“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on there.” –Annie Dillard
Welcome to the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass annual “Tallgrass Prairie Book Roundup.” With wind chills in the single digits here in the Chicago region and the fireplace going nonstop this week, curling up with a book and a mug of something hot and delicious has never sounded better.
For this roundup, I looked for books I’ve not featured before in the past seven years. It was a daunting task. I’ve previously shown some of the more noteworthy prairie reads, such as John Madson’s Where the Sky Began or Chris Helzer’s charming small format Hidden Prairie, or Paul Gruchow’s eloquent Grass Roots: The Universe of Home and other must-reads. This year, for help with some lesser-known and a few out-of-print books, I turned to my local library in Glen Ellyn and the Sterling Morton Library at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. These libraries never disappoint. Along the way, I also encountered some prairie books geared toward older elementary and middle-school kids, and a fantastic DVD about prairies.
Whether you’re a prairie steward or volunteer, an avid hiker, an armchair naturalist, or someone who loves to read and learn about the natural world, I believe there’s a book here for you! (Can you tell I used to own a bookstore?) Let’s go for a hike through the world of prairie books, and see what we might find.
If you’re interested in Native Americans and a more scholarly understanding of how they managed prairie, the first essay in the edited volume City of Lake and Prairie: Chicago’s Environmental History (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) is not to be missed. “Native Peoples in the Tallgrass Prairies of Illinois” by Robert Morrissey argues that “…the primary agents in shaping the midwestern landscape since the ice age were people, the architects of prairie… .” Morrissey adds that “Native peoples of the Midwest did not simply use the nonhuman environment as they found it… .” This turns upside down the idea that indigenous people moved through the prairie, but left no impact.
Anyone who desires to understand prairie history needs to read this essay. I know it expands my view of Native American management and its role in the prairie seen today, and informs the way I teach prairie ecology. Morrisey’s primary sources, included as notes at the end of the book, are additional rabbit trails that will fill your winter reading hours. Plus, there’s an excellent essay in the book on educator and prairie advocate May T. Watts.
And speaking of scholarly…check out Harold W. Gardener’s technical manual Tallgrass Prairie Restoration in the Midwestern and Eastern United States: A Hands-On Guide (Springer, 2011). Gardner organized the “Prairie Dawgs” volunteers near Peoria, IL, and he and his his wife purchased half a mile of the right of way of Burlington Northern Railroad near Brimfield, IL, a prairie remnant that had become degraded, working to improve the health of the prairie. He later moved to Carlisle, PA, where he maintained seed beds for about 150 species.
Dr. Gardner described more than 200 species of prairie plants, their preferred soils and planting conditions, and seed germination and seed collection strategies, as well as a seed collection time table. He included some of his own experiences with the plants (for example, “This author has found it difficult to restore Queen-of-the-Prairie from seed.”) I particularly enjoyed his writing on “Fire Management” and what can go wrong; as he wrote of one prescribed fire— “An additional lesson was learned; roads are not always reliable firebreaks.” I also appreciated some of his frustrated asides. In one section on “Control of Alien Plants” he wrote “It is difficult to refrain from adding editorial remarks about the USDA bureaucracy.” For most of us, the $170-plus price tag for this book puts it out of reach. So I extend my gratitude to the Sterling Morton Library for shelving it so I could access it without cost.
While at the Sterling Morton Arboretum this week, the always-awesome library collections manager Rita Hassert showed me this book by the influential prairie restorationist pioneer Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007), architect of the FermiLab prairie in Batavia, IL, in 1975. I had no idea this book existed! Self-published posthumously by his wife Eleanor, there are limited number of copies in circulation in the Chicago Region; the Sterling Morton has a copy for in-library use only as the binding is fragile. In the short time I was able to spend with the book, I was fascinated by this slice of prairie restoration history and the roll call of people who helped influence restoration in the Chicago Region (shout-out Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg, to name just two).
