“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson
Walk with me into the tallgrass.
Leave any worries you have at the gate.
Look around. It’s July on the prairie; one of the most beautiful months of the year for wildflowers and critters of all kinds. Can you feel the tensions of the day dissolving?
Consider how many almost-invisible creatures are all around you. Focus as you walk. A flash of color—a small movement. What joy when you discover the citrine forktail damselfly, so tiny in the grasses!
How could something so minuscule and colorful exist in this world, yet almost no one knows its name?
What other names do we not know? What else are we overlooking?
Walk the shoreline of the prairie pond, trampled by bison hooves. Notice a fleet of butterflies puddling, each only an about inch or less.
Pause to admire them. How many other unusual creatures do we miss each day?
Even common creatures are uncommonly exciting when you watch them for a while.
Open your eyes. Really pay attention.
It’s difficult to believe the range of hues spread across the insect world, much less the natural world.
Even a single feather is a piece of art.
There is so much beauty all around us.
The world can be a frightening place. It sometimes leaves us tattered and worn.
But if you look carefully enough…
…it keeps you hopeful.
Walk long enough, look closely enough, and you might begin to think that maybe….just maybe…change in the world is possible.
Rachel Carson (1907-64) was a true force of nature, writing bestselling books that changed the world (Consider Silent Spring published 1962, 60 years ago). I admire Carson for her resilience, her willingness to speak out, and her love and dedication to her family. She firmly believed in wonder, and its power to change us and to change the world. Read more about her life here. I’ve began this blog with her quote before, but in the times we find ourselves in, I felt a need to hear it again for myself. You, too?
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the horizon line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.” — Sherwood Anderson
Come walk with me. The prairie is calling. Who knows what we’ll see?
The prairie is awash in wildflowers.
Pale purple coneflowers bounce like badminton birdies across the tallgrass. Large elephant ears of prairie dock vie with the clear blue-violet spiderwort blooms, which open in the mornings and close when the sun is at its zenith.
Look along the trail. See the pale wild petunias? They pioneer their way along the path edges, and are a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Oddly enough, they aren’t a close relative of the petunias we see in cultivated borders and flowering baskets.
Look up! See the clouds roll in across the unbearably bright prairie sky.
Kneel down and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Tiny creatures hide in the petals of smooth phlox…
…or buzz along the just-opened flowers of leadplant.
Yet despite all the hustle and bustle, there is peace here.
It’s also cooler this week after days of brutal heat and humidity. Such a respite. A relief.
Let’s walk to the bridge over Willoway Brook and sit for a while.
Dangle your feet over the bridge. Look into the stream. The shadows of cruising stream bluet damselflies ripple when the sun breaks through the clouds.
Nearby, the female ebony jewelwing damselfly is poised for courtship. The male is just a few feet away, waiting to woo her.
Other damselflies cover the vegetation in tandem, bumper-to-bumper. It’s rush hour.
Variable dancer damselflies offer a contrast in male and female Odonata coloration. Entomologists call this “sexual dimorphism,” which, simply put, means the female is different than the male in some way that doesn’t have to do with reproduction. In this case, color.
The American rubyspot damselfly stakes out its claim…
…while a twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly rests in the shade.
Watch out for turtles! A dragonfly or damselfly would be a tasty snack for this red-eared slider.
Life for damselflies and dragonflies is tenuous. The snap of a turtle’s jaws or smack of a bird’s beak and—it’s all over. But what glorious sparks of color these insects give to the summer prairie during their brief time here! They are rivaled in color only by the wildflowers, which are building toward their colorful summer crescendo.
Prairie coreopsis are splashes of sunshine across the prairie. Ants investigate the new buds.
New Jersey tea, one of my favorite prairie shrubs, froths and foams like a cappuccino.
Carrion flower—-that strange member of the prairie community—twists and turns as it vines toward the sky. I inhale, and get a good sniff of the fragrance that spawned its name. Whew!
Culver’s root is one of the most elegant prairie wildflowers, and a magnet for pollinators. Today, though, it’s mostly bare of insects.
There’s so much to discover on the prairie at the end of June.
Why not go for a hike and see?
Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), whose quote kicks off this blog post, was best known for his short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (also adapted as a well-known play). The quote was taken from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John Price.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program!
Wednesday, June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here.
Thursday, July 14 (Zoom online) and Friday, July 15(in person field class): “Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification“: Discover these beautiful insects through this two-part class, offered by The Morton Arboretum. Space is limited — register here.
