Tag Archives: schulenberg prairie

Summer Magic on the Tallgrass Prairie

“May I not be permitted…to introduce a few reflections on the magical influence of the prairies? Their sight never wearies…a profusion of variously colored flowers; the azure of the sky above. In the summer season, especially, everything upon the prairies is cheerful, graceful, and animated…I pity the man whose soul could remain unmoved under such a scene of excitement.” ——Joseph Nicollet, 1838

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I followed Chance the Snapper—Chicago’s renegade alligator—south to Florida this week.

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The tallgrass has often been compared to the ocean, and it’s easy to see why. As I sit on the sand under the hot sun, the ripples on the Gulf remind me of the wind-waves that pass through the spiking grasses and wildflowers.

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It’s difficult to be away from the prairie, even for a few days in July. So much is happening! It’s a magical time. The gray-headed coneflowers pirouette into lemon confetti.

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Purple and white prairie clover spin their tutu skirts across the tallgrass; bee magnets, every one.

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Rosinweed’s rough and tumble blooms pinwheel open. Rosinweed is part of the Silphium genus, and perhaps the most overlooked of its more charismatic siblings.

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Cup plant, another Silphium sibling, is also in bloom. as are the first iconic compass plant flowers. Prairie dock, the last of the Silphiums to open here in Illinois, won’t be far behind.

The last St. John’s wort blooms seem to cup sunshine.

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The smaller pale blooms, like llinois bundleflower…

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…and oddball wildflowers, like Indian plantain, add complexity to the richness of the July prairie.

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Wild bergamot, or “bee-balm,” buzzes with its namesake activity. I’m always astonished each year at how prolific it is, but this season, it floods the prairie with lavender. Wow.

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The scientific name for bee balm is Monarda fistulosa; the specific epithet, fistulosa, means “hollow” or “pipe-like.” If you pay attention to a single flower in all its growing stages…

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….its intricacy will take your breath away. Look closer. Like fireworks!

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I love to chew its minty leaves; a natural breath freshener. Bee balm’s essential oil, thymol, is a primary ingredient in natural mouthwashes. Tea made from the plant has also been used as a  remedy for throat infections; its antiseptic properties made it historically useful for treating wounds.beebalm719SPMAWM

The hummingbirds and hummingbird moths, as well as the bees and butterflies, find it irresistible.

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Not only a useful plant, but beautiful.

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The air reverberates with sound on the July prairie: buzzing, chirping; the sizzling, hissing chords of grass blowing in the wind. Overhead, ubiquitous honking Canada geese add their familiar notes.

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In Florida, ospreys wake me each morning with their piercing cries. I see them soaring over the tallgrass prairie occasionally at home and at Fermilab’s prairies down the road in Batavia, IL, where they’re a rare treat. Here in Florida, they’re just another common note in the island’s soundtrack.

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It’s bittersweet to leave the tallgrass prairie in July for a week and miss some of its seasonal magic. The wildflowers are in full crescendo. The grasses unfold their seedheads and head skyward. The slow turn of the season toward autumn begins. You see it in the change in dragonfly species on the prairie, the sudden appearance of bottlebrush grass and Joe Pye weed flowers. To leave the Midwest for even a few days is to miss a twist or turn in the prairie’s ongoing story. Miss some of the magic.

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But displacement gives me perspective. A renewed appreciation for what I’ve left behind.

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The magic will be waiting.

*****

Joseph Nicollet (1786-1843), whose quote begins this post, was a French mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer who led explorations in what now is the Dakotas and Minnesota. His whose accurate maps were some of the first to show elevation and use regional Native American names for places. Nicollet’s tombstone reads: “He will triumph who understands how to conciliate and combine with the greatest skill the benefits of the past with the demands of the future.” Read more about him here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; St. John’s wort ( likely shrubby —Hypericum prolificum); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum), Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie, Glenview, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and a silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunflowers (probably Helianthus divaricatus) and wild bergamont (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, Florida; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Captiva Island in July, Florida.

Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Classes:

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you would drop dead in ten seconds. See the world.” — Ray Bradbury

*****

Hot. Humid. Did I mention, it’s hot?

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So many reasons to stay inside with the air conditioning on, preferably while sipping a cold beverage.