I can’t wait to return to the library to spend a long afternoon at one of the reading tables, finishing the book and taking copious notes. And who knows—maybe a copy will turn up at a used bookstore in the future! I’ve had no luck finding this book for purchase, used or otherwise. But that’s an excuse to spend more time in the beautiful Sterling Morton library this winter.
Better luck: locating this out-of print book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (Lowell Press, 1975). I found a kindred spirit in author, naturalist, and photographer Patricia Duncan, whose words will resonate with any prairie aficionado. There is very little written about the tallgrass prairie in winter, so I was delighted to discover a few paragraphs and photos of the season. She wrote, “On the coldest days, I will trudge through the deep path worn by motorcyclists, and I barely get a dozen steps along before I must stop for a picture of the light coming through the ice-covered stems of big bluestem… .”
The cover of the library book I received had lost its dust jacket over the years since it was published in 1979, and the interior photographs also show its age. My, oh my, how photography has improved in books! That said, the photos are a slice of a time now past; a “remnant” of almost half a century ago. The grandeur of the prairie, almost half a century later, shines through the despite the limitations of photography and the publishing process of the time.
When Duncan began with a quote from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (the same quote which kicks off this blog post), I was hooked. After three pages, a used copy of this book was on the way to my house. It’s fairly easy to find online. Duncan’s book is a little slice of prairie history. I can’t wait to take a deeper dive into her book over the holidays.
How often have you looked at a prairie plant at this time of year and wondered which part was the actual seed? At a recent presentation on native plant gardening I gave to the Antioch Garden Club, one of its members enthusiastically recommended The Prairie in Seed. I was delighted to find it at my Glen Ellyn Library, and have already put it on my Christmas list.
Although I have featured other books on seed collection in this roundup before, I appreciated the detailed information on seed readiness and seed size and appearance here that is a valuable resource for any prairie steward, prairie volunteer, seed saver, or native plant gardener. The silhouette of the seed stalk is also helpful for identification for collection.
University of Iowa’s Bur Oak Books series is full of good reads like this one, and as a prairie steward and native plant gardener, I’m excited to add it to my Christmas list.
A prairie wildflower guide I’ve missed in my previous round-ups is Don Kurz’s Falcon Guide Prairie Wildflowers (2019). Many of us have the older Falcon Guide by Doug Ladd (there were at least two editions, and I own both) that have happily seen us through learning prairie plants over the years. This one is touted as its “spiritual successor.”
Although I was surprised by some of the color assignments in the book (pasque flowers, for example, are only under found under “white” and not listed under lavender or purple), it’s a lovely guide that will help introduce prairie wildflowers to a new generation of readers. I need to add it to my library as I have prairie ecology students who buy it as an initial introduction to their prairie experience. I’m glad Falcon continues to keep variations of the Prairie Wildflowers field guides in print.
What about younger readers? For elementary and middle schoolers, there are some beautiful and informative books on prairie available. In The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America’s Lost Grasslands, Sneed Collard introduces kids (and adults, too!) to how a prairie restoration happens from vision to implementation, using Iowa’s Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as the centerpiece of the story.
I especially enjoyed the stories of stewards working to protect and cherish our tallgrass prairies. The book’s photographs feature plenty of people as well as tallgrass plants and critters. I especially enjoyed the photos and essays on the reintroduction of the rare regal fritillary butterfly, a species I’ve only seen at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is on my bucket list!
Any adult who wants a basic overview of how prairies are managed and how restorations are done will also enjoy this book. I especially appreciate Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge as its “Friends” group it is one of the sponsors of Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit,a book I co-authored with Tom Dean. Thank you, Friends of Neal Smith!
Older elementary or middle school kids who are science-minded or who have to write a book report will find Life in a Grassland (2003, Twenty-First-Century Books) jam-packed with classroom-type information on the grassland ecosystem. It would also make a good homeschool science text. While it doesn’t specify that it is about “tallgrass” prairie, it does offer a wealth of ideas about North American grasslands that will be of help to any adults who want to understand how a prairie works.
