Tag Archives: New Jersey tea

A Walk on the June Prairie

“Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the horizon line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.” — Sherwood Anderson

*****

Come walk with me. The prairie is calling. Who knows what we’ll see?

Coyote (Canis latrans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is awash in wildflowers.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle IL.

Pale purple coneflowers bounce like badminton birdies across the tallgrass. Large elephant ears of prairie dock vie with the clear blue-violet spiderwort blooms, which open in the mornings and close when the sun is at its zenith.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look along the trail. See the pale wild petunias? They pioneer their way along the path edges, and are a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Oddly enough, they aren’t a close relative of the petunias we see in cultivated borders and flowering baskets.

Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look up! See the clouds roll in across the unbearably bright prairie sky.

Skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL, in June.

Kneel down and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Tiny creatures hide in the petals of smooth phlox…

Goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…or buzz along the just-opened flowers of leadplant.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with various insects, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Yet despite all the hustle and bustle, there is peace here.

Glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s also cooler this week after days of brutal heat and humidity. Such a respite. A relief.

Let’s walk to the bridge over Willoway Brook and sit for a while.

Bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Dangle your feet over the bridge. Look into the stream. The shadows of cruising stream bluet damselflies ripple when the sun breaks through the clouds.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Nearby, the female ebony jewelwing damselfly is poised for courtship. The male is just a few feet away, waiting to woo her.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Other damselflies cover the vegetation in tandem, bumper-to-bumper. It’s rush hour.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Variable dancer damselflies offer a contrast in male and female Odonata coloration. Entomologists call this “sexual dimorphism,” which, simply put, means the female is different than the male in some way that doesn’t have to do with reproduction. In this case, color.

Variable (sometimes called “violet”) dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. Male is on the left, female is on the right.

The American rubyspot damselfly stakes out its claim…

American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…while a twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly rests in the shade.

Twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Watch out for turtles! A dragonfly or damselfly would be a tasty snack for this red-eared slider.

Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Life for damselflies and dragonflies is tenuous. The snap of a turtle’s jaws or smack of a bird’s beak and—it’s all over. But what glorious sparks of color these insects give to the summer prairie during their brief time here! They are rivaled in color only by the wildflowers, which are building toward their colorful summer crescendo.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Prairie coreopsis are splashes of sunshine across the prairie. Ants investigate the new buds.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

New Jersey tea, one of my favorite prairie shrubs, froths and foams like a cappuccino.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Carrion flower—-that strange member of the prairie community—twists and turns as it vines toward the sky. I inhale, and get a good sniff of the fragrance that spawned its name. Whew!

Carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Culver’s root is one of the most elegant prairie wildflowers, and a magnet for pollinators. Today, though, it’s mostly bare of insects.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There’s so much to discover on the prairie at the end of June.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see?

*******

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), whose quote kicks off this blog post, was best known for his short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (also adapted as a well-known play). The quote was taken from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John Price.

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program!

Wednesday, June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. 

Thursday, July 14 (Zoom online) and Friday, July 15 (in person field class): “Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification“: Discover these beautiful insects through this two-part class, offered by The Morton Arboretum. Space is limited — register here.

Late May Prairie Delights

“No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants.” —Henry Mitchell

*****

There’s nothing quite like finding two of the six branches of your pricey New Jersey Tea plant neatly clipped off. I’ve been babying my native shrub along this spring; bringing it pitchers of water and keeping my fingers crossed that it would leaf out. And it did. Only to be heavily barbered this morning.

I think I know who the culprit is.

Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2021)

Just the other day, Jeff and I saw her (him?) foraging along the fence line among some weeds. Awwwwww. So cute! Ah well. Looks like I need to protect my shrub with some defensive packaging. Wildlife friendly gardens are sometimes a bit…too friendly.

A week of rain and storm followed by days of wind and heat are turning the garden lush and green. Meteorological summer has arrived, and with it, a rush to get the last plastic pots of vegetable seedlings and native plant plugs into the ground.

