Tag Archives: The Morton Arboretum

After Dark with Prairie Moths

“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.” –Virginia Woolf

*****

High winds. Rain. It’s 8:30 p.m., and we’re on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie, prepping our first-ever moth survey.  I’ve seen the Schulenberg Prairie in spring and summer, under snow, and rippling in the autumn winds. I’ve walked it at dawn and dusk. But in more than two decades of hiking and almost as many years in helping care for this prairie as volunteer or steward, I’ve not seen it at night.

We — me and my team of prairie volunteers— are looking for moths. Are they here after dark? If so, which ones? Moths are important prairie species; they are pollinators as well as food for birds and bats. I vaguely know the moths that come to my porch light in the evenings. I admired the occasional Luna moth when I ventured into northern Michigan. I’ve even seen the Haploa moths during the day here, resting in the foliage.WMLeconte'sHaploa Moth (Haploa lecontei) 61419TrevorEdmonson SPMA.jpg

But most of the moths here are a mystery.

Fortunately, Trevor Edmonson, a restoration project manager at the Wetland’s Initiative, is here to mentor our group in the fine art of mothing. A passionate “moth-er,” he has generously brought his generator and power lights tonight, as well as his ID skills to help us. He sets up a large sheet on a quilt frame, under the cover of our Prairie Visitor Station roof. Open on all sides, it will protect the mercury vapor light and the black light, both which might be ruined if they get too wet. We rig another sheet over one of our interpretive signs. It’s not what we planned – we had hoped to be under open sky — but it’s the best “Plan B” we come up with in the evening’s weather. Trevor tells us what to expect.

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After a short talk, a few members of the team paint a mushy mixture of old beer, ripe banana, brown sugar, and molasses on posts. This “nectar,” my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths tells me, will attract moths who aren’t necessarily drawn to light.

Dark comes early because of the rain. Our ghostly sheets glare white in the lights. We drink hot coffee and snack on cookies, our chatter covering up  our disappointment over the rain blowing under the shelter where we’re clustered. All this planning. Will it come to nothing? The sheets ripple in the wind. It’s getting colder.

The first night insects land on the sheet. It’s something! We log them into our survey data, take a few photos. But where are the moths?

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Then. The first one lands. Isabella tiger moth Trevor calls out. We eagerly cluster around the sheet, oohing and ahhing.

WMIsabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) 61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg It’s the adult stage of the woolly bear caterpillar—something we see crossing prairie trails at other times of the year—and it is quickly followed by more of the same.

A team member shines her flashlight on the wooden posts. Look over here! More moths are landing on the sweet stink of the nectar bait.mothsurvey61419WM.jpg

The Isabella tiger moth opens the floodgates. Moths arrive faster than we can count them. Moths in the air! Moths on the posts! Moths landing on the sheets.

Black-Dotted Glyph!

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Moths land on the limestone pavers of the shelter. A Marbled-Green Leuconycta.

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“It looks like lichen,” says Karen, a volunteer, and yes, it does.

A collective sigh goes up from behind the largest sheet. A Harnessed Tiger Moth is wowing the group with its striking geometric patterns.

WMHarnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata) Trevor Edmonson61419SPMA.jpgNearby, an Orange Virbia moth lands on the pavers. Suddenly, we realize how many moths are literally under our feet. Navigating the area between the sheets is an exercise in patience and paying attention.

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One volunteer gently holds a Walnut Sphinx, perched delicately on his fingers. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen; its soft feathery wings almost like fur; its chunky body striped with white. Cameras flash; we’ve become the prairie paparazzi, all of us on fire with excitement for moths.

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Suddenly, Trevor yells “Cecrophia!” A moth larger than my hand hits the sheet, circles the light, then flaps off into the darkness. Come back! Come back! It’s an adrenaline rush, to see one of the giant silk moths here, tonight. So close! If only it would remain for a closer look. But it’s gone. We look at each other, awestruck. This. Is here!

We watch the moths, some hovering on the edges of the light, others landing on the limestone pavers and staying there for the evening. Others seem to fly in and out erratically; without rhyme or reason.

