Tag Archives: prescribed burn

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

Prairie Burn Paradox

“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?

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Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.

 

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But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.

Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands.  This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.

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Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie  leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.SPMA32019WMburnWM.jpg

There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away.  This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.

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The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.

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Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.

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Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.

The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.

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The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets.  In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!”  calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?

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Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.

Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.

 

 

 

Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.

The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.

Time to turn the page.

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Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974).  Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)  in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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More from Cindy:

Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.

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New Podcast!

Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click  here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂

Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:

Nature Writing (online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Spring Prairie Moon

“Barn’s burnt down. Now, I can see the moon.” — Mazuta Masahide

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Sunset. A pearl button moon rises due east as the sun flames into the western horizon. Not quite the “Supermoon”  or full “Worm Moon” we’ll have on March 20, in conjunction this year with the vernal equinox.  This evening, we get an almost-there version over the prairie. A sneak preview.

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The prairie is partly burnt. The crew came out today and torched the first sections, leaving a yin and yang of startling contrast.

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Robins flitter and hop over the white ash, scrounging for worms on the scorched surface. March is a critical month for prescribed burns on the prairie. Each morning, natural areas managers check the signs. Wind speed? Check. Wind direction? Check. Humidity? Check.

Most of the prairies Jeff and I hiked this week were still untouched by fire.

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Look deep into the grasses, and you’ll see snowmelt is still pooled around the remains of  Indian grass and big bluestem. Tough to burn.

Tonight, the prairie stream reflects a still-bare tree and sunset glow of cumulus clouds above.

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My old touchstone, the praying mantis egg case I’ve watched through the winter, faces the dying light. It is unmarked by the flames, but empty of life.

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On one side of the trail, ashes.

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On the other, brittle grass stalks and old wildflower stems are prime kindling. Waiting for the burning to resume. The flattened tallgrass glimmers gold. Will the fire be tomorrow? A week from now?

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On most prairies, the answer will be this: Soon.

Our old apple tree on the prairie has weathered many fires. We keep it, as it tells the story of its ancestor, an apple tree planted by the early settlers who first turned the tallgrass under the sharp knife of the plow. Trees like these once provided apples for making  “Apple Jack,” an alcoholic beverage. The drink offered temporary solace and medicine for those pioneers’ hardscrabble days.

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In the receding light, I wonder. Could this be the battered tree’s last spring? Every year, it surprises me by putting out green leaves and flowers.Who knows? It’s resilient. It may be here long after I’m gone.

Tonight, walking this half-burned, ghost of last year’s tallgrass, I feel a rush of joy. Out with the old. I’m ready for something new. Let’s get it finished. Bring on the burn.

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The air smells like a campfire. The memory of the taste of s’mores comes unbidden to my mouth and I realize it is long past dinnertime. Cooling temperatures and the dwindling light are clues the prairie and savanna are settling in for the night. Time to go home.

The red-winged blackbirds keep up their calling contest as I hike back to the car.

 

American robins flutter in and out of the trees, scouting for their bedtime snacks.

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It’s almost dark. A blue bird appears. His vivid sapphire is bright in last light. He bounces for a few seconds on a burned -over bit of scrub that barely holds his weight. At about an ounce, I could mail him with a postage stamp.

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I watch him sway a little longer over the ashes, then fly away. I feel a little bounce in my step as well.

Happiness! Spring.

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Mazuta Masahide (1657-1723) was a Japanese poet and samurai who was mentored by poetry master Matsuo Basho in the 17th Century in the art of haiku. Read more on haiku here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full moon over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; March on Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; reflections of sunset in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis egg case ((Tenodera sinensis) ravaged by a bird, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ashes from prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flattened tallgrass at sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old apple tree (Malus pumila), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, Lisle, IL; clouds over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; video clip of dusk on the prairie and prairie savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;

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Cindy’s March classes, announcements, and events this week:Tallgrass Conversations cover Cindy Pick9a.jpg

Now Available! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean) is shipping from Ice Cube Press. $24.95, hardcover, full-color. Find it at fine places like The Arboretum Store in Lisle, IL: 630-719-2454; and Books on First in Dixon, IL: (815)285-2665 or at other bookstores across the Midwest.

Nature Writing: Blended Online and In-Person: Tuesday, March 18– continues at The Morton Arboretum through April 2.

March 22: Frequent Flyers of the Garden and Prairie: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lombard Garden Club, Lombard, IL (Closed Event).

