Tag Archives: Russell R. Kirt Prairie

The April Prairie: After the Fire

“April outdoes all our effort to keep up with it.”—Niall Williams

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What’s that, you say? It’s snowing?

Don’t put away those gloves and scarves yet. It’s April in the Midwest, and snow is part of the spring package. As Tom Jones sings, “It’s not unusual… .” The local newspaper tells me the Chicago region received measurable snow in seven of the past ten years in April, with almost eight inches in April 2019 (that blissful year before the pandemic). I’m grateful to see only flurries.

Crosby’s Backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow or no snow, April is an exciting month on the tallgrass prairie—especially after a prescribed burn. At first glance you might believe there’s nothing worth seeing. A burned landscape seemingly holds little attraction.

Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But take a closer look. As Jeff and I found on a recent hike this weekend, there’s plenty to experience.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Look closely. What are these, poking through the ashes?

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And listen. The chorus frogs are singing!

Chorus frogs (Pseudacris illinoensis) at College of DuPage’s Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Red-winged blackbirds call their oka-leeeeee! Oka-leeeee! Ahead of us, a killdeer dodges and darts through the blackened stubble.

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I reacquainted myself with this species recently at All About Birds, a terrific resource from Cornell University. I learned the killdeer is a proficient swimmer. What????

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jeff reminded me that killdeer are shorebirds. Here in the Midwest, they are some of the first birds to occupy the prairie after it is burned. But, when I think of birds that swim, I don’t think of killdeer. Rather, I think of ducks.

Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Mallards barely merit a glance from most folks. I’m convinced if they were rare we’d be ooohing and aaahhing over how beautiful they are. Look at those colors! Even on a gloomy day, the mallards brighten up the view.

Also lovely—but much despised — are the brown-headed cowbirds scattered across the prairie.

Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Back to Cornell’s All About Birds. I learn that instead of building a nest, the cowbird channels its energy into egg production and lays dozens of eggs over the season. These are deposited in other bird species’ nests. The cowbird progeny are then raised by these foster parent songbirds. Cornell calls cowbirds “brood parasites.” Many birders despise cowbirds as they are often responsible for destroying the eggs and young of some endangered species. But I can’t help but admire their striking colors as they pick their way across the prairie and chirp their “Clink! Clink! Clink!” song.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A hike on a blackened prairie is a reminder that the prairie is full of nuance. It’s not a drive-by landscape. Rather, it’s a place you need to spend time with. Get on your knees and look —- really look. Pay attention with all of your five senses. Can you still smell the smoke? What plants are completely gone? What areas were missed by the fire?

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A burned prairie is also a reminder that there is hope after devastation. At different points in my life when everything seemed laid waste, the cycle of the prairie reminded me that with time, there was the possibility of change.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As Jeff and I hike the prairie perimeter, we find evidence of more bird activity.

Unknown egg, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder who laid this now smashed egg? A Canada goose, maybe? The egg color and size looks right. There are plenty of Canada geese patrolling the borders of the prairie so it’s a reasonable hypothesis.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I look for more eggs, I spy this.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

After a prescribed burn, finding golf balls is inevitable, no matter which prairie you visit. I guess it is all—ahem—-par for the course when you hike the tallgrass prairie after a prescribed fire in April.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Niall Williams (1958-) , who with his partner Christine Breen wrote In Kiltumper: A Year in an Irish Garden. If you like books that follow the gardening year, month by month, this is a good one to investigate.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in April! (Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more).

Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL. Open to the public (in person). Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online only, and open to the public. Register here.

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

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The weather information in this blog post was taken from The Daily Herald, Sunday, April 3, 2022 written by Susan Sarkauskas, “Snow Flurries? In April?”

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Calling All Poets! April 1-April 30th- Check out this exciting project YOU can contribute to!

DuPage Monarch Project invites you to participate in Poets for Pollinators, a month-long celebration of nature’s wonders through poetry. Poems featuring bees, butterflies, birds and all pollinating creatures, as well as ones expressing the joy, comfort and delight found in nature will be posted on DuPage Monarch Project’s Facebook page April 1st – April 30th. New and experienced poets of all ages are welcome; this celebration is open to everyone.  Multiple entries will be accepted. Please send poems to Lonnie Morris at dupagemonarchs@gmail.com.  Poems may be pasted into the email or included as an attachment.  Authorship will be given unless anonymity is requested.  Formatting in Facebook is challenging but we will make every attempt to present the poem as you have written it.  Original photos are welcome.  If you don’t have a photo of a favorite pollinator, one will be selected from the DMP photo library.  If photos are sent, please include the name of the person who took the photo. By submitting a poem, you are granting DuPage Monarch Project the right to share it on the DuPage Monarch Project Facebook page.  The poem will not be shared, used or included in any other manner than the Facebook post during the month of April.

Three Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“…I looked on the natural world, and I felt joy.” — Michael McCarthy

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This is the season of hot chocolate and electric blankets; library books and naps. And yet. When I spend too much time insulated at home, I find myself fretting over the latest newspaper headlines, or worrying about getting sick. Covid has left few of our families untouched.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

What’s the solution? I can’t solve Covid, but I can keep my worries from circling around and around in an endless loop.

