Tag Archives: mullein foxglove

The Tallgrass Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll


Sunday evening, Jeff and I stepped outside at twilight to see bright Venus and Jupiter shining in the west. They’ll move toward “the kiss”—an almost-conjunction in the sky—on March 1.

Venus and Jupiter over Crosby’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As we stood outside in the dark, boots squelching in the melting snow, the smell of the air hit me. It was one part fresh mud, one part thaw, one part fresh laundry. The smell of spring.

Spring? It’s here, folks. Wednesday, March 1—tomorrow—is the first official day of meteorological spring for some; others look to the vernal equinox March 20 to declare the season officially open. No matter which date you choose, spring is here in the vagaries of weather.

Unknown asters, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Ahh. The weather. Monday, two freak tornadoes touched down a few miles from our house. In…February?

Nest, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.


Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Some towns near us saw as much rain in a few hours as they usually receive in a month. Temperatures reached almost 60 degrees. It was the fifth warmest Feb 27 since the 1800’s, according to our Chicago weatherman Tom Skilling.

Wild bergamot (Monarada fistulosa), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

It’s not only wild weather that says “spring.” Spring is here in the scent of February snowmelt.

Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

The call of the sandhill cranes headed north. The crocus’s purple petals splayed open in a pocket of sunshine between the porch and the house.

Crocus (Crocus sativus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Spring is here in the rustle of bleached grasses on the tallgrass prairies.

Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

We can hear “spring” announced by the crash-bang early morning thunderstorms that rattle the window blinds.

Sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Spring drops its calling card in the slop of mud on the prairie trails.

Horse (Equus caballus) tracks, Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

As Jeff and I walked the prairie paths this weekend, we startled a host of American tree sparrows. They are winter residents in the Chicago region, and will soon head to their northern breeding grounds. Cornell University tells me American tree sparrows are a species in steep decline, so I’m heartened to see so many on my walks. I’ll miss them when they leave.

American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

A string of geese pull each other across the sky.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Now there’s a species that’s thriving! I always think of bowling pins when I see them overhead.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

There’s a chatter of red-wing blackbirds which screech and swoop, visible at every turn on the prairie trails.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Along the trail, he last seedpods wait for prescribed fire to wipe the prairie clean. A fresh start.

Mullein Foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Even at twilight the slant of the sun hints at the new season transition.

Danada Forest Preserve, Wheaton, IL.

Do you feel it? Take a deep breath. Soak it in.


It’s here. At last.


The opening quote is by Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), known for her garden designs in Great Britain. The author of at least 15 books and thousands of articles, she was a painter until her eyesight began to fail, then her garden design talents moved to the fore.


Join Cindy for a Class or Program in March!

Literary Gardens —In Person— March 7, 7-8:30 p.m,– Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information here.

Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.

Literary Gardens — In Person —– Saturday, March 18, 9am-12:30 pm. Keynote for “Ready, Set, Grow!” Master Gardeners of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties through The Illinois Extension. Dixon, IL. Registration ($25) is offered here.

The Morton Arboretum’s “Women in the Environment Series”: The Legacy of May T. Watts— (in person and online)—with lead instructor and Sterling Morton Librarian extraordinaire Rita Hassert. March 24, 10-11:30 a.m., Founders Room, Thornhill. Registration information available here.

Literary Gardens–In Person — Wednesday, March 29, 7-8:30 p.m. La Grange Park Public Library, LaGrange, IL. (free but limited to 25 people). For more information, contact the library here.

See Cindy’s website for more spring programs and classes.


Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell


What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.


The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.


Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.