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 27 through The Morton Arboretum. All classwork done remotely. Register here.

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.

Rethinking Wilderness: Of Prairies and Deserts

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. ” — — Edward Abbey

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Displacement is good for the soul; or so I tell myself as I hike the beautiful red-rock trails of Sedona with Jeff under a blazing sun.

Shade? Forget about it. Unless it’s the shade you cast as you hike.

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As a prairie lover, the plants and grasses of the desert are a study in contrasts to what I know back home. I’m used to lush foliage. Vibrant wildflowers. In the Chicago region this season, the tallgrass prairie lived up to its name. Rain ensured this. Big bluestem towers over my head whenever I go for a hike; bends over trails with the weight of its tallness.

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Sunflowers form jungle-like vegetation along the prairie streams. In places, vegetation is so impenetrable, I’ve had to abandon some of my dragonfly monitoring routes for the season.

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But when you look closely—think out of the box a little bit—there are similarities between the prairie I know and the desert I’m hiking today that I don’t know. Here in Sedona, it’s obvious most of the grasses and plants are primed for weather extremes; small amounts of  rainfall and harsh heat. There are empty creek beds everywhere that must flash flood from time to time.  But today, everything is dusty and parched in the glare of the sun.

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You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.

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The tallgrass prairies of home, while receiving around 40 inches of rainfall in a good year, are also primed for weather swings between drought and flood. As I look closely at the yucca on my hike, its foliage reminds me of the tallgrass prairie’s rattlesnake master, whose scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium pays homage to its prickly, fleshy, yucca-like leaves.  What do you think?

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Both the desert and the tallgrass have fire in common. There’s a wildfire burning in a wilderness area just a few miles away. Everywhere, there is a sense of caution.

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A sign on the highway notes: “Brushfire Danger High: Use Your Ashtray.”  Are there still ashtrays in cars? Who knew? Burnout operations — creating small fires to stop wildfires —are underway at night. Evidently, smoke creates less of a breathing hazard for residents at night than in the daytime. Fascinating stuff.  I hadn’t thought of the desert, with its cactus and forests and mountains, as a place of fire. But so it is.

A species of prickly pear cactus pops up everywhere in the desert; a relative to a prickly pear cactus we have  (oddly enough) in our Midwest tallgrass prairies. Hello, friend. Nice to see a familiar face.

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However, I keep a respectful distance. Those sharp bristles are nothing to trifle with.

I try to decipher the hieroglyphics of the trail as I hike. What is the desert trying to tell me?

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Maybe the words of Ed Abbey again: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”

Being in the desert prompts me to think about wilderness in new ways. Mostly, I’ve thought of wilderness as the North Woods, or maybe the Bob Marshall in Montana, or large swathes of Arctic habitat. And yet, there are ten federally designated wilderness areas in or close to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, including where I’m hiking on the outskirts of the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Desert has its own version of a wilderness refuge, a place apart. Just as prairies are.

Another similarity between deserts and prairie is that both can be overlooked, misunderstood, and taken for granted. “Once you’ve seen the red rocks a few times, they can be pretty boring,” said the maintenance man who came to fix my hotel door lock in Sedona.

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Ditto for a shopkeeper downtown. “It’s so beautiful here,” I said to her (gushingly, I’m afraid.) She shook her head. “It’s ugly!”  I’ve heard much the same back home about the tallgrass prairie. “Weeds!”  a friend once told me. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? But, as the venerable garden writer Henry Mitchell rather caustically once said, these remarks tend to come from folks who “don’t see much when they look.” And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

So, I remind myself, Look. Look again. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand. Find connections. Appreciate the differences. Let the desert soak in.

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“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Ed Abbey again. As an outsider here, I feel the draw. There’s so much here I don’t understand. I see a lot of other people hiking the trails, climbing the rocks, searching for something…more. 

Like the base jumper, defying laws of both gravity and the legal system. As we hiked the trails one morning, we heard a yell of delight. We looked up— just as he leapt from thousands of feet high off of one of the towering red rocks and floated to the ground.

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What was he looking for? Did he find it? I wonder.

I want to listen to the wisdom the desert has to offer, even when I don’t always know what I’m looking at. Or, what I’m looking for. Pay attention. Be grateful these places exist, even if this is may be the only time in my life I’ll get to see them.

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I want to cherish these diverse places in my memory. Act to protect them for future generations. After all, who knows what these places may have to teach us? We need to tuck them into our hearts. We need them to be there…when we go looking.