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Moths emit pheromones, I learned, when I read the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver a few years back. Kingsolver uses moths as a framework for the story of a young insect researcher named Lusa, derailed by her husband’s accidental death. She suddenly  inherits his family’s farm. In her grief and confusion, she finds solace in moths. Lusa reminds herself:

The spiraling flights of moths appear haphazard only because of the mechanisms of olfactory tracking are so different from our own. Using binocular vision, we judge the location of an object by comparing the images from two eyes and tracking directly toward the stimulus. But for species relying on the sense of smell, the organism compares points in space, moves in the direction of the greater concentration, then compares two more points successively, moving in zigzags toward the source. Using olfactory navigation the moth detects currents of scent in the air and, by small increments, discovers how to move upstream.”

Most of us know the old saying, “drawn to it like a moth to a flame.” In Death of a Moth, Virginia Woolf seems to see in the moth’s demise through its attraction to a candle her own eventual tragic death.  At least two well-known nature writers were inspired by Woolf’s essay to pen their own reflections on moths: Robert Michael Pyle’s The Death of a Moth: Rejoinder to Virginia Woolf (1976) and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard’s 1976 essay, “The Death of the Moth.” 

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Three very different essays on moths. Woolf’s “little hay-colored moth;” a metaphor for the brevity of life. In Dillard’s essay, which eventually became part of her book, Holy the Firm, the moth attracted to her candle while she’s camping is caught in the flame and the fat in its body burns as part of the flame for several hours. For Dillard, the moth-as-flame becomes an illustration of what writing life will demand of someone truly committed to it.

WMFeather-edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpgRobert Michael Pyle writes about his observations and enjoyment of caring for a female Cecropia, which he captures and then observes for more than three weeks (a very long life for a moth of this species, which usually survives only a few days as an adult, as they are without mouths and only live to reproduce). His observation, unlike either Woolf’s or Dillards, is devoid of any metaphor. Instead, he acts as recorder and even matchmaker, bringing her males of the species to mate with, counting the number of eggs she lays, noting how her pheromones attract dozens of males which flock to the windows of his house after dark in search of her.

At the end of his essay, when the moth dies, he simply notes: “As I packed her away into a paper envelope and wrote on it the dry facts that said little about her, a nighthawk called outside the hotel window. It struck me that the hunting bird would enjoy my moth no more than I had done.”

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In three hours, Trevor photographs and identifies 49 species of moths. All this abundance, on an evening of cold, rain, and wind. We knew this prairie, said to be the fourth oldest planted prairie in the world, was special because of its rich diversity of unusual and high-quality native plants. But moths! Now we have a brief glimpse of the unknown treasures that are here after dark.

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One night. Three hours. 49 different kinds of moths. What other mysteries are out on the prairie, waiting to be discovered?

We’ll be on the prairie after dark again soon to find out.

******

The opening quote is from Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), from The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Woolf is best known for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) in which she wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, and took her life at age 59. Robert Michael Pyle, who wrote the essay quoted above in this blogpost, also wrote Silk Moth of the Railroad Yards (1975), in which he ponders the effects of mercury vapor streetlights on these insects. Both of Pyle’s essays can be found in his collection, Green Thoughts.

****

All photos generously contributed by Trevor Edmonson to this week’s blog, except where noted, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL on June 14 (top to bottom): Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei); Trevor talks to the survey team about moths, photo Cindy Crosby; waiting for moths to arrive, photo Cindy Crosby;  Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella); moth survey team working the sheets, photo by Cindy Crosby; Black-Dotted Glyph (Maliattha synochitis); Marbled-Green Leuconycta (Leuconycta lepidula); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); Orange Virbia Moth (Virbia aurantiaca); Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis); Pale Beauty Moth (Campaea parlata); Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopia grataria); Feather-Edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis); White-Dotted Prominent (Nadata gibbosa) American Idia Moth (Idia americalis).

Thanks to Trevor Edmonson for his mentoring of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie team, and his generous gift of time and equipment. And thanks to our special guests Bronson, Vera, and Jeff who helped with identification. We’re grateful!

A Hike on the June Prairie

“Good day sunshine.” — John Lennon & Paul McCartney

*****

A little rain. A bit of sunshine this week, too—at last. Let’s hike the June prairie together, and see what’s happening after the spring storms.