Plant plugs, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It looks like sugar snap pea season is a no-go this year; I’m not sure what happened to my neat circle of seeds around the trellis planted a month ago. One day there were seedlings. The next? Gone.

I can hazard a guess.

Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016)

*****

Meanwhile, the Illinois prairies seem to be handling onslaughts of weather, “wascally wabbits”, and uneven warmth by flowering magnificently. While collecting dragonfly data at Nachusa Grasslands this week, my monitoring route took me through a surprise surplus of Golden Alexanders. I’ve walked this route many times over the past nine years, but never seen it like this.

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.

Wild lupine is also in bloom…

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…and colonies of meadow anemone.

Meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The oh-so-pretty-in-pink wild geranium is in full flower, a reminder that I meant to purchase this at some of the native plant sales this spring for the yard. Next year!

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.

Common whitetail dragonfly (teneral), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The wings are so fresh! Teneral dragonflies are vulnerable to predation until the wings harden (which may taken an hour or so). Nearby I find two tiny damselflies. I think they are sedge sprites, but the eye color doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it is a teneral? I’ll have to browse the field guides at home to be sure.

Sedge sprite (Nehalennia irene), no blue, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Always new things to learn!

As I hike, the bison are grazing in the distance. I like to keep plenty of space between us, especially during baby bison season.

Bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Less of a concern—but with a big impact— are the beavers. They’ve been busy as…well, you know….on some of my routes. In one area, they’ve constructed a new dam which turned my monitoring stream to a pond.

Beaver (Castor canadensis) dam pond, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.

Beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Beaver activity changes water habitat. Moving streams and still ponds usually host different types of Odonata species. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here over the summer, and if site management leaves the beaver dams and lodgings in place. Lots of suspense! Stay tuned.

Pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

May is migration month, and the soundtrack to my monitoring work is a lesson in listening. A flycatcher lands on a nearby branch. Is it the alder flycatcher? Or the great-crested flycatcher? Or? I’m not sure.

Possibly the alder flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

It buzzes a few chirpy notes, then vacates the branch for an eastern kingbird. I try to get the kingbird in focus behind the branch, but finally give up and just enjoy watching it.

Eastern kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

That’s a busy little branch.

Wind gusts pick up, and clouds cover the sky. It’s time to wrap up my dragonfly monitoring work.

Sedge meadow with springs, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.

Prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Just imagine what June has in store for us. I can’t wait.

*******

Henry Mitchell, whose quote opens this post, wrote several enjoyable garden books which I re-read each year. Mitchell (1924-1993), a Washington Post weekly garden columnist for almost 25 years, is by turns funny, cynical, and reflective. He isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, which is one of the many reasons I love to read him (even if he does extoll the joys of the barberry bush!) The opening quote quote is from Mitchell’s book, One Man’s Garden.

*****

Join Cindy for an event!

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Covid restrictions may apply. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members).

Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m. Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Rain date is Thursday, June 9).

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If you love the natural world, consider helping to “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our “landscape of home”!

Wild and Wonderful March Prairie

“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt

*****

Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.

It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.

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

The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!

Daffodils (Narcissus sp.) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”

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

A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…

Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.

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

Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.

Crosby’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.

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

My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Other natives like prairie smoke….

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’re one week into the month of March.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.

View from the prairie, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?

Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.

I can’t wait.

****

The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.

*****

Join Cindy for a program or class!

See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

March 8, 7-8:30pm — Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers in the Garden at Twig and Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. More information here.

March 9, 1-2:30 pm— Illinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Garden Club of Oak Park and River Forest, Oak Park, IL (Open to the public). Details here.

March 26, 10-11:30 amIllinois Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Brookfield Garden Club, Brookfield, IL. (Closed event for members only)

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL. Contact the club here for details.

At Home with the Tallgrass Prairie

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”— Jim Dent

*******

Welcome, July!

It’s hot, hot, hot. The thermometer cruises past 90 degrees. My suburban backyard prairie plantings grow lush and tall by the minute, embracing the temperature. So many blooms!

Now starring in my backyard: hot pink.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The first pink party-time flowers of queen of the prairie cause me to yearn for cotton candy, and its burnt-sugar fragrance and melt-on-your-tongue sweet flavor. I see queen of the prairie and remember my first bicycle at age six: hot pink. As I admire the blooms from my kitchen window, I feel an impulse to make a batch of strawberry lemonade. Think pink! The memories flood in. Queen of the prairie flowers are a sure-fire nostalgia trigger.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra).

The blossoms seem to float across the tallgrass like puffs of cumulus. Queen of the prairie is attractive in bud, too! Look at those tiny pink pearls.

Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra).

Nearby, culver’s root glows in the partial shade. The bees adore it. It’s a little leggy in the good garden soil of my suburban backyard, but no less pretty for sprawling.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

Cup plant helps hold it up. It’s aggressively pushed its way into more and more of my prairie planting. Hmmm. Looks like I might need to do some proactive digging and remove a few plants.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

Not a job for a day with temps in the nineties, I convince myself. Maybe later.

Joe pye weed tentatively lobs its first buds above the leaves. It’s a butterfly favorite. Moths and skippers love it too, as do bees and other insects. See the visitor on the leaf?

Red-banded leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) on joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Earlier this spring, I moaned about the loss of my new jersey tea shrub. The twigs looked lifeless. But look!

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus).

The once dead-looking twigs are flush with leaves, and it’s putting on height next to the house. Maybe it’s not a write-off, after all. New jersey tea is in full bloom on the prairies this month. I close my eyes and imagine these little twigs flush with foamy flowers. Someday. Someday.

New jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The first week of July is a time to put the seed catalogs away and close down the planting season. It’s difficult to stop planning and planting; to throw in the trowel. The dreams I had for a front-yard pollinator garden? Maybe next year. My hopes for adding big bluestem to the prairie patch? I mark my calendar to put seeds in when the snow flies. Now, it’s time to focus on enjoying what I planted this season.

To pay attention to the creatures my backyard prairie attracts.

Unknown critter on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

To learn the names of the weeds showing up in large numbers in my prairie plantings. Native? Or aggressive invader? Oops—was that prairie sundrops I yanked out? It was! Ah, well. I can plant more next season.

Blazing star is tipped with new blooms. They’ll continue flowering from the top down, like sparklers.

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae) on blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya).

Prairie smoke, which I planted and lost many years ago, is flourishing in a new spot under the eaves with its prairie neighbors. When I threw prairie smoke plants into the big prairie patch, they trickled out, eventually disappearing. Perhaps they were bullied by the big rough-and-ready cup plants. Here, in the partial shade and dryness of the patio edge, they get lots of personal attention from the gardener. No blooms yet. Next year. I imagine the pink.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) Prairie Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL (2015).

The prairie smoke rubs shoulders with prairie alumroot, as pretty in leaf as it is in bloom.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii).

It doesn’t mind sharing space with whorled milkweed, which promises flowers for the first time this summer in my backyard.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

An unusual milkweed, isn’t it? From the leaves, you’d never guess it was an Asclepias. But the monarchs know.

Jacob’s ladder is gone to seed, and a few slim first-year plants of prairie coreopsis jostle for position next to the whorled milkweed. But the piece-de-resistance is the butterflyweed, which I tried and failed with at least three times before finding its sweet spot. Look at it now!

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a honeybee (Apis spp.).

No monarch caterpillars on it yet. I’m hopeful. Adult monarch butterflies loop through the lawn; lighting on common milkweed plants and nectaring from the rainbow blooms of cut-and-come-again zinnias. The hummingbirds like the zinnias too.

Summer in the backyard (2019).

It won’t be long until the monarchs discover the butterflyweed.