The interior pages brought back memories from my own early science classes (Consumers! Producers! Decomposers!). It’s a good refresher for adult prairie volunteers, and a nice introduction to anyone who is new to the tallgrass prairie.
On a more literary note, I was excited to find an essay on tallgrass prairie sandwiched among the coral reefs and jungles in Greek writer Julian Hoffman’s book, Irreplaceable, a look at the wild places and creatures disappearing around the globe.
Hoffman visits Konza Prairie in Kansas, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois, and a Native American resource center in Chicago as research for the book. It’s helpful to see how he places the loss of tallgrass prairie in the context of other ecosystem and species losses enumerated in the book, and a reminder to prairie volunteers, stewards, and staff why we do the work we do.
Too tired to read?
Although it’s not a book, Jeff and I recently checked out “America’s Landscape” (2005, Bullfrog Films) from the library on DVD. Both of us were riveted to this documentary, which includes an interesting selection of extra scenes not to be missed. Wes Jackson, Daryl Smith (Tallgrass Prairie Center), Dayton Duncan, Nina Leopold, and many others speak on camera in juxtaposition with luscious prairie cinematography.
If the wind chill temperatures are too frigid for you to think about an actual prairie hike this winter, this might be a nice alternative. Or, if you have a prairie steward group whose workday is cancelled due to inclement weather, you won’t go wrong hosting a screening of this fascinating film.
There are a few new prairie books on the horizon as well as these older ones. I’m anticipating Benjamin Vogt’s Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design, which is slated for release in late January of 2023. I’ve featured Vogt’s previous book A New Garden Ethicin previous round-ups. If you garden with natives at home, you’ll want to take a look. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my books—all five of which include stories about prairie—as you make your Christmas lists this year. Find or order them from your favorite independent bookseller.
Want more tallgrass prairie book recommendations? Explore a few of the previous “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” books featured at these links for more reading and gift-giving ideas:
The vast tracts of original tallgrass prairie are gone, but we continue to work to restore what is left. We plant prairies in our forest preserves, our arboretums, and our yards. But what about the tallgrass prairie books? John T. Price, the editor of “The Tallgrass Prairie Reader” tells us that “the relative absence of prairie literature and writers in the American canon…is another kind of extinction.” How can we ensure the stories of the tallgrass prairie continue to be told? By reading and supporting books that celebrate and introduce people to the tallgrass prairie, whether through your local library or purchasing them and adding them to your bookshelves. Or sharing them with friends and family!
What prairie book has made a difference in your life? Which are your favorite reads? Please add yours in the comments section below. I’m a pushover for a tallgrass book recommendation. And—other than hiking the prairie in winter, I can’t think of a better way to spend the season.
Here’s to prairie…may its stories live on.
The opening quote is by Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Pilgrim of Tinker Creek, one of my top ten books of all time. This quote is also included in the opening of Patricia Duncan’s lovely book, Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea, included in the book round-up above.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Award-winning 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. In-person. Register here.
“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger
Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.
The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.
The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.
Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.
In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.
I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…
…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.
Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.
A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…
…dull aluminum and copper…
…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.
It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.
Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.
On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.
Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.
There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…
…looking forward to something new.
Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.
Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.
Sure, they can be rough.
But bring on the change.
Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.
The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
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. In-person. Register here.
Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.
“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow
It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.
Let’s go for hike and see.
I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.
Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.
Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.
The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.
It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.
Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.
Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.
So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.
New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!
More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.
And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…
…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.
Bewitching big bluestem.
Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.
The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.
Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.
The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.
I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…
…and be haunted by the memories…
…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.
The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.
Upcoming Programs and Classes
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.
“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich
September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.
About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!
Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?
Surely not. And yet. Who knows?
In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.
The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…
…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.
In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.
The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.
Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.
In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.
Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.
The bumblebees are nuts about it.
As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.
October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.
Transitions are never easy.
But there are so many wonders still to come.
The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.
Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.