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Tallgrass prairies in the Chicago region crackle with activity. Angelica opens its firework flowers in the soggy areas.

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Spiderwort is everywhere, both in bud…

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…and in bloom. Its short-lived flowers only last a day or two, and often close in the afternoon.

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Clouds of prairie phlox float across the low grasses in varied hues, from pearl…

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…to palest lavender, with purple eyes…

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…to hot pink. So many variations!  When the phlox mingles with the spiderwort, it makes me think of a Monet painting.

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Not all the blooms are as jazzy as the prairie phlox. Intermixed with the phlox,  prairie alumroot spikes open small green flowers with orange anthers. Inconspicuous, until you look closely. The phlox is fragrant, but the alumroot is scentless. Notice the silvery leadplant photobombing the image below, plus some sedges sprinkled around.

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Close to the stream, I see meadow rue heading skyward.  In a good wet year like this one, meadow rue will likely top out at six or seven feet tall. When meadow rue blooms,  the flowers remind me of fringed Victorian lamps. Today, they are mostly in bud.

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Cauliflower fists of wild quinine buds are about to pop.

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As are those of the common milkweed. I turn the leaves over, but no monarch eggs. Yet.

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As I admire the buds and blooms, I notice dragonflies perched to soak up the sun. Dragonflies have kept a low profile for the past two months; sulking about the windy, chilly, drizzly, and generally gloomy weather.  I discover a twelve-spotted skimmer…

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…and also, a common whitetail. Both species will be ubiquitous by late June, but these first appearances always delight me. Welcome back.

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As I look into foliage along the trails for more dragonflies and damselflies, I see clumps of what appear to be bubbles. Inside of the froth is a spittlebug. I pull one sticky mass apart with my fingers and gently admire a tiny green nymph. Later, when I’m at home, I read that the nymph will feed on the plant and eventually become an adult that looks something like a leafhopper, to which they are related. Although they are considered a pest, we don’t worry much about them on the prairie. They do little damage.

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In the cool breeze, I’m grateful for the sun.  I snap off a red clover bloom and chew on some of the petals. Sweet. So sweet. Red clover isn’t a native prairie plant, but it’s pretty and generally not too invasive. We only pull it in our display areas at the front of the prairie.

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The native yellow wood sorrel leaves are also irresistible, with their sour, tangy jolt to the tastebuds. Both the red clover and yellow wood sorrel are found in every Illinois county. Tough little flowers.

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Brown-headed cowbirds often show up at my birdfeeders at home, as well as on my prairie hikes. They have several different trademark calls. This one sings a Clink-whistle! I admire it, glossy in the sunshine. Cowbirds are despised by many birders for their habit of laying their eggs in other bird species’ nests; letting someone else raise the kids. Ah, well.

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The earliest spring prairie blooms are now in the business of making seeds.  Jacob’s ladder, which pulled blue sheets of flowers across the prairie just weeks ago, now carries clusters of sprawling seedpods. Except for the plant’s ladder-like leaves, it’s unrecognizable.

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I pull a pod apart and check the tiny seed, pinching it between my fingernail and thumb. Still green. When the seedpods turn brown, I’ll bag them and use them to propagate other parts of the prairie where they aren’t as common.

Wood betony is another wildflower that has undergone a complete makeover, spiraling from yellow blooms into into soldier-straight rows. I mentally mark its locations for our work group’s seed collection efforts in a few weeks.

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A common sight on the Midwestern prairies at this time of year is the remains of dogbane pods (or Indian hemp as it is sometimes known) that escaped the prescribed burns. Seedless now, it looks graceful, scything the breeze. My prairie work group collected last year’s dogbane stalks to experiment with making fiber this season. Native American’s knew dogbane could be used for twine, fishing line, and even fiber to weave clothing. I enjoy the way the pods catch the wind.

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Wild coffee (sometimes known as horse gentian or tinker’s weed), has made an eye-catching mound in the knee-high tallgrass. Look closely.

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You’ll see the dark reddish brown flowers, nestled in the leaf axils. Later this summer, the flowers will turn into small orange fruits tucked into the leaves. The dried fruits were used as a coffee substitute by early settlers.

