Tag Archives: savanna

Extreme Prairie Weather

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

******

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

HiddenLakeFP2419WM.jpg

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:

SPMAbenchinsnow2219WM

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

prairiebenchSPMA4419thawWM.jpg

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.”

crosbybackyardpolarvortexWM12919.jpg

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.

SPMA2219prairiegraphicsWM.jpg

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.

SPMA2219SwitchgrassWM.jpg

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.

MASP2219suncloudsWM.jpg

Deep Roots

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

SPMAfreezethawtrail50degreesWM2419.jpg

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.

SPMALatefigwort2219WM.jpg

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.

SPMA-413

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!

SPMA-bigbluestemleaves2219WM.jpg

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…

compassplant2419SPMAWM.jpg

…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

prairiedockleafSPMAWM2419.jpg

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.

SPMAgrayheadedcflowers2219WM.jpg

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.

MASPsavanna2219WM

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.

****

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.

*****

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

A Very Prairie New Year

“The ignorant man marvels at the exceptional; the wise man marvels at the common; the greatest wonder of all is the regularity of nature.” — G. D. Boardman

*****

2019.

The new year stretches ahead; an unmarked trail. Full of possibilities.

SPMA122818WMtrailthrulittleblue

2018 is now water under the proverbial bridge.

spma122818WMsavanna.jpg

Some of us don’t want to let go of the year; full of sweet memories and adventures.

SPMAtracks122818WM.jpg

For others, 2019 can’t happen fast enough.

fermilabinterpretivetrail123018Wdogbane.jpg

2018 may have left us a little worse for wear.

SPMAbugeatenleaf122818WM.jpg

The symbolism of the “clean slate” is attractive, either way.

mousetracksSPMAWM123018.jpg

Out with the old. In with the new.

SPMA122818WMwinter.jpg

Sure, the year ahead will hold new challenges. Some of them may leave us bent, broken, even temporarily defeated.

SPMA122818WMmonarda.jpg

And yet.

The prairie reminds us that there is a rhythm to life. The tallgrass has its own predictability.

SPMAupperprairie122818WM.jpg

There will be a few curveballs. Predictability is always punctuated on the prairie by surprises.

joepyeSPMAWM122918.jpg

The unexpected waits to emerge.

SPMA122818WMprayingmantis.jpg

That’s part of the frisson, even tension of greeting a new year.

SPMAsumac122818WM.jpg

And part of the joy.

SPMAIllinoisbundelflowersgroupWM.jpg

Where will the next days and months take us?

fermilabinterpretivetrail123018WM.jpg

And will we be up to the challenges?

SPMA122818WMstreamthrusavanna.jpg

Let’s plunge in and find out.

*****

George Dana Boardman Pepper (1833-1913) was a pastor and president of Colby College in Maine.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) snowy trail through little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tracks through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bug eaten leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown tracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stack of 2018 season’s sweet clover (Melilotus alba and officinalis) along the two-track, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa or possibly the Chinese mantis, Tenodera sinesis) egg case on fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Willoway Brook tributary through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thank you to Candy Peterson for bringing the opening quote to my attention! Grateful.

 

Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood

*****

It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.

bigbluestem818wm.jpg

The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

black swallowtail 2013 NG.jpg

…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.

paleIplantainjoepyeSPMA818.jpg

It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

NachusaGrasslands817WMknob.jpg

Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.

trailthroughSPMAsavanna818WM.jpg

And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.

SPMAAugust818wm

I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.

rubyspotdamselWBSPMAwm818.jpg

The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.

floweringspurgeSPMA818wm.jpg

High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

wildgeese123117SPM

It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.

coinsonalog818SPMAWM.jpg

I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.

schulenbergprairieendofJuly718WMWM.jpg

All it took was a little prairie therapy.