This week, the bee balm—wild bergamot—opened. Hummingbird moths as well as the namesake bees use this pretty flower from the mint family. Bee balm contains thymol, an essential oil. If “prairie” had a taste, it would be the antiseptic bee balm leaves and flowers. So refreshing!

Bee balm (Monarada fistulosa) with a bumblebee (Bombus spp.).

My backyard prairie compass plants, lagging behind the already-open blooms on the bigger tallgrass prairies, are closed fists ready to explode into yellow. When they open, the monarchs will be there, along with long-tongued bees and bumblebees and many other insects.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

So much is happening in my small suburban prairie patch. It boggles my mind to think of the larger prairie preserves, and the sheer numbers of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and other insects going about their business of living. Whether it is the thousands of acres of prairies like Nachusa Grasslands or the tiny prairie patches such as my backyard, I don’t want to miss a moment. July will be over in the blink of an eye. I want to soak up as much as I can.

For now, in the 90-degree-plus-heat, I’ll pour another strawberry lemonade. Then, I’ll enjoy the view of the prairie from my hammock as I plan my next hike on the prairie preserves.

*****

The opening quote is from Jim Dent, the author of Hops and History. Prairie in your backyard means less grass to mow, although not less weeds to pull. On hot days like these, it’s good to have an excuse to swing in the hammock with a cold drink and a book, and admire the prairie plantings we made. And –dream a little about next year.

******

All photos this week, unless indicated, are by Cindy from her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID: online Monday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 14 (two-part class) 10-11:30 am. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. The first session is an introduction to the natural history of the dragonfly, with beautiful images and recommended tools and techniques for identification of species commonly found in northern and central Illinois. Then, put your skills to work outside on your own during the following day in any local preserve, park, or your own backyard. The second session will help you with your field questions and offer more advanced identification skills. To conclude, enjoy an overview of the cultural history of the dragonfly—its place in art, literature, music, and even cuisine! You’ll never see dragonflies in the same way again. To register, click here.

Virtual Summer Prairie Wildflower Walk: online Thursday, July 22, 10-11:30 a.m. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. No matter where you live, join me on Zoom to see the amazing summer tallgrass prairie wildflowers and hear their stories of uses in medicine, folklore, poetry, and even as love charms! Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories.  Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Register here.

Plant a Little Prairie

“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy

*****

You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.

I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.

Summer in the backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.

Raised flower and vegetable bed, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.

I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) growing up through the prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.

Great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.

Great blue lobelia (Cardinalis siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper butterfly (Polites peckius), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bullfrogs like it, too.

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) or beebalm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.

Poppies (Papaver orientale), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis sp.), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.

We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.

I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.

12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.

One plant at a time.

*****

Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

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Join Cindy for a program or a class online!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies: Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.

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

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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.  

Six Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The prairie is bountifully utilitarian.  But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them.”– Paul Gruchow

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Yes, it’s hot. Okay, more than hot. It’s downright scorching. Hike the prairie? You’ve got to be kidding.

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I kid you not. Let’s go! Why? Here are half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in July. Go ahead–dress light, hydrate, slather on that bug spray and sunscreen—and let’s go.

#1. Oh those butterflies! Big ones, like this common but yet oh-so-uncommonly-beautiful Spangled Meadow Fritillary, nectaring at false sunflower in the prairie savanna.

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Or the tiny ones, like this Eastern Tailed Blue, barely visible in the tallgrass.

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You might see the Pearl Crescent, fluttering ahead on the path.

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Wait! I think it is a pearl crescent, but I’m not completely sure. Evidently they are almost indistinguishable from the Northern Crescents. Some folks say they are both the same species, rather than two distinct ones. Ah, well. At least I know for sure when I see a Monarch, like this one nectaring on butterfly weed, one of our native milkweeds in Illinois.

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Not into butterflies? Consider hiking to admire the wildflowers. Why?