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The highlight of my hike is finding one of my favorite prairie wildflowers beginning to go to seed: common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata). I love its explosions of seed-spirals, and the way its stalk is beginning to transform from white to pink. As it ages, the pink intensifies until it is almost neon bright on the prairie.

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So much to see. So much to hear. So many things to enjoy with all the senses. It’s difficult to do desk work. What if I miss something?

The prairie conjures up new astonishments every day.

I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.

*****

Paul McCartney and John Lennon penned the song, “Good Day Sunshine” for the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver. It’s a good cure for rainy day blues. Listen to it here and you’ll be humming it all day.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from two different prairie hikes put together (top to bottom): butterweed (Packera glabella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) and prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie alumroot (Heuchera richardsonii affinis) with the phlox, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spittlebug (possibly Philaenus spumarius) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red clover (Trifolium pratense) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) seedpods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum) flowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Tonight! Introduction to the Tallgrass Prairie, Tuesday, June 4, 7-9 p.m., Lake to Prairie Wild Ones, Fremont Public Library, 1170 N Midlothian Rd, Mundelein, IL 60060. Free and open to the public.

Thursday, June 6–9 p.m. — A Tallgrass Conversation, talk and book signing. Bring a picnic dinner for the social at 6 p.m. Talk begins around 7:30 p.m. Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, Wisconsin. Details here.

Friday, June 14, or Friday, June 28, 8-11:30 a.m., Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration here (first session is sold out).

Thursday, June 20, 7-9 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop, Rock Valley Wild Ones, Rock Valley Community College, Rockford, IL. Details here. Free and open to the public.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

After a Prairie Storm

“Today is wet, damp, soggy and swollen…The grass loves this world swamp, this massive aerial soup. You can see it grow before your eyes.”  — Josephine W. Johnson

*****

Thunderstorms rumble away, moving purposefully east. There is a last flash of lightning.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

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Waterlogged again. The prairie attempts to soak up the most recent deluge. Willoway Brook overflows with run-off, carving a muddy swath through the bright grasses.

The spring prairie wildflowers are tougher under these hard rain onslaughts than you might think. Momentarily freighted with water, they rebound quickly and stand ready for pollinators. Shooting star begins its business of setting seed. Magenta prairie phlox opens new blooms. Golden Alexanders are an exercise in prairie pointillism, dabbing the sea of green with bright spots.

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Rain has soaked the prairie for weeks. It’s a lesson in patience. I’ve cancelled prairie workdays for my volunteers; put off pressing prairie projects, waiting for a drizzle-free morning. On Thursday, I took advantage of a rare bit of sunshine to hike some prairie trails.  I should have brought my kayak.

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On Sunday, I walked the same trails during another break in the storms, marveling at the just-opened wildflowers. Other than a few hot pinks and the blast of orange hoary puccoon, the early spring prairie blooms seem to favor a pale palette. Pure white starry campion has opened, as have the first snow-colored meadow anemones. Blue-eyed grass stars the prairie whenever the sun appears…

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…closing when it clouds up, or there’s a downpour.

This weekend I spotted pale penstemon, sometimes called pale beardtongue, for the first time this season. Bastard toadflax bloomed at its feet.

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Cream wild indigo is having a banner year. Its silver-leaved mounds of pale yellow pea-like blooms are stunning on the prairie. At Jeff and my wedding reception 36 years ago, we served cake, punch, mixed nuts, and butter mints in pastel green, pink, and yellow. Remember those mints? They’d melt in your mouth. When I see cream wild indigo, I think of those yellow butter mints—a dead ringer for the indigo’s color.

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Wild strawberries also put a tingle in my taste buds, although I know the flowers often fail to fruit. Even if the bloom does produce a tiny strawberry, it will likely be gobbled by mice or other mammals before I get a chance to taste it. The animals will scatter the seeds across the tallgrass in their scat.

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Virginia waterleaf is in full display, dangling its clusters of bell-shaped blooms. Pink to pale lavender flowers are common, but I see a few bleached white. I read in iNaturalist that when the blooms are exposed to sun, they quickly lose their color.  I wonder—when was there enough sunshine in May for that to happen?

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The yellows of wood betony are almost all bloomed out now, and even the bright pinks and lavenders of shooting star seem to fade and run like watercolors in the rain.