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And yet.  This is one of the most beautiful months on the tallgrass prairie. A new wildflower species seems to open—in vivid technicolor—every day.  Monarchs float like magnets toward milkweed. Tiny Halloween pennant dragonflies dazzle in their dance with the grasses and sedges.

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Big bluestem shoots up, over our heads now in the wetter places, ready to unfurl its turkeyfoot at any moment. Switchgrass shakes out her seedheads. Compass plants burst into their first sunshine blooms.

Prairie cinquefoil’s clusters of flowers appear as if by magic. Invisible, until bloom time.

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Inhale the smell of crisp mountain mint; the tang of bee balm. Listen! Is that a common yellow throat, yo-yo-ing its summer song? July is passing. Don’t miss it!

Not convinced?  Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week. Let the countdown begin.

#10. Hummingbird moths, such as this snowberry clearwing, zip from bee balm bloom to bee balm bloom.

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#9. Rare plants, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid are no less beautiful for being just-past peak. Plus a bonus lady spotted beetle.

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#8. Meadowhawk dragonflies. The Japanese haiku poet Basho wrote of the red Odonates: “Crimson pepper pod/add two wings/darting dragonfly.” Perfect.

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#7. Michigan lilies. Enough said.

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#6. Queen of the prairie, so pretty in royal pink (and smelling of roses!).

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#5. Calico pennant dragonflies. This one’s a boy.

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#4. Mountain mint in bloom. I can’t resist popping a leaf or two into my mouth. Bonus: a margined leatherwing beetle.

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#3. July’s pop-up thunderstorms. The drama of being alone on the tallgrass prairie as one suddenly rolls in is a cheap adrenaline rush for the thrill seeker. Recommended action: Vamoose!

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#2. Milkweed in bloom. Prairie milkweed…

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…and butterflyweed, with a visiting monarch. Both native milkweeds are attractive to these famous flyers.

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#1. Rattlesnake master: Silver spheres in the sunlight. So ethereal.

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Ten reasons to put down your phone, close your laptop, and go discover what you can add to the above list on your prairie walk.

Ten good reasons to hike the prairie in July.

Ready? Let’s go.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), born in Waukegon, IL, and best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. He wrote many works of fiction, including the Illinois classic based loosely on his childhood, Dandelion Wine.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) and Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) on a sedge, possibly Muhlenberg’s sedge? (Carex muehlenbergi), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowberry clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Plantanthera leucophaea) with spotted lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculata), Illinois preserve; meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum spp.) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), West Side field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily ( Lilium michiganense) with purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) in the background, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; male calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa), on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; margined leatherwing beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Side field, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pop-up thunderstorm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) with a sprinkling of unknown ant species (Formicidae), Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glen View, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thanks to Benjamin Vogt for his reminder of queen of the prairie’s fragrance.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Speaking and Events:

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

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

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

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

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

July’s Prairie Patterns

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

*****

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

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

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

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

It’s an eye-opener.

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

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

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

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

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

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Once you begin looking for patterns in the natural world…

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…you see them everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

Prairie Fireworks

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”–David Attenborough

*****

It’s summer in the tallgrass; almost the Fourth of July. The bison go about their business of raising young calves.

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White wild indigo continues its magical year. I’ve never seen anything like the profusion of this wildflower on the prairie in the past two decades I’ve been hiking the tallgrass.

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And those pale purple coneflowers! Unbelievable.

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Anecdotally, the most beautiful time on the prairie is supposedly the Fourth of July.  I love all four seasons in the tallgrass: the blue and black palette of winter, the golds and rusts of autumn, the first green shoots needling up through the ash of a prescribed burn in spring. But this year, from the white wild indigo and coneflowers, to the prairie lilies…

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….to the black-eyed Susans…

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…it’s easy to make a case for this as the most lovely season of all.

It’s not only the plants that are striking. Deep in the prairie wetlands, a calligrapher’s fly hangs out in the big bur reeds. The blooms it explores seem a foreshadowing of fireworks later this week.

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Soft spiky explosions of foxtail barley grass line the prairie trails. I read up on it, and discover it’s also called squirrel-tail grass. What great names!  I love this silky grass, even though it is a bit on the weedy side. More “fireworks” to enjoy.

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The leaves of mountain mint and bee balm, crushed between my fingers, envelope me in their sharp fragrance as I hike.  I chew a few of the leaves, enjoying the taste. While admiring the wildflowers and prairie grasses this summer, I also monitor dragonflies and damseflies—counting the different species and their numbers on the prairies and in the wetlands.