#2. July’s prairie wildflowers are show-stoppers. Wow-oh-wow. So much orange. There’s the native Turk’s Cap Lily, just coming into bloom.

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Not to be confused with the invasive daylilies, escaped from tamer plantings in gardens and along roadsides.

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Although they often find a seat in our gardens, we weed them out of prairie restorations when they show up. Otherwise, they’d take over the prairie.

More orange: The aforementioned butterfly weed screams its hues in infinite color variations of  neon orange across the prairie.butterflyweedJuly52020SPMAWM

Other native milkweeds are more nuanced, like this swamp milkweed.

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Even the much-maligned common milkweed, which is—well, weedy,—has a scent that has to be sniffed to be believed. Some sprang up in my clematis just off the back patio. When my husband Jeff passed it the first time it opened this summer, he stopped in his tracks. What’s that great smell?

Mountain mint is in bloom, barely visible in the tallgrass unless you know where to look. A chewed leaf is a guaranteed breath freshener on a hot day.

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Glade mallow, the only member of its genus that occurs in Illinois, is in full bloom.

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It’s difficult to miss, towering over my head. Much easier to walk by without noticing is the fringed loosestrife, a modest little plant with its flowers pointing downward.

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Not to be confused with purple loosestrife,a rampant invasive, fringed loosestrife is a desirable native. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “7” for its coefficient of conservatism. Its anther surface “fluoresces brightly” (or glows) when seen under long-wave ultraviolet light, Wilhelm writes, and it appears “otherworldly.” I’d love to see this for myself.

Nearby is white wild indigo; some plants still emerging, other bloom stalks mature and withering in the heat. A male red-winged blackbird finds indigo the perfect perch to warn me off its nest.

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I also love the wild petunia for its seeming tenacity, although its coefficient of conservatism is an “8”.  It pops up every year in the same general location on the mowed prairie paths.

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Buckeye butterfly caterpillars are big fans of this wildflower. It’s also attractive to numerous pollinators, especially different bee species.

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You might know many of the wildflower names. But do you know their stories?

3. Got ethnobotany? Got—what? Ethnobotany is just a term we use to talk about how humans have used plants throughout history (and today!). The prairie is full of plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian, and as the wonderful prairie writer Paul Gruchow once said in a chapter from his book: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, there need not be any contradiction between the two. A good example is Wild Quinine, in full bloom now.

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Some people know it as “feverfew,” which tells you how confusing common names can be (there are several other plants with this nickname). That’s why it’s always good to look at the scientific name, in this case, Parthenium integrifolium. Daniel Moerman, in his amazing book, Native American Ethnobotany, tells us that one Native American tribe used a poultice of fresh leaves of this plant to dress burns. Another tribe believed the leave’s ashes were a veterinary treatment for sore backs in horses.

And look at its value for insects! Wavy-lined emerald moth larvae occur in the inflorescences, according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Butterflies such as the American Lady, Pearl Crescent, and Common Wood-Nymph visit the flowers, they tell us. As I read, I learn that bees that visit the flowerheads when the staminate florets are blooming become coated with white pollen and “resemble little ghosts.” I’ve not seen this! Obviously, I need to sit for a while with this plant and pay more attention.

Another plant in bloom is Elderberry, which Illinois Wildflowers tells us occurs in every county of Illinois. Its small, edible fruits—somewhat poisonous when raw—have none-the-less been used (when cooked correctly) in jellies, wine, and pies, and are often used in homeopathic remedies for flu and colds. Native Americans used plants in the same genus for everything from making whistles to using infusions of the blossoms for upset stomachs, Moerman writes in Native American Ethnobotany.

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I particularly love New Jersey Tea, a prairie shrub whose blooms cover parts of the prairie like a foamy cappuccino in July. The Dakota used the leaves to make a tea-like beverage, although as I understand it, there is no caffeine. I have a small New Jersey tea plant growing in my prairie garden this season, and although it didn’t bloom this summer, I have high hopes for next year.

