“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery
It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.
Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).
It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.
As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.
Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.
On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.
Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.
Surely nothing will stick.
But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…
A dusting of snow.
Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.
The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.
Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.
Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…
…the prairie smoke…
…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…
…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.
Never a dull moment on the prairies.
The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).
April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.
Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.
It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.
Ruffles of purple meadow rue.
These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.
Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.
When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.
The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.
I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer “Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.”
On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.
Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.
I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…
…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.
There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.
In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.
Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.
By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.
In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!
An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.
During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.
More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.
Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.
We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.
Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…
No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Registerhere.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.
***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.