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Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a writer, environmental activist, and park ranger. Although personal happiness seemed elusive (he was married five times) and he held controversial views on immigration, women, and environmental sabotage, his writings on American deserts—-leaning toward mysticism—-helped inspire a public appreciation for the desert landscape that continues today. If you haven’t read Abbey, try Desert Solitaire.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Maxmillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown desert grasses and plants, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; yucca (Yucca, unknown species), Oak Creek, AZ; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) fire hazard sign, State Highway 169, AZ; prickly pear cactus (probably Opuntia cactaceae or Opuntia phaeacantha) and unknown grasses, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; sand track graffiti on the Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; red rocks, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; Bell Rock, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ;  base jumper off of Courthouse Rock, Oak Creek, AZ; moonrise over Sedona on the Autumn equinox, Sedona, AZ. Any plant ID’s from my desert friends are welcome! Grateful to all of you who work to care for these amazing desert places, including Neil Chapman at TNC’s Hart Prairie in northern Arizona. Thank you. 

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

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The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

Spring Arrives on the Prairie

“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” –Henry Van Dyke

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Ephemerals. It’s what we call spring wildflowers. Why? Ephemeral simply means “fleeting,” “transitory,” or “quickly fading.” Most years, they are here and gone like a whisper in a dark room. You only have a moment to try and register their presence, and then—well—you wonder if you imagined them.

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Here in the Chicago region, I’ve been teaching wildflower field classes, despite the recent snow-covered landscape and the late prescribed prairie burns. Up until this weekend, there haven’t been a lot of blooms to see.

SPMA42218watermark.jpgOn the prairie, rattlesnake master is singed; its emergence paused temporarily by the fires.

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Give it a week or two, and it will perk back up. Same for the tiny loose cabbages of pale Indian plantain, persevering through the cold and snows of last week.

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Leaves don’t excite most folks much, but I feel a thrill of seeing the earliest sign of a prairie wildflower. It’s fun to see the pale Indian plantain at this stage, knowing it will be as tall as I am this summer.

If you look closely, there are a few wildflowers in bloom on the prairie proper. Pasque flowers are the stars of the burned prairie—if you can find them. Camouflaged perfectly against the bare soil. The spider hiding in the bloom is an added bonus.

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Pretty big shadow for a tiny insect, isn’t it?

Because of the snow and the prescribed burn, my wildflower “field classes” ended up with a lot of  PowerPoint to supplement our trail time. Even if the blooms aren’t cooperating on the woodland and the prairie, we can always have blooms on the screen, right? But, cheerful looking and necessary as those images may be, no PowerPoint image substitutes for the real thing. I can’t duplicate the smell of damp earth and leaves as we brush them aside to appreciate the new growth of Dutchman’s breeches in bud…

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…or the delight we feel when we see the green of hepatica leaves that survived the winter.

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The delights of a hike include finding the tiniest hepatica blossoms I’ve ever seen…

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…or  the serendipity of discovering pollinators flying their spring reconnaissance missions. Bloodroot makes the perfect landing pad.

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There’s joy watching the play of light and shadow on bloodroot blooms…

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…and stopping to admire the various stages of a trout lily’s emergence, backlit by the afternoon sun.

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This week, we watch—with our fingers crossed—as the temperature climbs. 35 degrees. 40 degrees. 50 degrees plus.  You can see the hope on people’s faces. Anticipation is building. Do you feel it?  This is going to be a big week in the wildflower world. When the blooming starts, it will be like rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago.

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Will you be there to see them bloom? Make your plans now. Block your lunch hour. Set your alarm to get up early. Plan an outing in the evening after dinner. But don’t put it off. Once these spring ephemerals begin blooming, nothing will stop them. They are only here for a moment…and this year, their moment may be especially fleeting.

Get ready. Spring is here. For real, this time.

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And it’s a beauty.

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The opening quote is from Fisherman’s Luck and Other Uncertain Things by clergyman and writer Henry Van Dyke. (1852-1933). His books included The Other Wise Man, and his most famous sermon focused on hearing God’s voice through nature. A poet himself, he also wrote literary criticism, including a volume on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry. He was Professor of English Literature at Princeton University (1900), and served as ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson. He and his wife had nine children.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie eleven days after the prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium or Cacalia atriplicifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown pollinators, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trout lily (Erythronium albidum) emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches in bud (Dicentra cucullaria), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.