The late poet Mary Oliver wrote a poem, Why I Wake Early. She had the right idea, especially this week, in the heat of a Midwest summer. It’s a good poem to begin the morning. Watch now, how I start the day, in happiness, in kindness.
Sue Monk Kidd (1948-), whose quote opens this blog, is known most widely for her bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees (2002). Mary Oliver (1935-2019) whose poem link is included here, was winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I find her poems are solace for difficult times.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Wednesdays,June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here; join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
If you love the natural world, consider helping “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our Midwestern “landscape of home.”
“No gardener needs reminding that life depends on plants.” —Henry Mitchell
There’s nothing quite like finding two of the six branches of your pricey New Jersey Tea plant neatly clipped off. I’ve been babying my native shrub along this spring; bringing it pitchers of water and keeping my fingers crossed that it would leaf out. And it did. Only to be heavily barbered this morning.
I think I know who the culprit is.
Just the other day, Jeff and I saw her (him?) foraging along the fence line among some weeds. Awwwwww. So cute! Ah well. Looks like I need to protect my shrub with some defensive packaging. Wildlife friendly gardens are sometimes a bit…too friendly.
A week of rain and storm followed by days of wind and heat are turning the garden lush and green. Meteorological summer has arrived, and with it, a rush to get the last plastic pots of vegetable seedlings and native plant plugs into the ground.
It looks like sugar snap pea season is a no-go this year; I’m not sure what happened to my neat circle of seeds around the trellis planted a month ago. One day there were seedlings. The next? Gone.
I can hazard a guess.
Meanwhile, the Illinois prairies seem to be handling onslaughts of weather, “wascally wabbits”, and uneven warmth by flowering magnificently. While collecting dragonfly data at Nachusa Grasslands this week, my monitoring route took me through a surprise surplus of Golden Alexanders. I’ve walked this route many times over the past nine years, but never seen it like this.
It’s been a banner year for this wildflower.
Wild lupine is also in bloom…
…and colonies of meadow anemone.
The oh-so-pretty-in-pink wild geranium is in full flower, a reminder that I meant to purchase this at some of the native plant sales this spring for the yard. Next year!
As I hike, I inadvertently disturb the teneral dragonflies and damselflies, deep in the tallgrass. This common whitetail dragonfly (below) almost has its coloration.
The wings are so fresh! Teneral dragonflies are vulnerable to predation until the wings harden (which may taken an hour or so). Nearby I find two tiny damselflies. I think they are sedge sprites, but the eye color doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it is a teneral? I’ll have to browse the field guides at home to be sure.
Always new things to learn!
As I hike, the bison are grazing in the distance. I like to keep plenty of space between us, especially during baby bison season.
Less of a concern—but with a big impact— are the beavers. They’ve been busy as…well, you know….on some of my routes. In one area, they’ve constructed a new dam which turned my monitoring stream to a pond.
On another route, they’ve built some snazzy housing.
Beaver activity changes water habitat. Moving streams and still ponds usually host different types of Odonata species. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here over the summer, and if site management leaves the beaver dams and lodgings in place. Lots of suspense! Stay tuned.
May is migration month, and the soundtrack to my monitoring work is a lesson in listening. A flycatcher lands on a nearby branch. Is it the alder flycatcher? Or the great-crested flycatcher? Or? I’m not sure.
It buzzes a few chirpy notes, then vacates the branch for an eastern kingbird. I try to get the kingbird in focus behind the branch, but finally give up and just enjoy watching it.
That’s a busy little branch.
Wind gusts pick up, and clouds cover the sky. It’s time to wrap up my dragonfly monitoring work.
So much is happening on the prairie at the end of May. The prairie is full of sound, color, and motion.
Just imagine what June has in store for us. I can’t wait.
Henry Mitchell, whose quote opens this post, wrote several enjoyable garden books which I re-read each year. Mitchell (1924-1993), a Washington Post weekly garden columnist for almost 25 years, is by turns funny, cynical, and reflective. He isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, which is one of the many reasons I love to read him (even if he does extoll the joys of the barberry bush!) The opening quote quote is from Mitchell’s book, One Man’s Garden.
Join Cindy for an event!
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. Covid restrictions may apply. Click here for more information.
Tuesday, June 7, 7-8:30 p.m.:The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Crestwood Garden Club, Elmhurst, IL. (Closed in-person event for members).