Wild lupine is also in bloom…
…and colonies of meadow anemone.
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!
As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.
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.
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.
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.
On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.
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).
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”!
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” —Leo Tolstoy
I thought I’d missed the rare white lady’s slipper orchids as I’ve hiked the prairies in Illinois this spring. Turns out, they were just running fashionably late.
Aha! Here you are. Welcome back.
If you look at Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s amazing reference guide, Flora of the Chicago Region’s entry for the orchid, the blooms aren’t late at all. Their entry notes that this orchid may flower between April 23 and June 2. So “late” is relative—just my own experience. White lady’s slipper orchids are so tiny; not like their bigger cousins, so they are also easy to overlook.
In some regions of Illinois, these little orchids are visited by small native halictid bees. The scientific name, Cypripedium is from the Greek, meaning “Aphrodite,” the goddess of love and beauty. The specific epithet, candidum, means “shining white.” Appropriate for this unusual wildflower.
The legal status of the small white lady’s slipper is “threatened” in Illinois; it is also ranked as “rare.” White lady’s slippers are also monitored as Plants of Concern through the Chicago Botanic Garden to continually assess their health and abundance in Illinois. (Visit them to see how you can help!) These orchids are jewels of the moist sunny prairies, and don’t handle shade well. When prairie remnants are neglected and left unburned, shrubs and trees take over and reduce the amount of habitat for this wildflower. It’s another reason for us to manage and care for our irreplaceable tallgrass prairies.
These lovely orchids are also great ambassadors for conservation. While most folks won’t get too excited about other high-quality plants flowering now, such as bastard toadflax…
…. or hairy beardtongue, just about to bloom…
…or the common valerian…
…all ranked “eight” or higher in Flora of the Chicago Region’s co-efficiency of conservatism, they will get excited about lady’s slippers (a “10”–of course!). Orchids bring out the desire to protect and save prairies in Illinois. While the various prairie photo locations in today’s blog are left undivulged (for the protection of these lovely wildflowers), knowing the orchids continue to grow and thrive are a delight to our collective imagination. As “wow wildflower ambassadors,” they also help communities preserve prairies where less charismatic critters live, like the tiger moth caterpillars…
…or the eastern wood-pewee, which hangs out along the prairie edges…
…and other creatures which need healthy natural areas to survive. Finding the orchids alive and thriving this spring makes me feel optimistic for the future of the tallgrass prairie.
Note to the reader: No locations are given for today’s blog because of the conservation status of the orchid. The photographs above are from several different Illinois prairies.
The opening quote is from Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the author of such works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His writing on non-violent resistant influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi. Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature many times and also, the Noble Peace Prize, but never won; these decisions continue to be controversial today.
Join Cindy for a program or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more upcoming events, and updates on any Covid changes or requirements for in-person gatherings.
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.
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. 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 it such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here.
If you love the natural world, consider acting on behalf of 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 prairies!
“All we have to do is turn off our phones, use our senses, and take note of the bewitching beauty that turns up on almost every walk, often in the smallest of things—lichen, moss, insects, raindrops. Anyone can cultivate the capacity to marvel.” — Annabel Streets
Freeze warning. Monday evening, I cover the newly-planted violas in light of the forecast. I bought a few six-packs in a fit of enthusiasm a month ago. They’ve given me joy on my sheltered front porch. Flowers! Color. I’ve brought them in most nights, keeping them from the worst of the bitter temperatures. This weekend, the thermometer hit 80 degrees and I planted out one of the six packs as well as some of my spring garden vegetables. Normally, the sugar snap peas, onion sets and other early veggies would have gone in two weeks ago. But it’s just been so darn dreary and cold.
The hot weather this weekend was a nice break from all the rain, rain, rain. Our backyard is wet in the best of times. With the recent rainfall it’s a quagmire. Our knee-high waterproof boots, caked with mud, stand at the ready by the door—necessary for any trip to the compost bin, or to check on the status of new backyard prairie plant shoots. On one trip outside, I pick a bouquet of daffodils and find a sleepy native miner bee snuggled into the flower folds, out of the rain.
