“I can no more get enough of a wide prairie than I can of a sunrise…prairie grass is vivid, as if God had just dyed it” —William Quayle
What a beautiful autumn it’s been! I love the opening days of the month; it always feels like a clean slate. A time of beginnings.
As I hiked the prairies and preserves this week, I felt as if I was in a gallery of Impressionist art. Artist Claude Monet would have loved the tallgrass prairie and the Midwestern landscape in the fall.
How can it be November already? The big holiday season is straight ahead, with a new year on the horizon.
The natural world is in transition. You can smell the crisp fragrance of change in the air.
What an exciting month to go for a hike!
The opening quote is from William A. Quayle (1860-1925), a Methodist minister who lived in Kansas, Indiana, and Chicago. This passage first appeared in The Prairie and the Sea (1905), and is reprinted in John T. Price’s edited collection, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.)Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.
“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao
At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)
Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.
Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.
In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.
It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.
There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.
I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.
A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”
Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.
After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.
This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.
Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.
Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.
A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.
The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…
…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.
There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…
…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.
As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!
We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.
As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.
We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.
They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.
This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.
So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…
…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.
The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.
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. Click here for more information.
“It’s always better to have too much to read than not enough.” —Ann Patchett
Happy December! The wind is howling, temperatures are plummeting, and meteorological winter is in full swing. All we need is a dusting of snow…
…or an ice storm to complete the kick-off to the holiday season.
In December, many of us are on hiatus from active prairie stewardship work. During the winter months, we recharge our batteries and curl up with a good book on the tallgrass so we’ll be a little smarter and more inspired for the growing season ahead.
With this in mind, it’s time for the “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” annual book roundup. This year, I grouped a few recommended prairie books in a slightly different way for you. I hope that makes your holiday shopping (or library check-outs) a little easier! I also added a few of my favorite prairie gifts.
Ready? Let’s read!
For the thoughtful prairie reader:
I can’t resist the “through the year” types of books, organized by month and taking readers through the seasons. Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year(Milkweed Press) continues to be one of my favorites. Few books really dig into the marvels of the winter season on the prairie, and this is one of them.
FOR THE GARDENER WHO WANTS TO BE INSPIRED BY PRAIRIE:
I’m also looking forward to Vogt’s forthcoming book, Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, coming from University of Illinois Press in the new year. Voigt also has an awesome collection of prairie T-shirts and other fun extras. I gifted myself with the “Prairie Hugger” t-shirt and a “Reprairie Suburbia” mug this season. Check out his website here.
Already have a prairie in your yard? Meet kindred spirits in Fred Delcomyn and Jamie Ellis’ “A Backyard Prairie,” a beautiful book of essays and photographs (Southern Illinois University Press). I met Fred when he took my Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online class through The Morton Arboretum, and it is a delight to see his lovely book out in the world.
For the children in your lIFE:
Across the Prairie Coloring Book— Claudia McGehee. These sell out, so get yours quick on Etsy! Fun, relaxing, and pandemic-friendly solace for adults who like to color as well. I confess I have a copy for myself, as well as copies for several of my grandchildren. McGehee is also the author of The Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet children’s picture book from University of Iowa Publishers. She has some other great children’s picture books and artwork you can find on her website, Claudia McGehee Illustration.
Sarah, Plain and Tall–Patricia MacLachlan (HarperCollins) This Newbery Award-winning novel, first published in 1985, is great for elementary-aged kids, and available in a 30th anniversary edition. Sure, it’s not about the prairie plants here—it’s about the story! But what a great way to introduce kids to the tallgrass prairie region. The Hall of Fame movie (starring Glen Close as the mail-order bride) is a delight — rent it at the library, or watch for it on a streaming service near you.
For someone new to prairie, or just wanting to get better acquainted:
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction–Cindy Crosby (Northwestern University Press) I wrote this book when I looked around for a short, simple read that I could give to my prairie volunteers who wanted to understand what a prairie was, and why we manage it the way we do–and couldn’t find one. Only 140 pages, all technical terms are defined, and there’s a chapter on planting a prairie in your yard.
When you want to dive Deep Into tallgrass prairie — the more pages, the better:
Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie—John Madson (Bur Oak Books) This is the book I used to recommend to my prairie volunteers, but several told me that 340 pages was 200 pages too much! For some of us, however, the more pages the better. If you want to dig deep into the history of the tallgrass prairie, this is a THE classic.
If you like pretty prairie pictures:
Visions of the Tallgrass–-Harvey Payne (Oklahoma University Press). One hundred seventeen beautiful photographs by Harvey Payne, featuring the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma.
Tallgrass Prairie Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit(Ice Cube Press)— Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean (Ice Cube Press) If you enjoy this blog, you’ll find similar type short essays and prairie photographs in this team effort from myself and Tom, alternating voices and spanning prairies from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Picturing the Prairie: A Vision of Restorationby Philip Juras (Little Bluestem Press). If you caught the Chicago Botanic exhibit of his work, you’ll want to own this book which includes 54 paintings of some of my favorite prairies (including Nachusa Grasslands) and an essay by Stephen Packard. It’s on my Christmas list!
I really enjoy browsing Karen’s Nature Art to find images of prairie on everything from mugs to cell phone cases to fabric. Karen is part of my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass volunteer group on the Schulenberg Prairie, and her work directly reflects the countless hours she spends immersed in caring for prairie.
The Tallgrass Prairie Readeredited by John T. Price. I believe this is one of the most important pieces of natural history literature in the past decade. Why? It preserves a wide variety of writings on the tallgrass prairie from 42 authors, grouped chronologically from the 1800’s to the 21st Century. (Full disclosure — an essay of mine is included). Price’s edited volume reminds us of the richness of prairie literature, and the need for more voices to speak for prairie.
For the prairie volunteer or steward who wants technical advice:
I enthusiastically recommend The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Restoration in the Upper Midwest by Daryl Smith, Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson for anyone looking for a comprehensive guide to planting, restoring, or caring for prairie on sites both big and small. If it’s not in this volume, you probably don’t need to know it. I own two copies, just in case I lose one!
I hope you found some new books that caught your interest, or saw a few old favorites that you want to re-read or gift to a prairie friend. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list. Rather, these are a few highlights. And please explore some of my past posts on prairie books—there are many wonderful prairie books out there not mentioned in this year’s essay.
What books on tallgrass prairie do you recommend? Please share your favorites in the comments below and keep the literary conversation going. And as always, if you purchase a book, support your local independent bookstores and small publishers. They need you!
The opening quote is from Ann Patchett (1963), finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Dutch House the author of my personal favorite of hers, Bel Canto. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, TN.
It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…
…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.
I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.
It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.
Fall color has arrived. At last.
My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.
The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.
I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.
Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.
Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.
Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.
I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.
It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.
If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.
After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.
We need these prairie places.
And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.
I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.
Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.
Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.
Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.
You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.
The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
In some years, when you’re lucky enough to see the small white lady’s slipper orchid…
… you are astonished. And then you ask yourself—How many other wildflower marvels are waiting to be discovered that we’ve missed? Often, right under our noses.
So many unusual prairie wildflowers. Even the smallest and least colorful are tiny packages of wonder.
They’ll be gone soon.
Why not go look now?
Experience the magic for yourself.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), whose quote begins this post, was a French painter and one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. He valued “impressions” of nature, and turned the art world upside down with his paintings incorporating loose brush strokes and a feeling of light. Check out his series of water lilies paintings here.
Join Cindy for a program or 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.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.