Tag Archives: short green milkweed

Plant Sales and Prairie Remnants

“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao

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At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.

Shooting Star at Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.

Short green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), Glen Ellyn, IL.

In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.

Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018).

There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.

Plant sale prairie plant plunder, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.

Prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. And yup — thats a rogue dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the background.

A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.

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After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.

Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.

Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.

Shooting star (Primula meadia), Flora Prairie Preserve, Boone County, IL.

Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.

Prairie violets (Viola pedatifida), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…

Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.

Shooting star (Primula meadia), Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.

Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.

Shooting star, Beach Cemetery Prairie, Ogle County, IL.

So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with a tiny critter, Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.

Violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with tiny insects, possibly the metallic wood boring beetles (Acmaeodera tubulus), Flora Prairie, Boone County, IL.

I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.

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The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm: 100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).

Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion, in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.

Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.

Sunday, June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.

Walt Whitman’s Prairie

“…While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”–Walt Whitman

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Spring merges into meteorological summer on the prairie. The days yo-yo between cloudless humid afternoons in the 90s and beautiful breezy days in the 70s.  It’s a deceptively cool morning. None-the-less, it promises heat as I set out on my hike. I leave my old blue Honda on the two-track and make my way up a rocky hilltop.

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The prairie puts on growth right now like a toddler outgrowing clothes. You feel as if  sitting and watching the grass grow is a literal possibility.

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Pale purple coneflowers press in on all sides in every possible stage of bloom. Fibonacci, anyone?

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The prairie offers us the most when we offer it our time and our presence. Sit. Look. Look some more. Not everything has as much pizzazz as the coneflowers. The downy yellow painted cup makes up for what it lacks in vibrant color with originality.

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It rubs shoulders with the uncommon short green milkweed, one of more than a dozen native milkweed species in Illinois—and a perfect “10” in Flora of the Chicago Region. 

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Homely, you say? No glamour other than its conservation value? Perhaps. Yet this milkweed is as welcome to a weary monarch butterfly looking to lay its eggs as its flashier counterpart, the orange butterfly weed, just about ready to bloom on the prairie.

Sure, the prairie has its share of eye-popping color right now.

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But that’s not what necessarily draws us to it. The prairie satisfies us for the long haul with its interplay of wind and weather, pollinator and patterns. Grasses and gradients of color, birdsong and blooms.HenslowssparrowNG53118wm.jpg

It is deceptively simple.

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As you spend time with the prairie, you begin to understand just how very complex it is.

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Other stunning landscapes may wow you for a short while, but quickly lose their appeal. The prairie moves into your soul over time, sets up housekeeping, and endlessly satisfies you with its nuances. Look again. Listen.

As many have observed, the prairie doesn’t shout. But listen closely. It whispers.

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And a whisper can be a powerful thing.

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) delivered the opening quote in this blogpost in a speech he prepared (but never gave) for a speaking engagement in Kansas on a trip out west in 1879-80. You can read more of his essay in “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” included in John T. Price’s edited collection of nature writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014, University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books). 

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with Halictidae (sweat bee) (Agapostemon splendens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; downy yellow painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; short green milkweed (Aslepias viridiflora) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly, male (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video of prairie ponds with dragonflies and birdsong, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trail through Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grateful thanks to Susan Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, who generously gave me the gift of her time.