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May storms will—hopefully—produce lush grasses and prolific summer wildflowers as the days lead us to summer. The first monarchs and other butterflies which seem to appear daily will appreciate the nectar-fest just around the corner. I think ahead to the grasses stretching to the sky; the bright yellows and purples of summer flowers.

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Keep your fingers crossed. Sunshine is surely on the way.

*****

Josephine W. Johnson (1910-1990), an environmental activist and nature writer whose quote opens this post, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for her novel, Now in November. In  The Inland Island (1969), she pens observations about the natural world in a month-by-month framework.

*****

All photos and video this week are taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa) video clip of Willoway Brook, after the storm; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); flooded trail;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) pale penstemon or beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus) with bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) in the lower left corner; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata); wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia; trail to the prairie in the rain.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events:

Saturday, June 1, 1-4 p.m.–The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and bison tour. The talk is free and open to the public but you must reserve your spot. (See details on book purchase for bison tour). Register here — only eight spots left for the bison tour (limit 60).

Thursday, June 6, 6:30-9 p.m. —The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation—talk, book signing and picnic social at Pied Beauty Farm in Stoughton, WI. See details here. 

Friday, June 14 — Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, 8:30-11 a.m. (Sold out)

Just added! Friday, June 28–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID — The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL  8-11:30 a.m. (more details and registration here).

Find more at cindycrosby.com

Rainy Day Prairie Pleasures

“Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers… .” — Mary Oliver

*****

Rain, rain, rain. As we wake to another cold, wet spring morning in northeastern Illinois—with the promise of more in the forecast—it’s difficult to not get discouraged. Looking back over the past weeks…whitetaileddeerBelmontPrairie519WM.jpg

…it seems as if the Chicago region is setting records for the wettest spring weather. In fact, as of May 15, this is the 15th wettest in the city of Chicago’s recorded history (since 1871).

Even so. It’s a lot of precipitation.

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Whenever the sun makes a surprise appearance, it’s worth a trip to the prairies in my area to soak up every moment. Surprises await. The warmth and light coaxes out the early butterflies. Mourning cloaks emerge from hibernation, nectaring on bladderwort blooms.

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In the dappled light of the prairie savanna, a female scarlet tanager perches, her more flamboyant mate nearby. What a pairing—the red and the yellow!

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A lone sandhill crane flies over the prairie. Its rattling call seems lonely, without a supporting cast of another dozen or more birds. I wonder. What is it doing all by itself? I usually see the cranes in high-flying flocks. And why is it here so late?

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I learn that a few sandhill cranes raise their young locally; as close as Fermilab’s natural areas in Batavia and other welcoming sites here in the Chicago region.  It’s a shift from the past, when they summered further up north. I watch until the lone crane disappears, headed west.

At my feet, the cool, wet spring offers its own particular rewards.  Jacob’s ladder tumbles across the emerald prairie. I’ve never seen it so prolific. So much blue.

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The wild geraniums put in an appearance after what seems like endless delay. That color! They rim the edges of the prairie in pink. Happiest, perhaps, in the woodlands and savanna, where they enjoy more shade. Did you know wild geranium pollen is blue? Something new I learned this spring. I always thought all flower pollen was yellow, but it evidently comes in all the colors of the rainbow, from red to orange to green.

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Shooting star reflexes its flowers, with plenty of buds promising more to open. Have you seen the bumblebees working their magic? They’re engaged in sonication.

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commonly called “buzz pollination.”  The bumblebees vibrate the blooms with their “buzz” and shake the pollen out on the anthers. Nope, honeybees aren’t strong enough to pollinate these wildflowers. It’s another reason to care about bumblebees, if you need one!

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Our local carnival has been in full swing downtown this week, much to the delight of our grandkids. When I see the wood betony on the prairie spiraling upwards, I can’t help but be reminded of those swirling rides: the tilt-a-whirl, the Ferris wheels, and those spinning cylinders that made me so dizzy as a kid. Festive, isn’t it?

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Does the plentiful wood betony seem like a cheap thrill? If so, there are more exotic blooms waiting to be discovered. If you’re lucky, on a few of Chicago’s regional prairies, you’ll happen across the small white lady’s slipper in full bloom.

