Tag Archives: nativar

Prairie Plantings at May’s End

If people looked at the stars each night, they’d live a lot differently.” —Bill Watterson


It’s gardening season at last in the Chicago Region. After a spate of chilly nights, which kept me from planting some of my more tender veggies, everything is finally in. Most everything, that is.

Seed packets— always too many for our small backyard. Lots of dreams here.

Fall-planted garlic is sailing along. Somewhere, I made a note of what type I planted. Somewhere.

Garlic (Allium sativum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love green onions, and my Egyptian Walking Onions, planted years ago when we first moved here, continue to flourish. They are as much art in the garden…

Egyptian walking onions (Allium x proliferum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…as they are utility players; emergency onions that sub in recipes when we run out of the bigger supermarket bulbs.

Egyptian walking onions (Allium x proliferum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Those swerves and curves! The plants will have tiny bulbils at the end of each stem which weigh it down, those bulbils plant themselves to start the process of “walking” all over the garden again. So much fun. In the same raised bed, our everbearing raspberries (“Joan J”), now in their second year, are flowering and fruiting. My mouth waters just thinking about fresh berries.

Rasberries (Rubus idaeus ‘Joan J), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Near the house, the stinging nettles I wrote about two weeks ago that made a surprise appearance in our yard are still in place, with caterpillars webbed into at least a dozen leaves. I’ve made my peace with keeping the plant until it looks like the red admiral butterfly caterpillars are finished with it—or maybe July, whichever comes first. We’ll see. Imagine my surprise when I saw our backyard wasps visiting the leaves! Evidently, they are a caterpillar predator. Uh, oh…

Probably a paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus or Polistes dominula) on slender stinging nettle (Urtica gracilis), feeding on the red admiral caterpillars, (Vanessa atalanta), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Drama reigns. I turn my eyes from this horror show and focus on the lovely flowers blooming all around me instead. Nature has such contrasts. The non-native garden traditional garden plants are having their moment, especially Siberian iris, reliably blooming right around Memorial Day. My native blue flag iris near the pond won’t be far behind.

Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Peonies are in bud…

Peony (Paeonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and in bloom.

Peony (Paeonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. The name of this peony has long been misplaced!

My yard is about 70% native plants; 30% traditional garden plants. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to test a cultivar of one of the prairie natives for its value to butterflies, birds, and bees against the natives themselves. With this in mind, I purchased the most outrageous “nativar” I could find locally— “Rainbow Sherbet” coneflower from the “Double-Dipped” series of Echinacea. I also purchased the native purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)…

The great Echinacea face-off —- which will the pollinators and birds prefer?

…and I already have the pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) growing in my front yard prairie planting.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’ve talked to conservation organizations and garden clubs about avoiding the native plant cultivars so prevalent in the nursery industry; especially doubles like “Rainbow Sherbet,” as they are said to have multiple issues (less value to wildlife as only one). This particular echinacea is touted as “loaded with nectar for pollinators.” So, this season, I’m going to see for myself. My plan is to keep notes on what insects and birds visit the different coneflowers throughout the summer and fall. Stay tuned for the “Coneflower Contest.” How will the pollinators vote?

As I look for an ideal spot for the two new coneflowers where I can easily keep an eye on them, I notice our native pawpaw tree has….could it be…fruit? Tiny developing pawpaws! That’s a first for our backyard. Will they mature? We’ve always had flowers, never fruit. Fingers crossed.

Pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

How exciting!

Back in the vegetable garden, I plant the Bush Lake green beans in a block between the zinnias and tomatoes. I had sworn off putting in so many tomato plants this season—and yet it seems my idea of restraint is nine plants. What can I say? They looked so good at the nursery. And who can resist the heirloom tomato Brandywine, with its iconic potato leaves?

Brandywine tomato (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Brandywine’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Or the “Patio” tomato, which loves containers? Or those sweet yellow cherry tomatoes? Despite the lateness of the month, I did plant some kale (it seems to handle the long summer heat pretty well if I cut it back and may make it to fall) and the always dependable rainbow radishes from Park Seed. A few kohlrabi, bok choy, some arugula, and spring onions are also in. It seems a bit late for lettuce, but we’ll see how it goes. I have a penchant for the butterheads; I planted Tennis Ball, the beautiful Merveille des Quatre Saisons that I can’t do without in the garden, and Little Gem — all favorites. I can always pull them early if they begin to bolt.

I also expanded our front yard prairie planting to include three pale beardtongue, a prairie milkweed, and four prairie smoke plants, one a thoughtful gift. Watering is critical for a new prairie planting the first year, so I’m liberal with the hose. Later, I’ll let them fend for themselves.

Crosby’s front yard prairie planting (gradually expanding!), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Water has been a big issue these past two weeks. Out on the prairie where I’m a steward, we planted 24 new pasque flower plants. However, the critters—perhaps thirsty for the water we soaked them with when planting—dug up six of them and tossed them aside. Ouch! By the time I went back to check the following week, they seemed to be goners. We’re going to try some little cages on a few of them to see if that helps. I feel for the wildlife; Willoway Brook nearby is running low and choked with algae. I wouldn’t want to drink that, either. But hey—stay away from our planting, critters!

Pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In the evenings on the prairie, the silvery mounds of cream indigo seem to glow. Blue-eyed grass and bastard toadflax are everywhere, and prairie phlox, while a little sparser than in previous seasons, is still a show-stopper. In the mornings, the Ohio spiderwort washes parts of the prairie in blue.

Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On these last days of May, I try to walk the prairie in the evenings. The long shadows of the fire-resistant black walnuts and oaks stretch across the lush grass, seemingly to beckon me inward. Birdsong (aided by my Merlin app) from cedar waxwings, indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles, and other birds lull me into a contentment that sometimes eludes me during a busy day at home.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Night follows. On Memorial Day, tipped off by friends, Jeff and I stood in the driveway just after dark, and watched the International Space Shuttle arc overhead. Its staff of astronauts, traveling 17,500 miles per hour, will see 16 sunrises and sunsets each day. (Click here to see how to sign up for alerts for where and when to see it where you live). The shuttle circles the Earth every 90 minutes, but it’s the first time we’ve ever seen it move through the night sky.

International Space Station over Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a wonder! So much is happening all around us that we don’t even notice, both in the vast constellations of the universe and the black dirt of our backyards.

Night sky petunias (Petunia cultivars ‘Night Sky’), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

June is on the way.

Great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But how astonishing are these last day marvels of May.


The opening quote is from Bill Watterson (1958-), the creator of the award-winning comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” which ran from 1985-1995. He ended his run with the comic on December 31, 1995, saying he was eager to begin working at a “thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.” A political science major, Watterson named Calvin for an 18th Century theologian and Hobbes for a 17th Century philosopher.


Join Cindy for a Program or Class

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–on National Prairie Day! Saturday, June 3, 1-2:30 p.m. CT, Sterling Farmer’s Market (at the Pavilion) in Sterling, IL. Free and open to the public. Indoors in case of rain.

Literary Gardens Online –-Wednesday, June 7, 7-8:15 p.m. CT, Bensenville Public Library, Bensenville, IL, via Zoom. Free but you must register to receive the link (participation may be limited to first sign ups). For more information and to register, contact the library at 630-766-4642.

“In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm CT via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon.

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — Friday, June 23, 8:30am-12:30 pm CT, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration and more information can be found here. This class is split between classroom and field work. Fun! You don’t need to know anything about dragonflies to join us.

More classes and programs at www.cindycrosby.com

Thank you, John H., for the tip-off on the International Space Shuttle this week. We were awed.

New Year’s Prairie Resolutions

“He who tells the prairie mystery must wear the prairie in his heart.”—William Quayle


It’s that time of year; the time we put away the old and look forward to something new. Have you made a few New Year’s resolutions? As a prairie steward, gardener, and nature lover, many of my resolutions involve the natural world. Here are half a dozen New Year’s resolutions from my list.


1. I will visit more cemeteries…cemeteries with remnant prairies, that is.

Every time I stumble across a cemetery with remnant prairie, I’m deeply moved. The diversity of flora. The sense of history.

Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL (2020).

It’s a reminder that people and prairie are deeply intertwined. And yet, I haven’t been as intentional about seeking these prairies out as I’d like to be.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL (2022).

Cemetery prairies evoke a sense of loss and antiquity that is a different feeling I find at other remnant prairies. Because many of these cemeteries were planted into original prairie, then uncared for, the prairie community is still relatively intact.

St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL (2019)

We can learn a lot from these botanical treasures. In 2023, I hope to hike more of the small cemetery prairies in all four seasons. If you have a favorite cemetery prairie, please tell me about it in the comments.


2. I will conduct backyard trials of cultivars with natives, side by side.

One of the most-requested programs I give to organizations is “Add a Little Prairie to Your Yard.” Inevitably, program attendees ask about “cultivars” or “nativars.” Plants like double echinaceas. Unusual colored butterfly milkweeds with pretty names. These plants look like native prairie plants….but are they?

Native butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Well yes…and no. My take-away on these “nativars” has been to stay away from them, especially the floral doubles, as I wrote in my blog post “The Trouble with Milkweed” in April 2022. But I’ve not actually tested them in my garden against their wild cousins. In 2023, my hope is to plant at least two different native cultivars side by side with their truly native relatives. Then, I’ll collect some observational data throughout the growing season.

Native pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and a striped sweat bee(Agapostem sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2018)

What pollinators visit the cultivars and true natives—or don’t visit? Do birds seem to use the cultivars as much as the natives? All the anecdotal evidence says the natives will out-perform the cultivars in pollinator-attraction and wildlife use. I’m excited to find out for myself.

Stay tuned.


3. I will learn more names for cloud types in the prairie skies.

One of the most underrated joys of hiking the tallgrass prairie is the big-sky views.

Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (2019)

The clouds are an ever-changing extravaganza of shape, motion, style, and light.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I know a few of the basic terms for clouds—cumulous, stratus, cirrus—and their kin, the contrails, condensed water from aircraft, but there is so much more to learn.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

With cloud-naming in mind, I plan to revisit one of my favorite books, The Cloudspotters Guide to increase my vocabulary and cloud know-how. Fun!

