Tag Archives: Morton Arboretum

Prairie Migration

“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”

—Maxwell Anderson

*****

They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.

Where are these dragonflies going?

South.

It’s migration season in the Chicago region.

Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?

My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.

In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:

A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.

A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.

These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.

There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.

September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.

Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.

A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.

Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.

Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.

I needed that this week. You, too?

It’s been bird migration time here in the Chicago region; more than 30 million birds were estimated to pass through Illinois in one 12 hour period last week. Jeff and I sit on the back porch and count the nighthawks high overhead; marvel at the hummingbirds that zoom in to fuel up at the feeder.

I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.

But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!

When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.

See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.

*****

The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.

Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.

Join Cindy for an Online Class or Talk this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“A Tallgrass Conversation”Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Bringing Prairie Home

“But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener.” — Doug Tallamy

*******

I’ve always been glad I planted prairie in my backyard. But perhaps never so much as this summer, when I, like other Illinois residents, am spending a lot more time at home.

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My suburban backyard 20 miles west of Chicago is less than a quarter of an acre, and bordered closely on all sides by some of the 300-plus homes in our subdivision. Our yard lies downslope of two others, and is often wet—if not downright swampy. When Jeff and I moved here, there were giant arborvitae, a few yews, and not much else. Gardening was difficult. After removing most of the Arborvitae and all the yews, we planted a border of prairie plants across the backyard. Their deep roots helped absorb some of the water.

Over the years, we’ve added numerous raised beds for vegetable gardening…

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…a small pond, and a mixture of native plants and favorite non-natives. I confess to a passion for zinnias; the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds go crazy over them.

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Our goal has become one suggested by University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy: plant at least 70% of your yard (by biomass) with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses native to your area. Why? It will nourish wildlife. When we plant, we try to keep insects and wildlife in mind. What plants are good nectar sources? How might we attract more butterflies? Which plants have good seeds for birds? Which plants are host plants for moth caterpillars?

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Diversity. We try to think about different plant heights, bloom times, and mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and bloom sizes in the yard. July is a good month to step outside and sit on the patio for a while. Observe. See what is working. What’s not working. Let’s take a look.

Currently, queen of the prairie at the back of the yard is a showstopper. That pink! And so tall—over six feet. Although the flowers have no nectar, they offer pollen to flies and beetles.QueenofthePrairieGEBackyardBestWM71920

A pawpaw tree behind the prairie patch is a host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

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I’ve not observed either of these in our yard, but I’m on the lookout! Meanwhile, it’s the eastern black swallowtails I see, drawn to the blazing star blooms by the patio.

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Culver’s root lights its flower candles in the prairie patch each July—the white so bright against the green! Bees of all kinds love it, as do moths, wasps, and butterflies.

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Nearby are the velvet flame-petals of cardinal flowers. Their bright scarlet screams across the yard.  Look at us! We can’t tear our eyes away. Red is an unusual color for prairie plants, and I watch for these in July, fingers crossed.  Sometimes they jump from place to place in the yard. Some years they’ve disappeared altogether. A few weeks ago I wondered if they were still around. And then—here they are.

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The hummingbirds love cardinal flowers. So do the swallowtails. And, when the cardinal flowers bloom, I begin anticipating the great blue lobelia, another favorite, which blooms a few weeks later.

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Each lobelia, a close relative of cardinal flower, is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. They mingle together along the edges of my small pond.

Cupplant just popped into bloom this week; sunny yellow flowers towering over my head. The plants’ joined leaves hold moisture and create a favorite watering hole for goldfinches after a rain or a particularly dewy morning.

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We have a saying in our prairie group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plant!” It’s such an aggressive plant in the right garden conditions, spreading every which way and dominating the prairie patch. Then, I see a bright goldfinch drinking from the cupped leaves in the summer or enjoying the seeds in the fall. It quenches my resolve to dig them up.

Today, I spy a monarch, nectaring on the blooms. Yes. I think I’ll keep cup plants around.

