Tag Archives: prairie dock

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.

July’s Prairie Patterns

“The world is a confusing and turbulent place, but we make sense of it by finding order… . This makes us all pattern seekers. “– Philip Ball

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High heat and cool breezes; thunderstorms and calm mornings. From my hammock overlooking the backyard prairie patch, I’m astonished at the rapid growth of plants under the hot sun, watered by frequent rain showers. I swear I saw cup plants grow an inch right before my eyes! Anything seems possible in the bright light and blue skies of July.

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As I swing in my hammock, I’m reading a new book from University of Chicago Press: Patterns in Nature.  It’s a revelation. As an art and journalism student in my undergrad years, I avoided math as much as possible. Now, I’m discovering the beauty of mathematics on the prairie. Symmetry. Fractals. Surface tension.

So many different combinations of patterns in July! I’ve always been intrigued by patterns in nature. But I didn’t understand much about what I saw.

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Paging through Philip Ball’s book, I begin with symmetry, which Ball says, is at the root of understanding how patterns in nature appear.

It’s an eye-opener.

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Ball notes that “Bilateral symmetry seems almost to be the default for animals. Fish,  mammals, insects, and birds all share this attribute.” I see this in the blue-fronted damselfly above; in the mirror-image wings of a skipper butterfly below. Divide them in half and each side is essentially identical.

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It’s evinced in the reversed haploa moth, barely visible, deep in the tallgrass.

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There is bilateral symmetry in a bison’s skull, with a few imperfections.

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Or a monarch’s wings, even when tattered and worn.

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Who wouldn’t marvel at the folded, paired symmetrical wings of the male violet dancer damselfly?

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Once you begin looking for patterns in the natural world…

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…you see them everywhere.

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Fractal geometry, Ball writes, is said to be “the geometry of nature.” Fractals? What’s a fractal?  “Don’t know much algebra…,” sang Sam Cooke in his classic, “(What a) Wonderful World.” Yup. But I want to know more.

Ball boils it down to this: Look at a tree. A part of the tree, he writes, can resemble the whole, as the “tree algorithm” keeps making the same kind of structure repeatedly. As I hike the prairie one afternoon, I look up and all of the sudden it makes sense—once I understand what I’m looking at.

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“Growing fractals”  are a type of fractal found in the network of arteries, veins, and capillaries in the vascular system—another “branching” effect, Ball tells me. I think of the “arteries” running across prairie dock leaves, so pronounced in the autumn.

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I reflect on these concepts and my head aches. Fractals. Symmetry. So fascinating. So…complex. I regret now my ability to dodge everything math-related in college except for a course called “Cardinal Numbers.” A sort of 101 math for art majors. But maybe it’s not too late?

Early one morning, wading Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, I admire the dew drops. I remember reading in Ball’s book that beads of water are driven by surface tension. Simply put, he says, surface tension pulls dew and rain into these “droplet” shapes, and gravity helps flatten the droplets. Ahhh. Look at that. Yes.

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A different sort of pattern. I search for water droplets: on leaves, spiderwebs, even dragonfly wings. Each dewdrop has heightened meaning.

As I continue reading, chapter after chapter, then go for hikes to explore the different patterns in Ball’s book, his simple explanations for a non-scientist open up a new world for me. A world where math seems a little more applicable. A little more accessible. A little more…meaningful. Perhaps, though, the best moment in Ball’s book  is when he writes that the law of pattern formation is driven by wonder.

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“We need to marvel and admire as well as to analyze and calculate,” Ball writes. Oh, yes. I’ve always been attuned to wonder; marveling comes without effort for me. Now, I’m learning the other side of the equation. Such an astonishing world!

So many “patterns” to marvel at and admire in the month of July on the prairie. Why not go see?

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Philip Ball is the former editor for Nature. The quotes in this post are from his book, Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Check it out here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reversed haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) skull, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (sometimes called variable dancer) (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; orb weaver (family Araneidae) spider web, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; tree leafing out on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water droplets along Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking

August 2, 8-11:30 a.m., Prairie Ethnobotany: How People Have Used Prairie Plants Throughout History, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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

Naming the Prairie Community

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” —Aldo Leopold

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Spring is here, and with it the smell of toasted prairie.

prescribedburntwoweekslaterSPMA33119-spring.jpg A night or two of rain, some sunshine and rising temperatures, and the burned landscape greens up. Add a dollop of chlorophyll; the scent of wet earth. It’s the scent of spring in my little corner of the world.

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With the obliteration of last season’s desiccated foliage after the prescribed fire, signs of the prairie community are open for investigation. It’s worth taking a hike to go look at the hidden, now made visible for a moment in time.  The fire reveals the tunnels across the prairie. But who uses them? Meadow voles? Prairie voles? Or something more wriggly, perhaps?

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With the tallgrass cover stripped away, a giant ant hill comes into focus. Hmmm. Didn’t know that was there. Did you know a group of ants is called a “colony?” Good name for them.

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This particular mound is a big one. Soon, it will be smothered in lush grasses and wildflowers and for all purposes, invisible until next spring.

The prairie bursts with new growth on this cold, sunny day.  As I hike, Willoway brook, freed of its burden of ice, murmurs in the background.  I feel myself relax.

Almost under my hiking boot, I see a native thistle, lime green against the blackened prairie. Pasture thistle? I think so.  But I’m not completely sure.