*******

Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

****

On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

GreatHikes71618morecoming.jpg

At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

ngjuly142018aroundfameflowerishwm.jpg

And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

SPMAcompassplant71318wm.jpg

When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

rattlesnakemaster71018SPMAwm.jpg

Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

easternamberwingmale71018SPMAwm.jpg

My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

bottlebrushgrassSPMAsavWM71018.jpg

Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

SPMAJuly132018wm.jpg

Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

prairiecinquefoil71318SPMAwm.jpg

The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

WidowSkimmerSPMA71318wmupperloop.jpg

These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

SPMAprairieparsley71318wm.jpg

I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

Purple Prairie Clover 7918 SPMAwm

Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

commonmilkweedSPMA71018wm.jpg

The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

SunsetJuly52018wm2.jpg

The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

pearlcresentSPMA71018wm.jpg

To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

****

Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

***

Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

10 Reasons to Hike the Prairie This Week

“The pleasure of a walk in the woods and the fields is enhanced a hundredfold by some little knowledge of the flowers which we meet at every turn.”–Mrs. William Starr Dana

*****

Buckets of rain have doused the prairie to life in the Chicago region. Color it technicolor green. Even under cloudy skies.

rainydaySPMA51318

In the neighboring savanna, oaks leaf out and invite exploration to see what’s emerging. They seem to say: “Go deeper in.”

SPMAsavanna51318wm

So much new life all around us! Still need a push to get outside? Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week.

10. Pasque flowers are going to seed, as marvelous in this new stage as they were in bloom. Maybe even more beautiful.

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAwm

9. Prairie violets are out in profusion.  Not your ordinary lawn violet. These are something special.

prairievioletSPMA51318wm.jpg

8. Bastard toadflax spangles the landscape with white. The name alone is worth going to see it!

bastardtoadflax51318.jpg

7. Wood betony is spiraling into bloom. Looks like a carnival has come to the prairie, doesn’t it?

woodbetonySPMA51318wm.jpg

6. There’s nothing quite like the smell of wild hyacinth opening in the rain. Breathe deep. Mmmm.

wildhyacinthSPMA51318wm.jpg

5. New Jersey tea—a prairie shrub—spears its way through the soil and bursts into leaf.

NewJerseyTeaSPMA51318wm

NewJerseyTeaSPMA51318wmleaf

4. Common valerian is in full bloom this week. Such a strange little wildflower! Supposedly, it smells like dirty socks, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of any unpleasant fragrance.

commonvalerian51318wm.jpg

3. Jacob’s ladder covers whole patches of the prairie, adding its bright baby blues.

JacobsladderSPMA5138two.jpg

2. Wild coffee is about to flower. Its other quirky nicknames, “tinker’s weed” and “late horse gentian” are as odd as the plant’s unusual leaves, blooms, and later, bright orange fruits.

 

  1. Shooting star blankets the prairie in low-lying, pale-pink clouds. You don’t want to miss these wildflowers!  Like their name implies, they’ll be gone before you know it.

shootingstarSPMA51318WM.jpg

Ten very different reasons to take a hike. But I could find a hundred reasons (and not just the wildflowers) to put on a rain jacket, get out of the house, and go for a  walk on the spring prairie this week.

What about you?

***

The opening quote for this post is from How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893) by naturalist Francis Theodora Parsons, aka “Mrs. William Starr Dana” (1861-1952), a book I have long coveted and which my wonderful husband gave me for Mother’s Day.  Parsons was educated at a school taught by Anna Botsford Comstock, who is noteworthy for her role in establishing the Nature Study Movement and especially, empowering women to explore the natural world. Parsons’ life was marred by several tragedies. After the loss of her first husband, Parsons went walking with her friend, the illustrator Marion Satterlee, for comfort. From those walks, the book came about. My 1989 edition has 100 lovely black and white drawings from Satterlee, plus 25 rich color illustrations from paintings by the artist Manabu C. Saito.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum (top to bottom): Rainy May day on the prairie; oaks (Quercus spp.) leafing out; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) going to seed; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) in bloom; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) in bloom; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) in two different stages; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans); wild coffee from afar and close up, sometimes called tinker’s weed or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum);  shooting star  (Dodecatheon meadia).

Wonders on the Prairie’s Edge

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

****

If you want to get to know a flower, sit with it for an hour. Put down your camera and break out a sketchpad. I reminded myself of this truism as I marveled at the bloodroot in bloom this week. There is a large colony, right on the edges of the prairie proper. Before the prairie becomes a riot of wildflowers later in the spring, there is a chance to really focus on single species.

Little on the prairie is in flower right now, other than the pasque flowers beginning to fade, in their dreamy sort of way of saying goodbye…

pasqueflowersfadingSPMA43018wm.jpg

…and the wood betony crinkling into the promise of bloom—soon!

woodbetonySPMA43018wm.jpg

Meanwhile, bloodroot is throwing a party on the prairie edges. In one sunny patch, I counted more than 500 blooms. I’ve always thought the best way to really get to know a plant is to sit with it for a while. So, I found a little bare patch in the colony and settled in for an hour with my sketchpad.