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Near the cup plants are masses of joe pye weed, which hint at the promise of a flower show in August. The blooms will be a big draw for the yellow tiger swallowtails that wing their way through our backyard.

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Wild bergamot—both the native Monarda fistulosa in lavender….

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…and an unknown species — likely a close relative of Monarda didyma--given to me by a friend, lure the hummingbird moths at dusk.

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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By the patio, the gray-headed coneflowers mingle with a wild asparagus plant, the ferny leaves shooting over my head.

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The asparagus came up wild; likely from a seed dropped by the birds at our eight bird feeding stations.  Or maybe we should call them squirrel feeding stations? These bird feeders, plus the native plants with their maturing seedheads in the fall, the water in our small pond, and heated birdbath in winter are a big draw for birds.

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The pond is a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies, including this great spreadwing damselfly sighted last season. I’d never seen it on the larger prairies where I monitor dragonflies, so what a delight to find it—right here, in my own small backyard.

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I’m on the lookout for it this month, but so far, it has eluded me. I commit to spending more time, sitting by the pond, just quietly looking.

Along the edges of the patio, well-behaved prairie dropseed forms beautiful clumps next to the second-year new jersey tea shrub. In August, the prairie dropseed sends up sprays of seeds that smell of buttered popcorn. It’s not a smell to everyone’s taste, but I love it.

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You can see my backyard is a little bit messy, a jumble of natives and non-natives, lawn and prairie. Weeds? You bet. Our lawn is a mix of species, from clover to violets to oregono and wild strawberries. The rabbits approve. But not everyone in my neighborhood understands.

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It’s important to me that my neighbors see our intentions for the yard—and not just see it as a jumble of plants. I want to woo them away from their drug rugs (as conservationists like my neighbor Jerry Wilhelm calls chemically treated lawns) and toward a more healthy yard. For this reason, we have several signs, including a Monarch Way Station from Monarch Watch and a Conservation at Home sign from The Conservation Foundation. I hope when they see the signs, and the butterflies, birds, and blooms, they’ll be a little curious. What’s going on over there?

I want them to know: Prairies are one of the most fragile, nuanced, and diverse places on earth. Full of amazing creatures and interesting plants.

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Every year, our yard moves a little closer to being more healthy. We’ve still got a long way to go. But the journey of bringing prairie home is a marvelous adventure, full of beautiful surprises.

It all starts with a single plant.

*****

The opening quote is from Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Wild Ones Native Landscapers recently put on a webinar with Tallamy that emphasized the need for at least 70% biomass of native plants in yards in order to sustain insects, birds, and the natural world. We’re still working on our yard—and we still have a long way to go. You, too?

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL , unless designated otherwise (top to bottom):  red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax ), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raised garden beds (thanks to John Heneghan, carpenter extraordinaire!); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on zinnias (Zinniz elegans) (photo from 2019); backyard planting mix of natives and non-natives; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) with a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) behind it;  eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) on blazing star (Liatris spp.); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) (photo from August 2019);  cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus);  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum);  mixed natives and non-natives; unknown monarda, received as a gift (possibly Monarda didyma?) with hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.); grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); author’s backyard pond; great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), photo from 2019); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum); July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m grateful to the Wild Ones Native Landscapers for their work with homeowners and native plant gardening in suburban yards, and The Conservation Foundation for helping gardeners  make our yards healthier and more wildlife-friendly. Thanks also to John Ayres for the cardinal flower seeds that helped me increase my population. Thank you to Tricia Lowery for the liatris and unknown monarda. Both are pollinator magnets!

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Discover “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) 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.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Walking the November Prairie

“To put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do.” — Erling Kagge

*****

Last night, the “Frost Moon” or “Beaver Moon” rose in newly-clear skies, bringing with it plunging temperatures and blue shadows across the snowy backyard prairie patch. I stepped outside to breathe the brittle air.