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Each prairie plant has an ethnobotanical story to tell us. All we have to do is invest a little time into learning that story, and then, share it with others. It’s a non-stop adventure! I particularly love Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethobotany as a venue to discover some of these stories. Check it out, if you love stories as I do! Although many of the plant remedies and uses are not considered valid today, your prairie hikes will open you up to these stories that will fill you with gratitude for the utility of these beautiful plants over time, and the place they earned in the lives of people who depended on the prairie as their pharmacy, grocery store, and craft shop.

Still need more reasons?

#4. Find a respite from the news.  Tuck your phone away where you can’t reach it easily, put all thoughts of politics and pandemics away, and let the tallgrass prairie clear the cobwebs from your mind. Admire the tall bellflowers that edge the tallgrass.

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Soak up the sunshine of false sunflowers, having a banner season despite the blistering heat.

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Marvel over the smooth phlox with its hairless stems and vivid color. Moths, bees, and butterflies all love this plant, a harbinger of summer.

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And then, look deeper into the tallgrass. So dainty and silent, you’ll see these… .

#5. Learn the names of some damselflies. Aren’t they beautiful creatures worth your time and attention? Their very names seem to sing.

Variable dancer.

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Ebony jewelwing.

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Powdered dancer.

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The American Rubyspot can be found along the river and stream edges in the Chicago Region. Their bright wing spots make them unmistakable.

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One of the most common damselflies in the Chicago region is the blue-fronted dancer. Last season, at Nachusa Grasslands, it was our most numerous damselfly.

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And once you see the damselflies, consider…

#6. Dragonflies, too! While you’re learning damselflies, why not discover a few names for dragonflies?

Male eastern amberwings.

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And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.

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The female calico pennants are charming, no matter what angle you see them at.

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These are only half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie this week. Grab your water bottle, swipe on some sunscreen…

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…and why not go see?

*****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who loved the Boundary Waters and tallgrass prairies. If you haven’t read his writing, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL this week (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele); eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas);  possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) with fleabane (Erigeron); common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common mountain mint  (Pycnanthemum virginianum); glade mallow (Napaea dioica); prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia ); trail with wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) with unidentified bee; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); elderberry ((Sambucus nigra canadensis)); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); tall bellflower (Campanula americana); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior); variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis); ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta); American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana); blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa); one of the rudbeckias, still working on this ID. It was part of a planting into our prairie display strip with a commercial “native” mix–or it has escaped into it. Pretty! But is it one of our natives? Still working on that. What do you think? (Rudbeckia spps.).

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:

REGISTER BEFORE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT! “Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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.  

May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

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It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

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In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

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…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

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Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

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Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

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Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

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And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

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Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

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Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

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Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

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Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

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This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

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“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

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At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

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As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

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Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

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There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

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I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

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…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

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Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

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A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

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Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

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The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? 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

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell

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I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.

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I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

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…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.

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Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…

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…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

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A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….

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…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.

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I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.

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Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

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Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…

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…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

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Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…

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…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.

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In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…

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…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.

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The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.

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Now that’s something to sing about.

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The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

See more on http://www.cindycrosby.com

Little Prairie on the Freeway

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because  I cannot do everything, I will not refuse  to do the something I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale

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Strong winds. Gray skies. A cold drizzle. Not an optimal day to go for a prairie hike.

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But you hike when you have time to hike, and weather be hanged. Today, Hinsdale Prairie steward Kath Thomas has promised me a tour of a prairie remnant, just down the street from her house. Not much more than an acre, it’s a tiny remnant island adrift in a sea of development.

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What’s a prairie remnant? Simply put, it’s a piece of the original tallgrass prairie that has not been plowed or destroyed. Illinois once had 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie; only about 2,300 high quality acres remain. Other Midwestern states have even more dismal statistics. These remnants are often tucked into old cemeteries, or the corners of farm fields. Along railroad tracks. On rocky hilltops unsuitable for plowing. Or, places like this alongside a freeway that escaped notice.