Orland Grasslands, Orland Park, Il. (2017)

Nimbostratus? Stratocumulus? Mackerel sky? Here I come.


4. I will plant an oak.

When Jeff and I moved to our home in the Chicago suburbs more than two decades ago, the only tall trees in the small backyard were arborvitae. Almost 25 years later, there are still not many other trees in our yard. Early on, I planted a ginkgo (a sentimental favorite I wouldn’t plant today, as its value to wildlife is fairly nil). I also replaced our lost green ash with an Accolade elm, an approved street tree in our township that looks good and is well-behaved, as street trees need to be. As I became a little wiser about trees and pollinators, I put in a pawpaw tree, host to the zebra swallowtail butterfly caterpillar and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

All told, for someone who teaches at The Morton Arboretum, I sure haven’t paid enough attention to trees in my yard. When I paged through Doug Tallamy’s books Nature’s Best Hope and The Nature of Oaks, it nudged me to invest in oaks in 2023. Sure, I have concerns—-oaks, like many other trees, are under threat from disease and from climate change.

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL. (2020)

But I’m ready to risk. I plan to purchase my oak from Possibility Place in Monee, IL, where I’ve had good luck with native shrubs. (See resolution #6). At 60-plus years old, I realize this slow-growing oak isn’t going to be instant gratification for me. Rather, this will be a tree planted for future generations to enjoy, and hopefully, an instant host for the many insects oaks host, which will nurture the birds living in and passing through our area.

Where will I put an oak in our small yard? Hmmm.

Mixed oak leaves (Quercus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

A challenging problem to think about and puzzle over this winter.


5. I will keep a regular eBird list.

Is there anything so joyful during the long Midwestern winter months as watching birds? Several of my friends are active eBird listers, and I’ve always admired their knowledge of what species are showing up where in Illinois. (Shout out John and Tricia!). If you’re not familiar with eBird, it’s a free data base hosted by Cornell University where you can list your bird sightings and photos from your backyard, or on a prairie hike. It then combines your data with other sightings so ornithologists can gain a greater understanding of what birds are where, and how species are thriving or declining.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

Last winter, more than 200 common redpolls landed at once at our backyard feeders in what was an unusual irruption for this species in Illinois.

Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (February, 2020).

This daily show outside our kitchen window during some of the longest, coldest days of winter was quite a spirit lifter! It renewed my interest in sharing my sightings with others through eBird. When I report my “backyard birds,” I know my common sparrows, starlings, blue jays, and cardinals and other backyard regulars are part of a greater effort. I’m one of many citizen scientists contributing to an important conservation tool. In 2023, I hope to monitor my backyard feeders at least once a week and report my sightings.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2016)

Will the redpolls will show up again this winter? Fingers crossed.


6. I will expand our native plantings.

When we purchased our home in 1998, there was little in the turf-grassed yard except the aforementioned arborvitae and a lot of rosebushes and yew. Today, we have a diversity of native plants…

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

…as well as a vegetable garden and some traditional garden favorites. Over the past few decades, we’ve chipped away at the turf grass, adding a small pond. We’ve left just enough backyard grassy areas for yard games and walking paths.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Each year, we try and tackle a different planting project. After removing the invasive burning bush which came with our home, our resolution in 2021 was to “plant native shrubs.” We added American hazelnut, spicebush, native honeysuckle, witch hazel, and buttonbush.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2022).

2022 was the year I vowed to plant a little prairie in the front yard. We succeeded in a modest way. It’s not a large planting, but it gives us a lot of joy. We also get a few unexpected visitors.

Marine blue butterfly (Leptotes marina) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL. This species is a rare migrant to Illinois.

In 2023, I hope to plant natives on the east-facing side of our house. Presently, it’s home to our air conditioner unit and compost bin, and…dare I say it? Fairly unsightly. We removed an invasive Japanese barberry a decade or so ago that was the only shrub in that location. This winter, I’m researching native plants, shrubs, and trees that can take half-day shade and standing water as our subdivision runoff goes right through this area. Maybe a swamp oak? Any ideas? I’d love to hear what worked for you if you have a spot like mine on the side of your house that needs attention.


Now that I’ve shared a few of my New Year’s resolutions, I feel a sense of accountability to make them happen. Good intentions, but the road to you-know-where is paved with some of my past ones. We’ll see how it goes.

Pollinator, possibly a carpenter bee? (Xylocopa sp.) heading for blazing star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What are your prairie resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to know. Maybe you have some of the same ones as I do. Let’s all enjoy more hikes outside, pay attention more closely, plant for the future, tune in to some of the smaller members of our natural world (insects, fungi, lichen) and enjoy the way the sky changes from minute to minute in this beautiful place we call home.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Good luck with your resolutions, and happy hiking!


The opening quote is by William Quayle (1860-1925), who penned such books as Prairie and the Sea and A Book of Clouds. Another favorite quote by Quayle: “You must not be in the prairie; but the prairie must be in you.”


Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.


Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

***Note to readers: All undated photos were taken this week.