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A bird calls from the nearby savanna. I listen, but can’t remember which species goes with the song.  Hmmm… .   I’ll be re-learning bird songs and plant ID from now until fall; saying goodbye the tattered remains of the last year’s prairie….

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… reacquainting myself with plants and birds as they make their appearance.

As I’m looking for the unknown bird calling from the prairie’s edge, I notice a maple’s bark-chewed branch. Squirrels know maple sap flows in early spring, and that they’ll get a tasty treat if they gnaw the bark. Occasionally, when the sap runs from one of the chewed places, then freezes, I break off and lick a “maple sap-sicle” —sweet and a bit earthy tasting. But it’s too warm for maple sap-sicles this evening.

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Squirrels. The collective name for a group of squirrels, I discover, is called a “scurry,” depending on what source you consult. The maple tree has its scurry of squirrels as well as birds. And that mysterious bird is singing again. I take out my phone and record it. I’ll do more research  back home.

Birds are pouring into Chicago. Every day brings arrivals from the south. A group of birds is a flock, I remind myself. Easy, right? But I recently learned that when a mixed group of birds bands together to look for the same type of food, they are called a “foraging guild.” Cool!

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Nuthatches, both the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch show up at my backyard feeders by the prairie patch each afternoon, scuffling with the downy woodpeckers for peanuts. On the edge of the prairie, I watch them peck their way around the trees. A group of nuthatches, I discover, is called a “jar.” Not sure what this nuthatch thinks about that.

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The prairie real estate market is booming. In early April, just outside of Fermilab Natural Areas’ prairies and Nachusa Grasslands, you can see large numbers of herons flying with grasses and twigs in their bills, building their nests.

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You may know that herons nesting together form a “rookery” or “heronry.” But did you know a group of these birds is called a “siege” of herons? That’s a new one for me!

Smaller, but just as interesting, are the field sparrows looking for seeds and insects on the blackened ground. I’ve seen the collective name as “host of sparrows,” “knot of sparrows,” and “quarrel of sparrows.” Which one do you prefer?

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On the two-weeks-burned Schulenberg Prairie, the male mallards are paddling along Willoway Brook, looking for mates.  Spring is the beginning of the mating season for many birds in the prairie community.  The ubiquitous Canada geese, which mate for life, are already scouting out nest sites. (Groups of geese are called “a gaggle” or a “skein.”).

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Even the mallard ducks have special names. I’ve seen the word “sord” or “sword” used; also the more expected “flight”or “flock”. Even “daggle” of ducks and “doppling” of ducks.

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Which brings us full circle to where this “group-of-living-things” tangent began, doesn’t it? It’s fun to learn the collective names of members of the tallgrass community.

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What are some of your favorites? Leave a comment and let me know. I enjoy puzzling over bird songs and plant seedlings; thinking about collective names, feeling the sun on my face and the nip of the still-sharp spring air on my nose.

But its not all delight at this time of year on the prairie. There is loss, as well. On my hikes after the burn I find the charred bones of small mice and voles, who couldn’t out-scramble the prairie flames. A raccoon with a luxurious pelt, which looks asleep, but has been felled into eternal slumber by distemper. Feathers blowing across the trail, doubtless from an arriving spring migrant that became a fox or coyote’s snack.

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It’s all part of the deep joy I feel on the prairie. Not some superficial feeling. But rather, the feeling that comes with the reality of the tallgrass. Beautiful? Yes. But it’s no Hallmark  greeting card. There is life here, with all its glorious growth and bad luck; successes and failures.

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The contrast of life and death; the familiar and the strange; cold nights and warm days; loss and renewal; all mingle together in a mish-mash of community on the just-burned prairie. So much to observe. So much to learn.

So much to love.

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So much to pay attention to.

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Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949); and also, as the father of wildlife ecology, wilderness systems in the United States, and conservation ethics. Read more about him and his work here.

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All photos and video clips copyright Cindy Crosby—today’s posts are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless otherwise noted: Schulenberg Prairie about two weeks after the prescribed burn; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) sprouting; unknown tunnel after the burn; ant mound or hill on burned prairie; Willoway Brook video clip; probably native pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); old prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf; sugar maple (Acer saccharum) branch gnawed by squirrels; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis); great blue heron (Ardea herodias) rookery, North Aurora, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) ; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) in flight; male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) (notice the band on his leg); male mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) on Willoway Brook; sunset in the Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Schulenberg Prairie after the prescribed burn;  black walnut (Juglans nigra) and new growth.

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For more on group names for living things, check out the book A Charm of Goldfinches by Matt Sewell, and these lists of collective names from the Baltimore Bird Club and MNN.com. The names used here came from these and other sources. Have fun!

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Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues through The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Nature writing online and in-person concludes tonight at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Just released! Order from your favorite independent bookseller or Ice Cube Press here.

With grateful thanks to our sponsors: The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Friends of Neal Smith Wildlife Preserve, Grinnell College Center for Prairie Studies; and The Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa. Great places, great folks.

Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a

A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle

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March is all about transition.  As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

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Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.

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Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.

Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?

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At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.

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Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.

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Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.

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Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream.  Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.

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Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…

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Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.

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This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions.  Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.

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Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds.  On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

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It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.

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The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox,  the first day of astronomical spring.

Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.

You too?

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William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of  spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Merry Prairie Christmas

“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.

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On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.

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Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.

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Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.

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Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.

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Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.

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Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.

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Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché.  But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.

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Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”

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The end of the year is just a breath away.

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Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!

***

The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.

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All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

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Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.