Ethereal damselflies have shown up. New ones I’ve not seen before like the one below. Sweetflag spreadwing? I’m not sure. I pore over my field guides, looking at photos and parsing through identification marks.

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This lyre-tipped spreadwing, with its metallic body sizzling in the sunlight, stopped me in my tracks.

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Both spreadwings are new to me this summer, after chasing dragonflies for more than a dozen years.  Cascades of wildflowers, a profusion of spreadwing species…perhaps the rainy deluge the past three months has brought these about? It’s nice to think so.

There are many different bluets on the prairie, but this azure bluet damselfly in the prairie savanna grasses is a new discovery for me, and for our site.

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Marla Garrison’s wonderful Damselflies of the Chicago Region taught me to look for the “bat” image on the lower part of the azure bluet’s abdomen (most people call it “the tail”). Can you see it? Right above the blue segments.

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More familiar dragonflies are also out and about. Eastern amberwing dragonflies, like this female, do handstands to try and cool off in the sweltering heat.

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I never tire of the widow skimmer dragonflies, even though they are ubiquitous in my region.

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Ebony jewelwings, like this pair (the female with a white dot on her wings) are the essence of summer. They fly loops in and out of the reed canary grass along Willoway Brook, snatching insects and looking for mates.

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I’m looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with my family this week. But the best fireworks happen all summer long on the prairie. Explosions of wildflowers. The pop of color from a new dragonfly or damselfly. Unusual insects to discover.

So many new adventures to anticipate.

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So much to be grateful for.

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David Attenborough is the narrator for the original episodes of Planet Earth, which I have had the joy to watch with four of my little grandkids, Ellie, Jack, Anna, and Margaret. If you haven’t checked out this award-winning series of documentaries about life on our planet, take a look here at Planet Earth II.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) and wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisa alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie lilies (Lilium philadelphicum andinum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calligrapher’s fly (Toxomerus  — either the marginatus or geminatus) on big bur reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; foxtail barley grass or squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly sweetflag spreadwing damselfly (Lestes forcipatus) although it may also be slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis)–and so I continue learning!; prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL;  lyre-tipped spreadwing (Lestes unguiculatus), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Odonata of the Eastern United States FB group and Joyce Gibbons for help on damselfly ID this week! Grateful.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Friday, August 2, 8-11:30am — Prairie Ethnobotany at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Discover how people have used prairie plants throughout history. Register here.

Monday, August 12, 7-8 p.m., Fox Valley Garden Club –The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies –Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public. For details and directions, click here.

August 10-13, online and in-person: Intensive Master Naturalist Training at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (sold out).

August 19-22, 8am-5pm daily, M-TH — Certified Interpretive Guide training with National Association for Interpretation at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Earn your credential as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter! Details and registration here.

Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.—Summer Literary Series: On the Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL– Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, book signing, drinks, and tram ride with a lecture on the Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest planted restoration in the world. Register here. 

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

After Dark with Prairie Moths

“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.” –Virginia Woolf

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High winds. Rain. It’s 8:30 p.m., and we’re on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie, prepping our first-ever moth survey.  I’ve seen the Schulenberg Prairie in spring and summer, under snow, and rippling in the autumn winds. I’ve walked it at dawn and dusk. But in more than two decades of hiking and almost as many years in helping care for this prairie as volunteer or steward, I’ve not seen it at night.

We — me and my team of prairie volunteers— are looking for moths. Are they here after dark? If so, which ones? Moths are important prairie species; they are pollinators as well as food for birds and bats. I vaguely know the moths that come to my porch light in the evenings. I admired the occasional Luna moth when I ventured into northern Michigan. I’ve even seen the Haploa moths during the day here, resting in the foliage.WMLeconte'sHaploa Moth (Haploa lecontei) 61419TrevorEdmonson SPMA.jpg

But most of the moths here are a mystery.

Fortunately, Trevor Edmonson, a restoration project manager at the Wetland’s Initiative, is here to mentor our group in the fine art of mothing. A passionate “moth-er,” he has generously brought his generator and power lights tonight, as well as his ID skills to help us. He sets up a large sheet on a quilt frame, under the cover of our Prairie Visitor Station roof. Open on all sides, it will protect the mercury vapor light and the black light, both which might be ruined if they get too wet. We rig another sheet over one of our interpretive signs. It’s not what we planned – we had hoped to be under open sky — but it’s the best “Plan B” we come up with in the evening’s weather. Trevor tells us what to expect.