Wednesday, June 8, 7-8:30 p.m.Lawn Chair Lecture: The Schulenberg Prairie’s 60th Anniversary. At The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Bring your lawn chair and enjoy sunset on the prairie as you hear about the people, plants, and creatures that have made this prairie such a treasure. Tickets are limited: Register here. (Rain date is Thursday, June 9).
If you love the natural world, consider helping to “Save Bell Bowl Prairie.” Read more here about simple actions you can take to keep this important Midwestern prairie remnant from being destroyed by a cargo road. Thank you for caring for our “landscape of home”!
“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.
“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young
It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.
There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).
But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…
…and their swerves and curves.
Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.
The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.
There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.
The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…
…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.
I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…
…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…
…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.
I spy the mallard and his mate.
Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.
The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.
All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.
Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!
Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.
“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael
I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.
Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.
When the leaves come falling down.
When the leaves come falling down.
Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.
In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.
Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.
I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.
Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.
The savanna is striking in the falling snow.
But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.
“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …”
In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… .Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.
In November, grass slips into the starring role.
The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.
It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.
Why not go see?
The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass!Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spiritfor the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.
“But the days grow short, when you reach September… .” –Maxwell Anderson
The last days of September have arrived on the prairie.
Bittersweet. Summer, we hardly knew ya.
Smell the air.
Can you catch that slight tang of decay and crisp leaves?
Walk the trails. Feel the crunch, crunch, crunch of the acorns underfoot in the prairie savannas.
There’s no turning back now. Autumn is in full swing. The prairie methodically gets her affairs in order. Cooler temperatures? Check. Grass seeds ripening? Check. Last wildflower blooms opened? Check. September is almost a wrap.
I recently returned from Tucson, Arizona, where September looks a lot different than it does in the Chicago region.
The “monsoon” rains predated my arrival. In response, the desert was green and full of flowers.
With the rains and the flowers came the butterflies.
My plan for hiking Tucson was to chase dragonflies. The butterflies were unexpected. An epiphany. Walking through Tucson was like traveling through showers of confetti. Every flower held a butterfly, it seemed. In one wildflower patch, I counted nine Queen butterflies nectaring.
Everywhere I looked: butterflies. At first I clicked my camera nonstop. Finally, I gave up and enjoyed the experience. So much color, motion, and light!
It was no different on the paths. Butterflies puddled along the trails, looking for salts and minerals.
As I waded Sabino Canyon’s streams, chasing dragonflies, I found a pipevine swallowtail butterfly floating under a spiderweb. It looked like a goner.
Gently, I picked it up. There was a flicker of life! I lowered it into some foliage along the stream, and felt its legs grasp the grass stems.
I left it hanging in the sunshine to dry while I looked for dragonflies in the stream. Keeping an eye on it. The last time I waded by, it was gone. Good luck. Enjoy that second chance.
Meanwhile, I discovered the world of southwestern dragonflies for the first time. Flame skimmers.
I pored over my ID books, learning their names. Each day, I saw dragonflies that were new to me. So many astonishments! It was difficult to get on the plane and come home.
But I knew the prairie would be waiting, with its own suite of wonders.
I’m still seeing butterflies in Illinois this week, and will until the frost. They flutter singly through the prairie and my garden. The dragonflies are mostly gone here, except for a few swarms of migrating common green darners. The end of September looks much different in Arizona than in Illinois.
The prairie’s fall colors are in full swing. It’s good to be back.
I’m grateful to have experienced both places in September. And glad to be reminded of the beauty and unexpected delights still to be found wherever I travel.
But there’s no place like home.
Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics to “September Song,” which has become a standard cover tune for musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Burl Ives, Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra), Ian Maculloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), and Bing Crosby. I love the Willie Nelson version; you can listen to it here.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Begins October 19, Evenings Online: NATURE WRITING 2: Online guided workshop offered through The Morton Arboretum. Some experience required; please see details. For weekly times, dates, and registration info click here.
December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE(10-11:30 a.m.)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.
Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.
The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:
“Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.“
I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.
Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.
Why not go see?
The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock
Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…
…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.
Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.
1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.
Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.
Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.
After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:
The maples flare among the spruces, The bursting foxgrape spills its juices, The gentians lift their sapphire fringes On roadways rich with golden tenges, The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers, The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers, The squirrels scurry, never stopping, For all they hear is apples dropping And walnuts plumping fast and faster; The bee weighs down the purple aster — Yes, hive your honey, little hummer, The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”
I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!
And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.
2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.
Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.
Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.
Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.
This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.
I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?
Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.
I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.
So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.
What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…
3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.
In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.
This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…
…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.
I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.
August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.
You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?
The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
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.