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I’d forgotten what it felt like to be cold—really cold.

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Watching the winter weather advisory unfold Monday from behind the windows at home had left me vaguely dissatisfied.  I wanted to be outside.  So, I drove to the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a few precious remnant acres saved from development and the plow; sandwiched between I-88, a subdivision, and railroad tracks.

Gusts of winds blew snow into my face and dotted my camera lens.

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The prairie had been transformed. Overnight.

*****

On Sunday, almost 24 hours before, Jeff and I strolled the Belmont Prairie together under gray skies. The smell of snow was in the air—-a promise of what was to come. For now, temps were in the 40s.  Milkweed pods sent their seeds aloft in the breezes.

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Cooling temperatures had sucked most of the vivid colors from the plants. A few, such as these tall coreopsis, were bruised out of their summer greens by the elements.

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The last sunset hues were still in evidence on stiff goldenrod stems and foliage.

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Although I walk the prairies from week to week, year-to-year, I’m always surprised when the bright colors are drained seemingly overnight by a wave of cold. Without so much color—and the motion and buzz of dragonflies and butterflies–your eyes adjust to a new prairie reality. Lovely in its own way. But different.

So much of the November prairie is about the simplicity of line.

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The sharp relief of form.

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The grace of silks and seeds.

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The essence of the prairie season is distilled in its November plants, now winding down to an inevitable conclusion.

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As we hiked Belmont’s trails in the late afternoon’s burgeoning dark, a great-horned owl called from the trees. The perfect ending to our walk. We hurried back to the car.

Cold was coming. A wintery mix….just hours away.

*****

Monday, we woke up to snow, snow, beautiful snow.  I drove to the Belmont Prairie, this time alone.

What a difference 24 hours makes.

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The snow-sugared milkweed pod still holds seeds, but now they’re wet and matted. The goldenrod behind it bends under the weight of the white stuff.

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The sky sifts snow; softens the blunt edges of the prairie, outlines its structures…

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…blurs the jagged silhouettes of seed heads.

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We have entered the season of frosty geometry.

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Even the sounds have changed.  The snow dampens the rustle and hiss of grasses in the wind. I listen for the owl. Nothing. All I hear is the hum of traffic moving on nearby I-88.

Until. The sandhill cranes.

Their cries are faint—oh so faint—but unmistakable. They are headed south, toward warmth and sunshine. I shield my eyes in the snow, watching them go. It’s melancholy. But joyful as well. Another season is ending. A new one is beginning.

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As I head back to the car, I see  lights in the windows of houses sprinkled around the prairie. A woman, bundled to the eyes, shovels her driveway. The scrape-scrape-scrape is sharp and loud across the snow-blanketed landscape. Down the street that runs next to the prairie, a police cruiser pauses, idles.

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My cheeks are red; my hands are glove-less and sting and ache.  The wind whips ice crystals in my eyes. Each step I take on the narrow trails is uncertain. And yet.

When we put one foot in front of another, it changes us.

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In his book, Walking, Erling Kagge writes,  “Making things a little bit inconvenient gives my life an extra dimension.” I feel this tug all the time; the desire to be comfortable and the nagging knowledge that discomfort is often the gateway to discovery.  There is a longing to be a participant in the prairie community, as well as an observer.

Kagge writes, “So much in our lives is fast-paced. Walking is a slow undertaking. It is among the most radical things you can do.” Its rare that I’m not rewarded when I push myself out of my comfort zone.

The radical rewards of prairie walking keep me going back for more.

*****

Erling Kaage (1963-) is the author of Silence and also, Walking: One Step at a Time, from which the opening quote is taken. He has walked to the North Pole, the South Pole, and to the summit of Mt. Everest.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full “Frost Moon,” —sometimes called “Beaver Moon”— over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; west side prairie planting and the European collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie grasses, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  common milkweed pappus (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy Belmont Prairie in mid-November, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) under snow, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; the edge of Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) leaves, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL.

*****

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com