My marsh marigolds are relishing the rainfall. When we moved to our tiny suburban yard 24 years ago, one of the first things we did was dig a small pond and plant one marsh marigold on the edge. Yup, just one plant. Two dozen years later, they have spread, a golden necklace that says “spring” to me each season.
Some folks, seeing how rambunctious these marsh marigolds are, are suspicious. “Are you sure they’re not fig buttercup?” they ask, referring to a pernicious invasive plant, sometimes known as “lesser celandine” or even, “pilewort.” Although some sources say this invasive plant isn’t in my Illinois county, we know better. A wet area in the subdivision across the street has a large spread of lesser celandine (Ficaria verna, or if you prefer the old name, Ranunculus ficaria). It looks a lot like my marsh marigolds from a distance, doesn’t it?
Take a closer look. One easy way to tell the invasive lesser celandine from the native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is to flip the blooms over.
See the (somewhat blurry) three green sepals on the back of the lesser celandine on the left (top image)? The back of the marsh marigolds on the right are a solid yellow. There are other differences as well in the leaves and the flowers, but this is a quick and easy method for distinguishing the two. If you want to become better acquainted, grow the marsh marigold in a swampy place in your yard. Their exuberant blooms will cheer you every spring, even in the throes of our exasperating Midwestern swings of weather.
As you hike the prairies and woodlands this week, look for the marsh marigold blooming in the wetter areas. And think of the other wildflowers you’ll see! Hepatica, an early spring woodland favorite, keeps its old leaves through the winter. You can spot their dark maroon and bright green lobed leaves in the lower left-hand side of this image below.
Close by, the new season’s furred hepatica leaves push up from the leaf litter.
Hepatica blooms in various hues of violet…
…and also, palest pearl.
Across the trail, mayapples unfurl emerald umbrellas against the rain.
False rue anemone trembles in April’s blustery weather.
Toothwort, with its jagged “toothy” leaves, carpets the woodlands this week in the Chicago region.
Spring beauties are in bud and in bloom. On a rainy day, they—like many spring woodland wildflowers—will close, or partially close.
The first leaves of wild ginger are a promise of blooms to come.
Jacob’s ladder is ready to burst into bloom any day now.
More wildflowers are in bloom, and many more are on the way. Who knows what else you might see? Daily, the blooms change as new species open and others decline.
As I hike, a burst of tangerine and black distracts me from the wildflowers.
It’s an eastern comma butterfly! It flutters across the woods, then lands in a patch of sunshine. Yes, I know it’s a common Illinois butterfly, but it’s my first butterfly sighting of the year. Delightful if only for this reason.
So many joys! So much to see.
Spring ephemerals, however, are just that….ephemeral. Blink! And they’ll be gone. Why not go for a hike this week and see them while you can? Who knows what marvels you might discover?
The opening quote for today’s blog is from Annabel Streets’“52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.” One of my favorite passages is this: “Seek out the work of naturalists and nature writers, who can alert us to the miraculous spots of sublimity we might not otherwise notice. Knowledge doesn’t counter mystery; it enlarges it.” Absolutely.
Join Cindy for a Spring Wildflower Walk at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (woods and prairie, sold out) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.
May 3, 7-8:30 p.m.: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, at the Winfield Area Gardening Club (Open to the public!), Winfield, IL. For more information, click here.
May 5, evening: 60 Years on the Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum Natural Resource Volunteer Event (closed to the public).
May 18, 12:30-2 p.m.: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Time is running out for our prairie remnants in Illinois. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .
“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery
It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.
Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).
It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.
As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.
Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.
On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.
Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.
Surely nothing will stick.
But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…
A dusting of snow.
Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.
The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.
Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.
Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…
…the prairie smoke…
…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…
…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.
Never a dull moment on the prairies.
The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).
April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.
Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. 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.