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After a short talk, a few members of the team paint a mushy mixture of old beer, ripe banana, brown sugar, and molasses on posts. This “nectar,” my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths tells me, will attract moths who aren’t necessarily drawn to light.

Dark comes early because of the rain. Our ghostly sheets glare white in the lights. We drink hot coffee and snack on cookies, our chatter covering up  our disappointment over the rain blowing under the shelter where we’re clustered. All this planning. Will it come to nothing? The sheets ripple in the wind. It’s getting colder.

The first night insects land on the sheet. It’s something! We log them into our survey data, take a few photos. But where are the moths?

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Then. The first one lands. Isabella tiger moth Trevor calls out. We eagerly cluster around the sheet, oohing and ahhing.

WMIsabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) 61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg It’s the adult stage of the woolly bear caterpillar—something we see crossing prairie trails at other times of the year—and it is quickly followed by more of the same.

A team member shines her flashlight on the wooden posts. Look over here! More moths are landing on the sweet stink of the nectar bait.mothsurvey61419WM.jpg

The Isabella tiger moth opens the floodgates. Moths arrive faster than we can count them. Moths in the air! Moths on the posts! Moths landing on the sheets.

Black-Dotted Glyph!

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Moths land on the limestone pavers of the shelter. A Marbled-Green Leuconycta.

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“It looks like lichen,” says Karen, a volunteer, and yes, it does.

A collective sigh goes up from behind the largest sheet. A Harnessed Tiger Moth is wowing the group with its striking geometric patterns.

WMHarnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata) Trevor Edmonson61419SPMA.jpgNearby, an Orange Virbia moth lands on the pavers. Suddenly, we realize how many moths are literally under our feet. Navigating the area between the sheets is an exercise in patience and paying attention.

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One volunteer gently holds a Walnut Sphinx, perched delicately on his fingers. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen; its soft feathery wings almost like fur; its chunky body striped with white. Cameras flash; we’ve become the prairie paparazzi, all of us on fire with excitement for moths.

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Suddenly, Trevor yells “Cecrophia!” A moth larger than my hand hits the sheet, circles the light, then flaps off into the darkness. Come back! Come back! It’s an adrenaline rush, to see one of the giant silk moths here, tonight. So close! If only it would remain for a closer look. But it’s gone. We look at each other, awestruck. This. Is here!

We watch the moths, some hovering on the edges of the light, others landing on the limestone pavers and staying there for the evening. Others seem to fly in and out erratically; without rhyme or reason.

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Moths emit pheromones, I learned, when I read the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver a few years back. Kingsolver uses moths as a framework for the story of a young insect researcher named Lusa, derailed by her husband’s accidental death. She suddenly  inherits his family’s farm. In her grief and confusion, she finds solace in moths. Lusa reminds herself:

The spiraling flights of moths appear haphazard only because of the mechanisms of olfactory tracking are so different from our own. Using binocular vision, we judge the location of an object by comparing the images from two eyes and tracking directly toward the stimulus. But for species relying on the sense of smell, the organism compares points in space, moves in the direction of the greater concentration, then compares two more points successively, moving in zigzags toward the source. Using olfactory navigation the moth detects currents of scent in the air and, by small increments, discovers how to move upstream.”

Most of us know the old saying, “drawn to it like a moth to a flame.” In Death of a Moth, Virginia Woolf seems to see in the moth’s demise through its attraction to a candle her own eventual tragic death.  At least two well-known nature writers were inspired by Woolf’s essay to pen their own reflections on moths: Robert Michael Pyle’s The Death of a Moth: Rejoinder to Virginia Woolf (1976) and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard’s 1976 essay, “The Death of the Moth.” 

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Three very different essays on moths. Woolf’s “little hay-colored moth;” a metaphor for the brevity of life. In Dillard’s essay, which eventually became part of her book, Holy the Firm, the moth attracted to her candle while she’s camping is caught in the flame and the fat in its body burns as part of the flame for several hours. For Dillard, the moth-as-flame becomes an illustration of what writing life will demand of someone truly committed to it.

