Tag Archives: sideoats grama

Those Spellbinding Tallgrass Trails

“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow


It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL. Note the squiggly marks left by a leaf miner (possibly Stigmella intermedia or Caloptillia rhoifoliella), which becomes a moth at maturity.

Let’s go for hike and see.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.

Prairie kame (on the right), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.

Prairie kame, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.

Prairie kame interpretive sign, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.

Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.

Smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.

Aster (Symphyotrichum sp.), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…Indian grass…

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in foreground; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in background, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Bewitching big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.

Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.

Wildflowers, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…and be haunted by the memories…

Sugar maple leaves (Acer saccharum) on the prairie kame trail, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.


The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.


Upcoming Programs and Classes

Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.

Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.) Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.

The Prairie in November

“November comes–And November goes–With the last red berries–And the first white snows.”—Elizabeth Coatsworth


They’re leaving!

Winds from the northwest. Blue skies. Temperatures falling. I see the text from Jeff at work alerting me, and hurry outside. I don’t have to ask “who” is leaving. It’s that time of year. Look up and—Yes! There they are.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes choreograph their way over the house, a tsunami of sound.

Their high-pitched cries, unlike anything else in nature, carry for up to two and a half miles. As they fly their intricate patterns, they become invisible for a moment. I shade my eyes against the sun and then—-there. They turn and are visible again. Headed south. The cranes pirouette in some previously agreed upon rhythm, scatter, then reform their arcs across the blue–blue–blue sky.

I watch until they’re gone.

See you next year.


We’re on the downhill side of November, with the year’s finish line appearing just over the horizon. Last week, Jeff and I unpacked the Christmas lights and decorations, longing for the spirit of the season to buoy our spirits.

The neighbors are doing the same. My 2019 self might have made wisecracks about the resulting mishmash of scarecrows and snowmen; leftover Halloween pumpkins and poinsettias; cornucopias and candy canes. But my 2020 self silently cheers them on as I walk the neighborhood and admire the latest decorations. My yard reflects the same holiday collision.

On the tallgrass prairie, plunging temperatures, random snows, high winds, and then—strange balmy days full of sunshine—have burnished the prairie to metallics.



White golds.



Glimpses of mixed metals appear in the Illinois bundleflower seedheads scattered along the prairie streams. I love how the sunshine sparks the interior of the seedpods ember-red.

Willoway Brook runs low and cold…

…reflecting the mood of the skies, which capriciously swing from sunshine to clouds to rain to snow and back again, all in the space of 24 hours.

The prairie’s newly-mown edges are ready for spring burns. Bring it on!

Everywhere, as I drive around town, are rising columns of smoke. Stewards lay fire to woodlands and wetlands, mostly, but a few prairies as well. These fires, made by humans but emulating nature’s processes, will ensure healthy, vibrant natural areas for generations to come.

In the evenings, brilliant sunsets, shrouded by smoky skies, tell of the hard work done by prairie stewards.

The sandhill cranes will continue moving through these brilliant skies in the weeks to come. As I hike, I wonder. What will life look like when they return from migration in the spring?

I feel hopeful. Until they return, my prairie hikes and walks outdoors will help keep me feeling that way.

You, too?

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) was a prolific author and a Newberry award winner (1931) for The Cat Who Went to Heaven. Her husband, Henry Beston, was author of The Outermost House, and her daughter, Kate Barnes, was the first poet laureate of Maine. She lived in Maine and Massachusetts.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless tagged otherwise (to to bottom): November skies; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rose hips (Rosa carolina); wild grapevine (Vitas spp.); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) reflections in Willoway Brook; November skies on the edge of the prairie; mown prairie in November; prescribed fire (2014); November sunset, author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiking the prairie in November.


Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!