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So tiny! Unlike its larger blossomed cousins, the pink lady’s slipper and the yellow.

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I fall to my knees in the mud in admiration. Wow.

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So perfectly formed. So delicately colored.

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A fleeting delight.

But not the only one. The first wild hyacinths spangle open. Their distinctive fragrance and color is a magnet for human visitors. Bees, flies, butterflies and wasps also visit.

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Right on schedule, blue-eyed grass (ironically not a grass, and with no blue center), shows up, low, tiny, and delicate.

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If you study the blue-eyed grass closely, deep in the muck, you’ll notice other more subtle wildflowers. The bastard toadflax in pearly bloom. Erupting milkweed leaves. A mud-splattered Philadelphia daisy fleabane, unfurling its buds.

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The new shoots of big bluestem appear, furred and supple. Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are easy to name, with their mounds of green. Other grass shoots spear their way across the wet prairie, difficult to ID. Switchgrass. Indian grass. Canada wild rye.

Summer wildflowers are leafing out. I reacquaint myself with each one, like seeing old friends. Some are months away from bloom, but already distinct. Culver’s root. The sunflower gang. Compass plant. Occasionally, you find a  hybridization between the compass plant and prairie dock. Obviously, some Silphium hanky-panky going on here.

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And suddenly, it seems, the starry false Solomon’s seal has opened everywhere; a constellation of knee-high wildflowers in a universe of green.

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So much to marvel at. So much to pay attention to.

As I write these words, storm clouds are moving in…again. It’s difficult to remember what a sunny day looks like, after all the gloomy ones.

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But after thinking about all of the joys and surprises of this cool, wet spring, I find it tough to complain.

You too?

****

The opening quote is by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver (1935-2019) from her poem, “The Wild Geese.” Watch and listen to her read her beautiful poem here. 

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby : (top to bottom): white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; storm clouds over Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mourning cloak butterfly  (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station Area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  female scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Chicago Region; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hybridization between compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; starry false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata or Maianthemum stellatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gloomy day at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. Special thanks to Donna U. for her great talk on wild geraniums and blue pollen.

Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking:

Tonight! Tuesday, May 21, 7-9 pm: Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL: “Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers” — Free and open to the public. St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL.

Thursday, May 23, 6:30-9 p.m.: Part two: “A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie” continues at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now through May 27: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online–continues at The Morton Arboretum. Next online class begins June 26. See details and registration information here.

“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Saturday, June 1,  1-4 p.m, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free lecture followed by book signing, then a prairie and bison tour with purchase of a book. Seating is limited: Must pre-register here. Only 15 bison tour spots left! Thanks to Friends of Nachusa Grasslands for hosting this event.

“The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation” — Thursday, June 6 , 7:30-9 p.m., Pied Beauty Farm, Stoughton, WI. Bring a picnic basket for the social at 6 p.m.  See details here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly ID“—Friday, June 14, 8-11:30 a.m., The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Sold Out, call to be put on a waiting list.

More classes and programs at http://www.cindycrosby.com

Bringing Prairie Home

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell

******

I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.

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I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

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…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.

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Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…

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…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

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A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….

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…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.

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I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.

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Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

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Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…

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…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

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Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…

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…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.

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In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…

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…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.

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The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.

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Now that’s something to sing about.

****

The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

See more on http://www.cindycrosby.com

Showers of Prairie Flowers

 

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.– John Updike

*****

So much rain. Will it ever end?

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Rain or shine, it’s migration week on the prairie. New birds arriving daily.

Egrets stalk the prairie streams, or perch high on dead snags.

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Red-tailed hawks keep their own vigils, alert for unwary prey.

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Resident bluebirds intensify their coloration to deepest sapphire and rust,  busy about the business of home building and finding mates. No holding still. See ya later.

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In the savanna, the early spring ephemerals are beginning to wane, but there are plenty of exciting flowers if you know where to look. Wild ginger holds its maroon flowers close under its leaves, a secret to all but those in the know. And now that’s you.

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The Virginia bluebells cover the woods and savannas in sheets of pinky-purple-periwinkle. This plant has a tiny pollinator.

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Not to be outdone, the wild blue phlox pinwheels bloom under rain-washed skies. Wow. That fragrance! Sweet, without cloying.

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On the prairie, more blues: Jacob’s ladder, just coming into full flower. Like chips from a pale sky.

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Two partially-parasitic prairie wildflowers, bastard toadflax…

bastardtoadflaxWM5619.jpg …and wood betony (pictured below) are just beginning to flower. The “parasitic” part sounds forbidding in name, but is actually a plus. As a prairie steward, I value these two plants as they create openings for wildflowers and damp down the grasses a bit when the grasses threaten to monopolize the prairie. Read more here for additional info.

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On a less scientific note, some Native Americans carried the root of wood betony as a love charm, or used it in various ways to bring feuding couples together. No word on how well it worked for those purposes. But I love the idea that a prairie plant could be so powerful, don’t you?

The new kid blooming on the block this week is hoary puccoon. So unexpected…that orange! A punch of color in the middle of all this rain-inspired green.

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And look—common valerian, Valeriana edulis ciliata. A very high quality plant on the spring prairie–Wilhelm’s Flora gives it a “10” out of a possible “10.” Love seeing it throw its “stinky socks” scent into the prairie air. The leaves are edged with thick white hairs, giving them a distinctive silver edge. Valerian’s thick stalks and bunchy flowers remind me a bit of sprigs of cauliflower.

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These blooms, these birds, those skies —- alternating between thunder and sunshine, rain and rainbows, cumulus and cirrus—announce that the fast-paced spring life of the prairie is underway. It’s nonstop now. From the tiniest crayfish in its burrow, living their lives mostly unnoticed…

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…to the powerful bison, a charismatic megafauna that rules the prairie in all seasons…

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…to the familiar field sparrows, now in steep conservation decline—trilling from prairie shrubs, trees, and utility wires….

 

…the days begin to fill with birdsong, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, new life.

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Get ready, the prairie seems to whisper. Fasten your seatbelt. I’ve got so many surprises in store for you.

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So much to see now.

So much to anticipate.

*****

The opening quote is by John Updike (1932-2009),  an American writer. Most readers think of him as a novelist (Rabbit, Run; The Witches of Eastwick), but I prefer his poetry. If you haven’t read Seagulls or November, click through and see what you think.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rain over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans);  bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), DuPage County, IL; devil crayfish (Cambarus diogenes), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)— a species in steep decline–Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; discovering the spring prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Violet Variables

“Oh, violets, you did signify, and what shall take your place?” — Mary Oliver

*****

It’s an exciting time in the Chicago region to be outdoors. From the hefty bald eagles, weighing up to 14 pounds, nesting and raising their young….

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…to the tiniest blue-gray gnatcatchers, weighing in at a quarter of an ounce, hunting for nesting spots, the life of the skies is packed with surprises no matter where you look.

This past week, however, I’m mostly looking down at the prairie’s newly sprouting surface, trying to find violets. They were a favorite of my maternal grandmother, who left me her fine china, covered with the deep purple flowers. I walk the prairies daily through rain, snow, and heat—-a bizarre spring, even by Illinois standards—to see if I might find some. And I think of her as I walk.

On last Tuesday, I hiked with some of my prairie volunteers up to the savanna, where we looked closely at the savanna floor to find “harbinger of spring” in full bloom. Such a infinitesimal little wildflower! We eyeballed one up close for our educational and plant inventory needs, and left the rest of the 20 foot square large population remaining in peace.

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I enjoyed the stroll on the savanna and prairie in the sunshine while it lasted. On Saturday, my marsh marigolds, ringing the tiny backyard prairie pond with gold, were shell-shocked by a sudden winter storm that dropped five inches of white stuff on us in 12 hours. The gold was beautiful in a whole new way for being under heavy snowfall. Just a different way of seeing them.

No word on how the chorus frogs felt about it.

 

By Sunday afternoon, the snowmelt had painted my backyard and the local prairies a bold, crisp green. It’s astonishing to see snow disappear so fast on the burned areas, and linger in the mowed or unburned sections. I went to shoot a photo of the contrast between burned and unburned prairie a few hours later. The snow was completely gone. So much changes from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, in April on the prairie. You have to be there, it seems, 24/7, to capture everything the tallgrass has to tell you.

The snow had fled by Monday, but bastard toadflax, which I adore,  was coming into full bloom.

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It was the first prairie wildflower name I ever learned.  Twenty years ago or so, an older woman, Marge, was weeding sweet clover next to me as we volunteered on the prairie. “What’s this?” I asked her. “Oh that—bastard toadflax!” she told me. I was enchanted. Marge has since passed away, but I’ll never forget her taking time to help “the new kid” learn the name of a common prairie wildflower. I think of her whenever I see it.

Other bloomers I find on my hike are less common. As I walk the western suburban prairies in my area, a friend points out the prairie buttercup, a threatened species sparking its waxy gold in the sunshine. It’s a first for me!

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This week, a more common flower—the wild strawberry—-is up, salting the emerald grasses with white. The strawberry blooms poke through the crevices of the paver path, rubbing shoulders with…the violets. Can you ID this violet? (Hint: It’s not the common violet!) If you aren’t sure, read on….

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Of course there are the common violets. The blue violet, Viola sororia, is our state flower. Often, when I teach prairie wildflowers, a student will see violets and say—Hey, I’m trying to weed those out of my yard! Common violets can be a nuisance to some. But to me, they are beautiful, if only for the association with my grandmother. The common violets have lovely heart-shaped leaves and add a welcome splotch of purple to the prairie when not much else is in bloom. The leaves and flowers are edible. High in Vitamin C!

violetseedlingsMAEW41218WM.jpgI love seeing the variations in color—from white to yellow to blue to purple— but  distinguishing between the violets is difficult for this naturalist. Lumpers and splitters, those taxonomists who decide what we call each species, further muddle the issue for me. Supposedly, there are eight kinds of blue violets in our state, depending on who you read. And it doesn’t help that the violets love a good party, and many hybridize without any compunctions about taxonomy.

The two I can ID with certainty are special. It’s the prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) that I see in profusion  on the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward, and on the Belmont Prairie remnant not far away. I tip each flower face up and look for the hairy white interior that says: prairie violet. This is also the one on the paver path shown above, with the wild strawberries. Bet you guessed it right.

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Occasionally, I see the brilliant golden orange anthers of birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), which I encounter at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, about 90 miles west. I look at the leaves to help make the ID. Deeply lobed; birdfoot violet. Less lobed, prairie violet. The birdfoot violet leaves do look like little bird’s feet, don’t they? This bloom has a tiny pollinator.

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We’ve lost the birdfoot violets over the past few years on the Schulenberg Prairie. I’ve spent part of my April trying to find a local seed source within 30 miles to jump start a new population. (Any help appreciated! Leave me a comment.) Every missing species is a piece of the prairie puzzle. Lose one species, and the picture seems incomplete.

And who would want to lose one of the violets? My grandmother has been gone now for more than a decade.  I think of her when I show my six grandchildren a violet, or help them ID a bird, or we catch a dragonfly together. It’s her work I’m passing on—her love for the outdoors, which she handed on to my mother, who ensured it was instilled in me. When I drink from one of grandma’s violet patterned teacups, I think of the strong women in my family and their legacy of learning to pay attention to the natural world. It’s their gift to me.

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Now, it’s my turn to share.

*****

The opening lines are from the lovely poem, Violets, by Mary Oliver (1935-2019) in her poetry collection, Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009).  She passed away in January. If you haven’t read Mary Oliver, consider beginning with New and Selected Poems Volume 1. 

*****

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nesting, Chicago region; a prairie steward examines harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the snow, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie buttercup (Ranunculus rhomboideus) , DuPage County, IL; wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and prairie violets (Viola pedatifida) in the paver path, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, nest (possibly a robin’s? ID help welcome!), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Thank you to Paul Marcum of Illinois Botany for help on the prairie buttercup ID.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking (see more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online continues (through the Morton Arboretum) this week. Registration for the June 26 class is here.

Saturday, May 4– Spring Woodland and Early Prairie Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Sold Out)

Thursday, May 9–Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Flyers of the Garden, Hilltop Garden Club, 10-11 a.m., Oswego Public Library, 32 West Jefferson Street, Oswego, IL. Free and Open to the Public.