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Much Ado About Milkweed

“A fallen blossom–returning to the bough, I thought…But no, a butterfly.”

–Arakida Moritake

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What’s all the fuss about milkweed?  Well…what’s not to love?

There’s butterfly milkweed’s day-glo orange. Grab your sunglasses.

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Get a pop of prairie color—with a pollinator—from purple milkweed.

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Enjoy the pretty-in-pink of prairie milkweed, sometimes called Sullivant’s milkweed.

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In the fall, the milkweeds smoke silks into the autumn air, sending seeds aloft.

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When the milkweed’s seeds are spent, the canoe-like seedpods are endless vehicles for creativity and imagination.

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Other than the visual and tactile pleasure the blooms give us, our 19 native Illinois species of milkweed are a veritable Noah’s Ark for monarch butterflies. Although monarchs sip nectar from a variety of plants like the bee balm below, they lay their eggs only on milkweed.

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When the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) hatch, they munch on milkweed. Without the milkweeds, there would be no monarchs.

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Scientists at Cornell University tell us to pair milkweeds with fall blooming, nectar-rich plants such as goldenrods. Why?  Goldenrod and other fall nectar plants provide food for the monarch butterfly’s epic migration to Mexico in the fall.  Evidently, goldenrod is an important life-giving flower for monarchs.

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But it all begins with milkweed. Such a simple act of hope—to plant a flower.

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After all, how often can we help save a species while, in the process, make the world more beautiful?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii),Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed silks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed pod with snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  monarch caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  monarch butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago canedensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca) with false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), whose words begins this essay, was a Japanese poet who wrote about the natural world.

A Walk on the Spring Prairie

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment. ~Ellis Peters

 

A cold wind blows through Illinois, then relents. The hot sun unleashes heat on the world. It suddenly feels like spring.

Early wildflowers press their way into view around the edges of the prairie.

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The last pasque flowers open, then fade in the heat.

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Squirrels munch withered crabapples, gaining strength for the new season ahead. The mamas tend their babies, born just weeks ago.

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The prairie ponds are freed from their scrims of ice. The water, released, stands open and clear.

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The first dragonflies and damselflies emerge from their underwater nurseries. Green darners, mostly, but Halloween pennants…

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…and violet dancers are not too many weeks behind.

 

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If you’re patient enough–and lucky enough– you can see the dragonflies emerge to their teneral stage; not quite nymph, not quite adult. Slowly, their fragile new wings pump open. Then, they take on colors, warm to their new lives, and fly.

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As you walk the prairie, a butterfly or two may stir the air with its wings. Only the early ones are out–the commas, the mourning cloaks, a cabbage white or two. But they remind  you that a whole kaleidoscope is on the way. Like this swallowtail.

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There’s not much for them to sip now on the prairie, but more nectar-rich flowers are coming. The tallgrass will soon be ablaze with color and light.

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Soon, you whisper.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogtooth violet/yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower fully opened (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) fading, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake with prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer,  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly, teneral stage, Busse Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County,  Schaumburg, IL;  Canada swallowtail, John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa); prairie at Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

Ellis Peters, whose quote begins this essay, is the author of the “Brother Cadfael” medieval mystery novels.

Prairie Metamorphosis

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Have you seen them yet?

As they begin their journey upward

From the bottoms of ponds,

the streams, the creeks that edge the tallgrass.

Will you be there?

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When they surface,

Clamber out of the water, then, trembling,

Grasp grass blades while

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The sun pulls itself over the horizon and

Illuminates, their dark, drab bodies

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Which split open and become something new.

Have you seen them yet?

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Those ferocious denizens of the deep,

Now in transition, they

Pump tensile strength lace into wings

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While those eyes, those amazing eyes,

Move in a thousand directions and finally

Turn their gaze on you.

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Have you seen them yet?

Suddenly,

They rise into the air, everywhere,

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Dazzling damselflies and

dragonflies.

Note on Dragonflies and Damselflies. They begin life as eggs, which are laid in the water. Then, they hatch into ugly, drab, beetle-looking nymphs;  dragonflies and damselflies live in this stage for as long as eight years in ponds, streams and other wetlands. Responding to many different signals we don’t fully understand, they pull themselves out of the water and their bodies turn from drab and unattractive into the beautiful flyers we know. This process is called incomplete metamorphosis. As adult dragonflies and damselflies, they may live for as little as a few minutes if snatched by a passing bird, or as long as several months here in Illinois.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: American rubyspot, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum; Carolina saddlebags, SP; Teneral stage dragonfly, Busse Woods Forest Preserve, Schaumburg, IL; mating green darners, BWFP; Violet dancer,  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  Black saddlebags, SP; White-faced meadowhawk, NG;Ebony jewelwing, NG.)