WMFeather-edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpgRobert Michael Pyle writes about his observations and enjoyment of caring for a female Cecropia, which he captures and then observes for more than three weeks (a very long life for a moth of this species, which usually survives only a few days as an adult, as they are without mouths and only live to reproduce). His observation, unlike either Woolf’s or Dillards, is devoid of any metaphor. Instead, he acts as recorder and even matchmaker, bringing her males of the species to mate with, counting the number of eggs she lays, noting how her pheromones attract dozens of males which flock to the windows of his house after dark in search of her.

At the end of his essay, when the moth dies, he simply notes: “As I packed her away into a paper envelope and wrote on it the dry facts that said little about her, a nighthawk called outside the hotel window. It struck me that the hunting bird would enjoy my moth no more than I had done.”

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In three hours, Trevor photographs and identifies 49 species of moths. All this abundance, on an evening of cold, rain, and wind. We knew this prairie, said to be the fourth oldest planted prairie in the world, was special because of its rich diversity of unusual and high-quality native plants. But moths! Now we have a brief glimpse of the unknown treasures that are here after dark.

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One night. Three hours. 49 different kinds of moths. What other mysteries are out on the prairie, waiting to be discovered?

We’ll be on the prairie after dark again soon to find out.

******

The opening quote is from Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), from The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Woolf is best known for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) in which she wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, and took her life at age 59. Robert Michael Pyle, who wrote the essay quoted above in this blogpost, also wrote Silk Moth of the Railroad Yards (1975), in which he ponders the effects of mercury vapor streetlights on these insects. Both of Pyle’s essays can be found in his collection, Green Thoughts.

****

All photos generously contributed by Trevor Edmonson to this week’s blog, except where noted, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL on June 14 (top to bottom): Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei); Trevor talks to the survey team about moths, photo Cindy Crosby; waiting for moths to arrive, photo Cindy Crosby;  Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella); moth survey team working the sheets, photo by Cindy Crosby; Black-Dotted Glyph (Maliattha synochitis); Marbled-Green Leuconycta (Leuconycta lepidula); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); Orange Virbia Moth (Virbia aurantiaca); Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis); Pale Beauty Moth (Campaea parlata); Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopia grataria); Feather-Edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis); White-Dotted Prominent (Nadata gibbosa) American Idia Moth (Idia americalis).

Thanks to Trevor Edmonson for his mentoring of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie team, and his generous gift of time and equipment. And thanks to our special guests Bronson, Vera, and Jeff who helped with identification. We’re grateful!

A Hike on the June Prairie

“Good day sunshine.” — John Lennon & Paul McCartney

*****

A little rain. A bit of sunshine this week, too—at last. Let’s hike the June prairie together, and see what’s happening after the spring storms.

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Tallgrass prairies in the Chicago region crackle with activity. Angelica opens its firework flowers in the soggy areas.

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Spiderwort is everywhere, both in bud…

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…and in bloom. Its short-lived flowers only last a day or two, and often close in the afternoon.

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Clouds of prairie phlox float across the low grasses in varied hues, from pearl…

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…to palest lavender, with purple eyes…

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…to hot pink. So many variations!  When the phlox mingles with the spiderwort, it makes me think of a Monet painting.

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Not all the blooms are as jazzy as the prairie phlox. Intermixed with the phlox,  prairie alumroot spikes open small green flowers with orange anthers. Inconspicuous, until you look closely. The phlox is fragrant, but the alumroot is scentless. Notice the silvery leadplant photobombing the image below, plus some sedges sprinkled around.

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Close to the stream, I see meadow rue heading skyward.  In a good wet year like this one, meadow rue will likely top out at six or seven feet tall. When meadow rue blooms,  the flowers remind me of fringed Victorian lamps. Today, they are mostly in bud.

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Cauliflower fists of wild quinine buds are about to pop.

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As are those of the common milkweed. I turn the leaves over, but no monarch eggs. Yet.

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As I admire the buds and blooms, I notice dragonflies perched to soak up the sun. Dragonflies have kept a low profile for the past two months; sulking about the windy, chilly, drizzly, and generally gloomy weather.  I discover a twelve-spotted skimmer…

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…and also, a common whitetail. Both species will be ubiquitous by late June, but these first appearances always delight me. Welcome back.

