Tag Archives: purple milkweed

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

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

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Much Ado About Milkweed

“A fallen blossom–returning to the bough, I thought…But no, a butterfly.”

–Arakida Moritake

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What’s all the fuss about milkweed?  Well…what’s not to love?

There’s butterfly milkweed’s day-glo orange. Grab your sunglasses.

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Get a pop of prairie color—with a pollinator—from purple milkweed.

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Enjoy the pretty-in-pink of prairie milkweed, sometimes called Sullivant’s milkweed.

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In the fall, the milkweeds smoke silks into the autumn air, sending seeds aloft.

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When the milkweed’s seeds are spent, the canoe-like seedpods are endless vehicles for creativity and imagination.

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Other than the visual and tactile pleasure the blooms give us, our 19 native Illinois species of milkweed are a veritable Noah’s Ark for monarch butterflies. Although monarchs sip nectar from a variety of plants like the bee balm below, they lay their eggs only on milkweed.

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When the monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) hatch, they munch on milkweed. Without the milkweeds, there would be no monarchs.

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Scientists at Cornell University tell us to pair milkweeds with fall blooming, nectar-rich plants such as goldenrods. Why?  Goldenrod and other fall nectar plants provide food for the monarch butterfly’s epic migration to Mexico in the fall.  Evidently, goldenrod is an important life-giving flower for monarchs.

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But it all begins with milkweed. Such a simple act of hope—to plant a flower.

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After all, how often can we help save a species while, in the process, make the world more beautiful?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii),Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed silks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; milkweed pod with snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  monarch caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  monarch butterfly on goldenrod (Solidago canedensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  common milkweed, (Asclepias syriaca) with false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549), whose words begins this essay, was a Japanese poet who wrote about the natural world.

Resurrecting Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again. “–Thomas Wolfe

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Pulling sweet clover and giant ragweed from the prairie on hot June mornings can seem endless. On one workday, sweating and tired, a volunteer turned to me and sighed. “Tell me again–why are we doing this?”

I can’t remember exactly what I said. But this is what I wish I’d said.

Just a few hundred years ago, more than half of Illinois was prairie.

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Settlers moved in,  looking for adventure and a better life. Agriculture and the John Deere plow soon turned prairies into acres of corn and soybeans. There was good in this–we need places to live, and food to eat. But we didn’t remember to pay attention to what we were losing.

And when we forget to pay attention, our losses can be irreplaceable.

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For a while, it looked as if the prairie would become nothing more than a ghost. A distant memory.

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But, just as the tallgrass had all but vanished, a few people woke up to what we had. They panicked when they saw how little of the Illinois prairie was left…

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Then, they sounded an alarm to save those few thousand acres of original tallgrass that remained.

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They persuaded others to reconstruct prairies where they had disappeared, and to restore degraded prairies back to vibrant health. Soon, prairie wildflowers and their associated insects returned. Purple milkweed and bees…

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Wild quinine and tiny bugs…

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…the prairie’s roses and crab spiders…

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The drain tiles that piped the wet prairies dry were broken up.  The land remembered what it once was.

Dragonflies returned and patrolled the tallgrass.

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The rare glade mallow raised her blooms again in the marshy areas, with a critter or two hidden in her petals.

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These reconstructed and restored prairies are different, of course. Bison roam…

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…but within fenced units. Power lines and jet contrails scar the skies that were once marked only with birds and clouds. Today, you may see houses along the edges, where once the tallgrass stretched from horizon to horizon.

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It’s not perfect. But when we made a promise to future generations to bring back the prairies for them, we crossed a bridge of sorts.

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We put aside our own instant gratification.

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Every weed we pull; every seed we collect and plant, is in hopes that the Illinois prairie won’t be a ghost to the children who grow up in Illinois in the future.

Rather, it will be the landscape they love and call home.

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Photos (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; old barns, Flagg Township, Ogle County, IL; moon rising over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Scribner’s panic grass (Dicanthelium oligosanthes), The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo or false indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture rose (Rosa carolina) with a crab spider, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; child crossing the bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, I; sunset over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The introductory quote is from Look Homeward Angel, by Thomas Wolfe, an American novelist in the early 20th Century. This quote is used to describe the lost prairie by John Madson in his seminal book on tallgrass, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.