling up through the landscape.

IMG_4397.jpg

Welcome back, light.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) leaf uncurling, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum trifloum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild geranium  (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cut-leaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebells (Mertensia virginica) , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The longer quote shortened at the beginning of this essay is from Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams and is as follows: How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

A 2015 Prairie Retrospective

May you never forget what is worth remembering; May you never remember what is best forgotten. — old Irish blessing

Every prairie year has its own personality. Every season in the tallgrass is full of surprises.

Thank you for hiking the prairie with me on Tuesdays in 2015. I hope you’ll enjoy this retrospective of the Illinois prairie, month by month.  Who knows what wonderful things are in store for us in 2016?

January

Winter is a good time for naps, as these shaggy bison know. Bringing buffalo to Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  was a culmination of a dream for many prairie restorationists. In 2015, we watched the herd grow and a new bison unit open.

IMG_2168

February

Windy winter skies bring their own motion to the prairie, rattling the brittle grasses and seedheads.

IMG_1616

March

Fire is to prairie as water is to life. Because we suppress wildfires, prairie restorationists must used prescribed burns to ensure the prairie regularly goes up in flames. Only a few weeks after all is soot and ashes, the prairie turns emerald with new growth. It’s a resurrection of sorts. A chance for new beginnings that inspires even the most jaded and cynical observer.

sp-burn2013

April

A great egret keeps watch over a wet prairie, scanning for small frogs and fish.

IMG_5731

May

As spring breezes ripple prairie ponds and streams, the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds add their notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Dragonflies emerge.

IMG_4715

June

Pale purple coneflowers  open, heralding the beginning of summer on the prairie. Once revered for their medicinal value, today we appreciate them for their verve and color.

IMG_5804

Like badminton birdies, aren’t they?

IMG_6008

Moist conditions helped queen of the prairie have a banner year in 2015.

IMG_7033

July

Dragonflies are all around us in the warmer months. In July, they clamor for our attention with their numbers and bejeweled colors.  Here, a blue dasher looks out at the prairie with its complex eyes. Below, an American rubyspot hangs over a stream rushing through the tallgrass.

bluedasher-sp2015

IMG_9012

August

Bee balm rampaged across the prairie in 2015; monarchs sipping beebalm nectar approved. There was good news for monarch butterflies this year — from the tollroads in Illinois which will fund milkweed plantings; to increased numbers of monarchs this season.

beebalmsp2014

September

Without volunteers, the prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest would be a moot point. Here, a volunteer from an Illinois church group collects seeds on one prairie that will be used to plant a different site.

IMG_9090

October

Asters are the floral bon voyage to the prairie blooming season. It’s bittersweet to see their purples, whites, and golds across the prairie. We know winter is just around the corner.

IMG_9511

The goldenrods join the chorus of goodbyes each autumn.

IMG_9217

November

Milkweed, including this common milkweed, got a lot of attention in 2015 for its value to monarchs. Did you plant some? If not, there’s always next year.

IMG_0696

December

Who says December has to be colorless? In some years, the prairie palette seems to catch fire as winter begins its slow drain of colors from the tallgrass. The oranges, yellows, and reds are a reminder of the prescribed fires that will burn in the spring; waking the prairie up to a new season of life.

IMG_1369

I began my first blog entry this year with the image above; it seems fitting to close out this prairie season with it.

Looking forward to hiking the tallgrass on Tuesdays with you in 2016.

Happy New Year!

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison in the snow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; winter sky, NG; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the fire, SP; great egret, NG; pond life, NG; Echinacea pallida, SP; Echinacea pallida, SP; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); blue dasher dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot, NG; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and monarch butterfly; volunteer, SP; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), SP; New England asters (Symphyotrichumnovae-angliae) and goldenrod (Solidago spp. — there were several species represented in this particular patch where I photographed, and the IDs are uncertain) SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) DuPage County Forest Preserve; late December grasses, NG.

Old Irish Blessing: original source unknown

The Buzz About Shooting Stars

Seeing shooting stars in the suburban Chicago area’s light-polluted night sky is challenging at best. But on the prairie in May, there’s a universe of shooting stars available 24/7, for anyone who takes time to look.

IMG_5481

The May prairie is a panoramic, ever-changing Persian carpet of leaf shapes, textures, blooms, and insects. To really pay attention to it, drop to your knees. Quiet your mind. Most blooms and grasses are still low, from a few inches to about a  foot tall. Some of the blooms are hidden under the growing grasses, so you have to pay attention to really see what you’re looking at.

The first thing I find hidden in the grasses is bastard toadflax, whose tiny white flowering stars are in their full glory right now. The seeds were once enjoyed as tasty trail snacks.

IMG_5539

Lift your eyes a bit, and little mounds of cream indigo plant with its silvery leaves come into focus, dotted around the prairie. This was a favorite plant of Native Americans, who used the seedpods for baby-pleasing rattles and the mashed up root rubbed into tiny tummies for colic. Early settlers didn’t like it so much. Livestock often died if they ate too much of its toxic foliage.

IMG_5538

Eye- popping orange hoary puccoon is also in bloom, as are wild geraniums and the last swirls of wood betony.

IMG_5405

But the real show-stoppers are the shooting stars.

shootingstars2SP2015

Pink. Shading from white-pinks to lavender-pinks. Plus the rosette of leaves, from a birds-eye view, have pleasing streaks of maroon.

IMG_5451

In order for shooting stars to reproduce, they must be buzz pollinated. Tomatoes, nightshade, blueberries, potatoes and cranberries require this process for efficient pollination as well. Bumblebees are the main heroes of this performance for which there is no nectar reward. The pollen, deep in the shooting stars’ anthers, is shaken loose when the bumblebee grasps the flower and rapidly moves its thoracic wing muscles. This sets up the vibration.

IMG_5482

As the flower vibrates, the pollen is shaken loose. Writer Peter Bernhardt says watching the pollen grains fall from the anthers looks a lot like salt grains falling from a salt shaker. You may also hear this process called sonication.

IMG_5441

When you see the big bumblebees, buzzing across the prairie in the mornings,  send them a message of gratitude. Without them, our prairies would be missing one of their most welcome May wildflowers.

Thanks.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. From top to bottom: Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellate), NG; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) The Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) NG; shooting stars, SP; shooting star foilage, NG; shooting stars, NG; shooting stars, NG.)

For more information about sonication or buzz pollination and shooting stars, check out The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt.