Tag Archives: milkweed

A “Prairie Love” Shack

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

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Some people swear they need to see Bob Dylan in concert before they die. Others vow they’ll climb Mt. Everest. Or aspire to drive the length of historic Route 66.

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But for many of the almost 200 people who gathered for The Aldo Leopold Foundation‘s  “Building a Land Ethic” Conference in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this past week, their goal was  this:

To see “The Shack.”

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No, not the “Love shack, baby,” (with apologies to the B-52s). Although this shack is “set way back in the middle of the field” as the song says.

“The Shack” is a remodeled chicken coop and iconic Wisconsin weekend retreat that provided inspiration for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949.

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In his series of essays, Leopold eloquently writes about the tension between humans and nature. He was inspired by the prairies, marshes and woodlands that surrounded The Shack, as well as other places he had worked at or traveled to. Leopold’s words are an eloquent plea to change the way we think about–and care for—our world.

 

In the 1940s, not every publisher thought people were ready to hear this University of Wisconsin professor’s conservation ideas. Look at this letter Leopold received from a publisher considering his manuscript:

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Thank goodness Leopold persisted in keeping his “monotonous” ecological theories in the book!  Although he died before A Sand County Almanac went to print—with a different publisher—he had the joy of knowing his conservation ethics would be shared with a larger audience.

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What Leopold couldn’t know was that his ideas would become the foundation upon which we build many of our conservation ethics today.

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For those who care for prairies, woodlands or other natural areas, it is difficult to choose a favorite Leopold quote. One of his most famous is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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A favorite of mine: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”

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Or this quote, which is frequently circulated in prairie restoration circles: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” A bit depressing, isn’t it?

The Silphiums refer to four prairie plants:

Compass plant, which blooms right around the summer solstice, sending periscopes of yellow flowers across the sea of grasses.

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Cup plant, whose opposite leaves join around the stem to “cup” water after a rain. The perfect goldfinch drinking fountain.

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Rosin weed and prairie dock complete the quartet.

I think Leopold would be happy to know that today, almost 70 years later, many of us are restoring tallgrass prairie.

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We won’t reclaim all that was lost, but perhaps we are following his direction: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”

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The Silphiums are just four of those many critical “cogs” and “wheels” we plant, tend, and celebrate. Today,  at larger prairie restorations in the Midwest, it’s possible to see a thousand acres of prairie—with Silphiums–“tickling the bellies of bison” again.

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Leopold’s love for prairies, woodlands, marshes, and the natural world continues to influence and inspire those of us who volunteer and work in restoration today.

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Visiting “The Shack” reminds us of the power of words. They can change the world.

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Which of Leopold’s words resonates with you?

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The opening quote is from the foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). His groundbreaking ideas continue to influence the way we care for the natural world today. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There), consider beginning with one of these essays: “Thinking Like a Mountain,”  “A Marshland Elegy,” or “Good Oak.” To discover more about Leopold and his conservation ethics, you might also read Curt Meine’s excellent book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; outside “The Shack” with daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; outside Aldo Leopold’s Shack, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI;  inside looking out a window of “The Shack”, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; yellow hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI; letter,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI: foundation with prairie planting,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI;  spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), The International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; bison (Bison bison) with their ten offspring, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goat’s rue–also called “the devil’s shoestrings” (Tephrosia virginiana) Leopold Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin; hairy beardtongue (Penstemen hirsutus), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI. 

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

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What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Seeds of Hope in an Uncertain World

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” — from the Prayer of St. Francis

***

So much hate. How did we come to this?

The tallgrass offers solace, if only for a few hours. Come hike with me.  See what the prairie has to say about it all. Gain some perspective.

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It’s good to be reminded that there is beauty in the world, even if it is sometimes fleeting.

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There are small creatures who keep singing, no matter what the headlines say.

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Little winged ones who bathe themselves in light.

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Comical critters who make us smile, even when world events and politics seem grim.

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The tallgrass reminds us that the cycle of the seasons will continue.

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The prairie ripens its fruits, as it has each autumn for time past remembering.

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The grasses and wildflowers foam with seeds.

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The seed fluff puffs like fireworks…

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…catches the wind, and sails aloft.

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Landing in unlikely places.

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Other seeds are plucked from thistle plants to line a goldfinch’s nest, and help nurture a new generation.

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Each fruit, each seed is a promise. Although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty…

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…we will soon find ourselves at the beginning of a new season.

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Every day, beautiful things are unfolding.

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The prairie reminds us that the issues that consume our attention are only a blink in the immensity of time.

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How will we spend our days this week? Let the seeds we sow for the future be ones that lighten the darkness.

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When so many around us speak hate, let’s sow love. Let’s make a difference.

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The opening quote is widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-2 to 1226). He was known for his simplicity and a love for nature and animals, and often portrayed with a bird in his hand.

All photos above copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (except where noted): view from Fame Flower Knob in October; two cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), an orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme)and two clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice) puddling by Clear Creek; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) bathing in Clear Creek;  American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) ; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in October; ground cherries (Physalis spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium); virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana);  unknown seed; unknown seed in spider web at Clear Creek; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); road through Nachusa Grasslands; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on white clover (Trifolium repens);  eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) at bison watering area;  grasses on Fame Flower Knob with St. Peter’s sandstone; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seed pods. 

Embracing October

“October is a hallelujah! reverberating in my body year-round.” ~John Nichols 

September sings her last blues riff on the prairie.

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The calendar pages over to October. We rush to embrace everything the season has to offer, ready for a change. Ready for something new.

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The tallgrass crackles with static electricity, throwing off seed sparks in every direction. Do you feel the tingle?

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A cool front moves in. Skies cloud over; turn bumpy metal. The bright greens of summer begin to drain into autumn’s palette of russet, copper, and cream.

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Leaves loosen their grip. Let go. Let go. A free-fall transition.

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You can feel surrender in the air.  A beautiful loss, bittersweet. As Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy….”

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Everywhere in the tallgrass, seeds blow away, fall to the ground, or are collected by volunteers. The seeds are the future; glimpsed but uncertain.

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At dawn-break, sun lights the mist rising over the tallgrass. We hold our breath.

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What will autumn have in store for us?

I can’t wait to find out.

******

The opening quote is from The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn by John Nichols (1940-). Nichols also wrote the well-known novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, which explores history, ethnicity, and land and water rights.

Anatole France (1844-1924), who wrote the other quote used in this essay, was a French poet and novelist who won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Mist rising in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; you-pick pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) , Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and DNR, Morocco, IN; road through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; three leaves, Springbrook Nature Center, Itasca, IL; unknown milkweed (Asclepias spp.), Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Morocco, IL; crescent moon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; mist rising with prairie plants and non-natives at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Beauty for Ashes

The first day of spring has come and gone.

Bees buzz about. Gardens green up. Blooms open.

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While out in the tallgrass, volunteers burn the prairies.

Do you hear it? The crackle of flames, the pop-pop-pop of tallgrass igniting.

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Do you feel the heat? A line of fire that licks along the edges of the charred prairie.

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Do you smell the smoke?  It rises from  tinder of last year’s grasses and flowers. The prairie as we once knew it  is gone in a matter of minutes.

The ashes and destruction of all we have known come before resurrection.

And with it: Beautiful blooms…

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Lush growth…

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And wings to fly.

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Look! Something new is on the way. Built upon the work of years before; it begins to push up out of the scorched earth. It’s familiar, yet not quite the same.

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There are surprises in store. Adventures, just around the corner.

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Will you be there for them?

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The prairie is waiting.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (Top to bottom) viburnum (Viburnum farreri) with bee, Ground Cover Garden, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with insect, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboreum, Lisle, IL; bees and beetles on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;   fritillary on rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections of prairie grasses on Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes migrating across sun halo, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; interpretive prairie trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and vervain (Verbena hastata) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Got Milkweed?

I can’t fix the economy. I can’t create more jobs. If I had to vote tomorrow, I’d never untangle the prolific muddle that is the current slate of presidential candidates.

World hunger? Seems overwhelming. Climate change? Ditto.

But there is one small thing I can do to make a difference this summer: Plant milkweed.

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If you missed the news, monarch butterflies are losing numbers. Big numbers. Agricultural land use, pesticides, and loss of habitat have decimated their populations. Monarchs are tattered. Fragile. Barely holding on.

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What can we do?

Plant flowers. Milkweed, to be specific. Here in Illinois, we have more than a dozen native milkweeds. Some are the familiar common pink, sweetly-scented globe-shaped blooms. Others are quite different, such as this whorled milkweed.

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I love the bright orange butterfly weed, also in the milkweed family. Think how pretty it would look in the garden! With a little purple prairie clover.

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All these milkweeds have one thing in common: They are the host plants for monarch butterfly eggs. Once the caterpillars hatch, milkweed plants provide them with life-giving nourishment.

Munch, munch.

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The math is simple.

No milkweed = No monarchs.

Don’t have a backyard, you say? Help restore a prairie or plant a butterfly garden with milkweed in a city park, and you’re helping the monarch butterflies.

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I know, I know. Restoring a prairie or planting milkweed in our backyards and neighborhoods  is not going to solve some of the big problems that our world faces. But each milkweed plant is one small step toward hope. One way to make a tangible difference where we live.

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One tiny spark that can ignite a sky full of butterflies. Do we want to passively accept another loss of something fleeting and lovely?

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Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love. The small changes we can make give us hope for greater changes we can’t make alone.

If only all the solutions to our problems began with planting more flowers.

What a beautiful world it would be.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): bee on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) , SP; butterfly weed, SP; monarch butterfly caterpillar on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) , SP; volunteer restoring tallgrass prairie, SP; monarch butterfly on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), NG; monarch butterfly on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), SP.

“Do small things with great love” quote is adapted from Mother Teresa (1910-1997).