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As I look into foliage along the trails for more dragonflies and damselflies, I see clumps of what appear to be bubbles. Inside of the froth is a spittlebug. I pull one sticky mass apart with my fingers and gently admire a tiny green nymph. Later, when I’m at home, I read that the nymph will feed on the plant and eventually become an adult that looks something like a leafhopper, to which they are related. Although they are considered a pest, we don’t worry much about them on the prairie. They do little damage.

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In the cool breeze, I’m grateful for the sun.  I snap off a red clover bloom and chew on some of the petals. Sweet. So sweet. Red clover isn’t a native prairie plant, but it’s pretty and generally not too invasive. We only pull it in our display areas at the front of the prairie.

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The native yellow wood sorrel leaves are also irresistible, with their sour, tangy jolt to the tastebuds. Both the red clover and yellow wood sorrel are found in every Illinois county. Tough little flowers.

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Brown-headed cowbirds often show up at my birdfeeders at home, as well as on my prairie hikes. They have several different trademark calls. This one sings a Clink-whistle! I admire it, glossy in the sunshine. Cowbirds are despised by many birders for their habit of laying their eggs in other bird species’ nests; letting someone else raise the kids. Ah, well.

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The earliest spring prairie blooms are now in the business of making seeds.  Jacob’s ladder, which pulled blue sheets of flowers across the prairie just weeks ago, now carries clusters of sprawling seedpods. Except for the plant’s ladder-like leaves, it’s unrecognizable.

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I pull a pod apart and check the tiny seed, pinching it between my fingernail and thumb. Still green. When the seedpods turn brown, I’ll bag them and use them to propagate other parts of the prairie where they aren’t as common.

Wood betony is another wildflower that has undergone a complete makeover, spiraling from yellow blooms into into soldier-straight rows. I mentally mark its locations for our work group’s seed collection efforts in a few weeks.

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A common sight on the Midwestern prairies at this time of year is the remains of dogbane pods (or Indian hemp as it is sometimes known) that escaped the prescribed burns. Seedless now, it looks graceful, scything the breeze. My prairie work group collected last year’s dogbane stalks to experiment with making fiber this season. Native American’s knew dogbane could be used for twine, fishing line, and even fiber to weave clothing. I enjoy the way the pods catch the wind.

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Wild coffee (sometimes known as horse gentian or tinker’s weed), has made an eye-catching mound in the knee-high tallgrass. Look closely.

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You’ll see the dark reddish brown flowers, nestled in the leaf axils. Later this summer, the flowers will turn into small orange fruits tucked into the leaves. The dried fruits were used as a coffee substitute by early settlers.

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The highlight of my hike is finding one of my favorite prairie wildflowers beginning to go to seed: common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata). I love its explosions of seed-spirals, and the way its stalk is beginning to transform from white to pink. As it ages, the pink intensifies until it is almost neon bright on the prairie.

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So much to see. So much to hear. So many things to enjoy with all the senses. It’s difficult to do desk work. What if I miss something?

The prairie conjures up new astonishments every day.

I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.

*****

Paul McCartney and John Lennon penned the song, “Good Day Sunshine” for the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver. It’s a good cure for rainy day blues. Listen to it here and you’ll be humming it all day.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from two different prairie hikes put together (top to bottom): butterweed (Packera glabella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) and prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii affinis) with the phlox, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spittlebug (possibly Philaenus spumarius) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red clover (Trifolium pratense) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) seedpods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum) flowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Tonight! Introduction to the Tallgrass Prairie, Tuesday, June 4, 7-9 p.m., Lake to Prairie Wild Ones, Fremont Public Library, 1170 N Midlothian Rd, Mundelein, IL 60060. Free and open to the public.

Thursday, June 6–9 p.m. — A Tallgrass Conversation, talk and book signing. Bring a picnic dinner for the social at 6 p.m. Talk begins around 7:30 p.m. Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, Wisconsin. Details here.

Friday, June 14, or Friday, June 28, 8-11:30 a.m., Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration here (first session is sold out).

Thursday, June 20, 7-9 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop, Rock Valley Wild Ones, Rock Valley Community College, Rockford, IL. Details here. Free and open to the public.

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

After a Prairie Storm

“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.”  — Josephine W. Johnson

*****

Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.

The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.

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Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails.  I should have brought my kayak.

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On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…

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…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.

This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.

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Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.

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Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.

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Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color.  I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?

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The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.

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May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.

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Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.

*****

Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In  The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.

*****

All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:

Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).

Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here. 

Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)

Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).

Find more at cindycrosby.com