Tag Archives: sedge meadow

A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle

*****

March is all about transition.  As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

COD Russell Kirt pond WM3319.jpg

Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.

skunkcabbagelakemarmoMA22618WM.jpg

Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.

Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?

prairiedockCODrussellkirt3319WM.jpg

At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.

Sand boil Nachusa 3219WM.jpg

Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.

sedgemeadowNachusa3219WM.jpg

Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.

img_8879-1

Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream.  Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.

pasqueflowerNachusa418watermarked.jpg

Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…

Pasqueflowers51318SPMAwm.jpg …we have five seedlings to show for it.

Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.

cupplant3319WMRKPrairieCOD.jpg

This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions.  Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.

codrussellkirtprairie3319WM

Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds.  On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

white oak MA 219WM.jpg

It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.

thelmacarpenter3219WM.jpg

The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox,  the first day of astronomical spring.

Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.

You too?

****

William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of  spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

*****

Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!

Leaning into the Light

There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez

 

April rains soak the prairie. At last–May arrives.

IMG_3123

Days grow longer in the tallgrass. The prairie, burned just a few short weeks ago, is carpeted with emerald.  Sunshine warms the newly arisen plants.

IMG_4456

 

Prairie dock waves in the breeze.

IMG_4492

 

Compass plants unfurl their ferny leaves.

IMG_4467

The first few tentative blooms on the prairie appear.

Leaning into the light.

Violets spill over from the woodlands…

IMG_4393.jpg

 

Prairie smoke nods in shocking pink, ready to throw out its silks.

IMG_4302.jpg

 

Prairie dropseed spikes across the prairie in electric green.

IMG_4296.jpg

 

A few wild geraniums tentatively skirt the edges of the prairie, as does…

IMG_4368.jpg

 

… toothwort, spreading through the oak savanna.

IMG_4355.jpg

 

A barrage of bluebells stuns the eyes.

IMG_4288.jpg

 

A prairie trillium lifts its blood-dark bloom…

IMG_4326.jpg

 

…as wood betony spins its petals in swirls of butter yellow.

IMG_4414

 

Shooting stars appear as if from nowhere, arcing in a dance choreographed by the breezes.

IMG_4468.jpg

 

The long days of winter and darkness are over.  You can feel spring bubbling up through the landscape.

IMG_4397.jpg

Welcome back, light.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) leaf uncurling, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum trifloum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild geranium  (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cut-leaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebells (Mertensia virginica) , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The longer quote shortened at the beginning of this essay is from Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams and is as follows: How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams