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

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

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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!

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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.

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

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Hello, shaggy little fleabane!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

 

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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
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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.

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

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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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.