Mowers have knocked back the prairie on the freeway side…

signhinsdaleprairieWM102818.jpg…and it’s been trimmed back along the sidewalk which flanks it on the west.

There’s a roar of traffic from the freeway.

 

The din is overwhelming. A prairie — here? Really? If there is birdsong, it’s erased by the sounds of trucks.  And yet…you feel it. This is a special place.

As we hike, Kath points out the bluebird houses. Anybody home? Nope, not today. Too late in the season.

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As we brush aside the tallgrass and hike deeper into the prairie, the real treasures emerge. Over here, spent prairie gentians. To the left, prairie dropseed, lime-colored for autumn. Just ahead, the bloomed-out spikes of Liatris, blazing star, with a few ballet-skirted seedheads of Echinacea; pale purple coneflower.

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Other treasures appear as we  walk. Prairie dock. prairiedockHinsdalePrairie102818.jpg

Some rough-cut leaves of compass plant.

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All of these tell us we’re walking through prairie, not an old field. Signs of a survivor.

The rain starts up again. Wind and wet blur the grasses into a watercolor of motion.

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The rain also brings out the globe-dark silhouettes of rattlesnake master…

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…and pops of black-eyed Susan seedheads. I imagine these two plants in summer; their flashes of silvery white and lemon yellow.

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Reality, in the form of more cold drizzle, brings me back to the present. Kath will be the first to tell you this little prairie remnant is here because of Dr. Robert Betz, who identified prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) here in the 1970s and championed the prairie’s survival. We don’t find the prairie bush clover as we hike today, but we do find round-headed bush clover. Not nearly so unusual, but still intriguing.

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Look around and discover a jewelry box full of plant gems.  New Jersey tea with its blown-out seedheads and curl of last leaves. Bee balm, with its powdered leaves at the end of the season, exhaling an astringent scent. Big bluestem, the Illinois state grass, waves its turkey-footed seedhead against the gray sky.newjerseyteaHinsdalePrairie102818WM

 

The Hinsdale Prairie refuses to give up the ghost, despite inroads from utility work, encroachment by development, and occasional mowing on the east and west side that shaves off precious portions of the tallgrass. Crown vetch, teasel, and daylilies threaten to dispossess the Indian grass, little bluestem, and wild quinine.

wildquinineWMCROSBYHinsdale102818.jpgKath does everything she can to raise awareness of this remnant. She founded “Friends of Hinsdale Prairie,” dedicated to advocating for the prairie on social media and with local government. She intercedes for the prairie when she sees unusual activity, like utility trucks parking on the grasses or neighbors throwing yard waste into the wildflowers. She picks up trash. Each day brings a new challenge. And Kath is only one person.

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But she’s one person changing the world, making a difference. Right where she lives.

Kath inspires me that change is possible—if only we will step up. Take care of the places right in front of us. Tell others why something matters.

How will you change your world? There’s never been a better time to find out.

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The opening lines of this blog are from Edward Everett Hale’s The Book of Good Cheer.  His words have been quoted and re-quoted in various forms. Hale (1822-1909) was a poet, novelist, Chaplain of the United States Senate, and member of the  Academy of Arts and Sciences. He advanced social reforms such as better access to adult education, religious tolerance, and abolition of slavery.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby at the Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL (top to bottom): sunflowers (Helianthus maximilian); Hinsdale Prairie remnant along the freeway; old prairie preservation sign; video of IL-83 passing on the west of the prairie; bluebird house; rough blazing star (Liatris aspera) and other plants, including pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tallgrass in October; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); Kath Thomas, Hinsdale Prairie remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A big thanks to Kath Thomas for her tour of the prairie, and her gracious hospitality. You can help support the Hinsdale Prairie by joining Kath at Friends of Hinsdale Prairie on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read more on Facebook about the history of this important prairie remnant.