“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver
May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.
Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.
Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.
Spring in Illinois.
In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.
The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.
The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.
Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.
Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.
As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie. Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.
I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.
Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.” In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.
There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.
Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.
The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.
Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.
Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”
I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.
Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.
It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.
Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!
So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.
Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.
As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.
There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.
The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.
I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.
The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.
John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.
All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.
Join Cindy for a class online!
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.
Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.