Snow on Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A hike outdoors goes a long way to restoring my spirits. Cold has settled into the Chicago region. A fine layer of snow has covered the grime along the roads and left everything shimmering white. The air smells like clean laundry. The ice has become manageable under a few days of concentrated sunlight.

Prairie pond at Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s beautiful outside! Despite the chill. Consider these three reasons to brave the cold and go for a prairie hike this week.

Shadows and Shapes

Snow backdrops prairie plants and transforms them.

Unknown vine; East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It backlights the tallgrass; silhouetting wildflowers and grasses.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Familiar plants cast blue-gray shadows, giving them a different dimension.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even if you’ve seen a plant a hundred times before…

Common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…it takes on a winter persona, and seems new.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow shadows lend the prairie a sense of mystery.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The spark and glaze of ice turn your hike into something magical.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Breathe in. The cold air numbs the worry. Breathe out. Feel the terrors of the day fade away.

For now. A moment of peace.

Winter Traffic

During these pandemic times its comforting to know we live in community. Small prairie creatures—usually invisible— are made visible by their tracks.

Busy intersection, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tunnels are evidence of more life humming under the snow.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I leave my tracks alongside theirs. It’s a reminder that we all share the world, even when we don’t see each other.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie Skies

Winter has a way of changing the prairie sky from moment to moment. It might be brilliant blue one day, or crowded with puffy cumulus clouds the next.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Wild geese fly by, their bowling pin silhouettes humorous when directly overhead; the clamor raucous even in the distance as they fly from prairie to soccer field to golf course.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skies might be soft with sheep shapes on one day…

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Or blindingly bright on the next stroll through.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie gives us the advantage of a 360-degree view of the sky. Its immensity reminds us of how very small….so small…. our worries are in the great span of time and space.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As we hike, our sense of wonder is rekindled.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our fear disappears. Or at least, it lessens.

East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our mind rests. The well of contentment, seriously depleted, begins to fill. And then, we feel it again.

Joy.

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The opening quote is from the book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (1947-), a long-time British environmental editor for The Independent and writer for The Times. You can listen to his interview with Krista Tippett for “On Being” here.

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Join Cindy for a program this winter!

“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Now all online). Register here.

February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world.  February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

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Also — check out this free program offered by Wild Ones! (Not one of Cindy’s but she’s attending!)

The Flora and Fauna of Bell Bowl Prairie February 17, 7-8:30 p.m. Join other prairie lovers to learn about the flora and fauna of Bell Bowl Prairie, slated for destruction by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport this spring. It’s free, but you must register. More information here. Scroll down to “Upcoming Events” and you’ll see the February 17 Webinar with the always-awesome Rock Valley Wild Ones native plants group. Watch for the Zoom link coming soon on their site! Or contact Wild Ones Rock River Valley Chapter here. Be sure and visit http://www.savebellbowlprairie.org to see how you can help.

Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

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In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

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After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

A New Prairie Year

“Ring out the old, ring in the new, ring, happy bells, across the snow.”–Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Winter settles in.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie is glazed with ice.

Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And more ice.

Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sleet adds to the magic.

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Storm-melt freezes in mid-drip.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Powder sugars the grasses. Everything is dusted and sprayed and sprinkled with snow.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Coyotes print their whereabouts on the paths.

Coyote (Canus latrans) tracks, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Plants are pared to their essence.

Tendrils, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Grasses are stripped to ribbons.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Switchgrass is sparkling and spare.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The old is gone.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Something new is on the way.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata),
Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There is beauty in the singular….

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Glory in the aggregate.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January is a time to reflect.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A time to divest ourselves of non-essentials.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A time to take stock of what is most important.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A season to appreciate the beauty…

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the diversity of the natural world; evident even in the deepest winter.

Goldenrod Rosette Gall or Bunch Gall (Rhopalomyia solidaginis) with Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With a new year…

Sunrise, looking east from the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…comes the opportunity to make choices about who we are.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The writer Kahlil Gibran said, “Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.”

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And, as another philosopher, Christopher Robin, once said (in the cinematic version of Winnie the Pooh), “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Prairie plantings along the DuPage River, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hello, 2021! Let’s make it a good year.

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The opening quote is by Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1850-1892). Tennyson likely wrote to distract himself from the tragedies of his life: his eleven siblings suffered from addiction, severe mental illness, and an unhappy home life. Read more about his life and poetry here; or listen to a delightful reading of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott from a scene with Megan Follows in the 1985 mini-series “Anne of Green Gables.” No matter what your age, check out this Emmy Award winning classic mini-series produced in Canada.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Next Week! January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

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.

wild lettuce COD 9819WM.jpg

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.

sweetautumnclematis9819WM

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.

backyardjungle9819WM.jpg

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.

JoePyebackyardprairie9719WM.jpg

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.

CardinalflowerGEbackyard9719WMWM.jpg

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.

MonarchCODPrairie9719WM.jpg

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.