When you draw a plant –regardless of your artistic skill–you see it with new eyes.

bloodrootwatermarkedSPMA42618.jpg

As I sketched, I thought about some reading I did about bloodroot recently in preparation for teaching my spring wildflower classes. I ran across a scholarly, yet charming, article for the Virginia Native Plant Society from W. John Hayden at University of Richmond. The bloodroot’s life strategy, Hayden says, is “Hurry, wait, and hedge against uncertain fate.”

bloodrootbud42718wmSPMA.jpg

Because bloodroot blooms so early in the spring, Hayden tells us, it has some fascinating ways to ensure pollination. Flowering so early is risky. Bloodroot flowers close during cold, drizzly spring weather and also at night, making it tough for insects (mostly bees) to pollinate the plant.

bloodrootclosedEWMA42718.jpgSo bloodroot hedges its bets. The third day a flower is open, Hayden says, the stamens of the flower bend inward, bringing the anthers and pollen into direct contact with the stigma. In other words, if all else fails, the flower can pollinate itself and seeds will be produced.  I looked closely at a few older bloodroot blooms, and saw what Hayden was talking about.

bloodrootselfpollinating43018SPMAwm.jpg

Pollinators were busier on this sunny day than jets over Chicago O’Hare International  Airport. Honey bees from our prairie hives regularly dropped in, probably disappointed to discover the bloodroot flower is devoid of nectar. Pollen, however, it has in spades.

honeybeebloodrootSPMA42618wm.jpg

Bee flies—fuzzy flies that imitate bees—were frequent visitors as well.

beeflybestonbloodrootMAEW42618wm.jpg

Plus a host of other insects that moved too fast for me to try and ID them.

pollinatorbloodroot42618SPMAwm.jpg

As I sketched different plants in various stages of emergence and bloom, I looked closely for the first time at the way they held their leaves.

bloodrootvariousstages42618SPwm.jpg

Jack Sanders, author of The Secrets of Wildflowers, compares emerging bloodroot to a mother protecting her baby with her cloak (the veiny scalloped leaf wrapped around flower stalk and bud). Apt description, isn’t it?

bloodrootleafSPMA42618wm.jpg

As I sketched one bloodroot bud, I was astonished to see it begin to unfold! I grabbed my camera. In less than 60 seconds, it went from almost closed to completely open.

 

As the bloodroot seeds drop to the ground, ants pick them up and carry them back to their nests. The seeds hold a fleshy treat called elaiosome, which the ant will enjoy. Try saying that word out loud! It sounds like a secret password for something exciting, doesn’t it? (Elaiosome!)

bloodrootseedSPMAwm43018.jpg

The discarded seed is dispersed away from the mother flower, and has fertile ground—the ant nest—to sprout from. The second vocabulary word for me of the day was myrmecochory, a tongue-twister which means simply means “seed dispersal by ants.”

In My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

sunsetlastdayofapril3018SPSMAwm.jpg

The complexity and relationships of just one species of wildflower are a good reminder of Muir’s observation.

I put away my sketchpad and marvel.

How can we not?

****

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-)  grew up in Wisconsin, one of seven children. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and also in New York. She married Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and art dealer. Known for her renderings of flowers, O’Keeffe died in 1986, almost completely blind at 98, but still finding ways to paint.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with bee fly (Bombyliidae family) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) with unknown flying pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) opening, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

*******

It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

schulenbergprairie32518watermarked

Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

bonestwoprairiewoods318watermarked.jpg

spoonafterburnprairiewoods31818watermarked.jpg

It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

Prairiedock-belmontleafwatermarked31018

Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

Belmont-coneflowerwatermarked31018.jpg

Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

PRairiedock-belmontmarch1018watermarked.jpg

Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

P1080308

All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

featheronprairieplantSPMA318watermarked.jpg

There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

pasqueflowersgroupNGwatermarked.jpg

Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

prairiewoodsoak318watermarked

Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

ballgallprairiewoods318watermarked.jpg

Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

prairiewoodsburnedandunburned318watermarked.jpg

Bring on the fire.

burnsign318MAwatermarked copy.jpg

MAburnindistanceNOTSP318watermarked.jpg

*****

The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.