Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Three Reasons to Hike the June Prairie

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

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June is underway, throwing curveballs. How about a 90 degree-plus day? A little severe drought, followed by the promise of thunderstorms? The prairie yawns. No problem.

Compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) and other species on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is both fragile and resilient; broken and strong. Over years it has almost vanished, but now, with the help of volunteers and stewards, we’re seeing more prairies planted and prairie remnants cared for. Even though we can’t replicate the original remnant prairies we’ve lost, it’s a start. In June, these prairies are full of marvels. As the month unfolds, wonders unfold as well. Here are three reasons to go for a hike this week and see some of these wonders for yourself.

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1) Discover who has been spitting on the prairie plants: You’ve seen it–gobs of gooey bubbles on prairie wildflower stems and leaves. This is not hiker residue! It’s a sign of the spittlebug. As the insect nymph feeds on plant sap, it blows bubbles to form a protective froth that keeps it hidden from predators. The bubbles also serve as insulation against temperature swings and keep the spittlebug moist during times of drought.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

In my part of the tallgrass prairie region, I discover, our species is the “meadow spittlebug” Philaenus spumarius. You might also hear folks call them “froghoppers.” The bubbles are composed of air mixed with excess sap, which the nymph blows out its… er…. backside. According to University of Wisconsin-Madison, the tiny insect can blow out as many as 80 bubbles a minute! That’s a lot of bubbles.

Spittlebug (Philaenus spumarius), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

If you don’t want spittlebugs on your garden prairie plants, the Illinois Extension suggests hosing them off. It will slow the little bubble-makers down a little—but of course, they’ll still hang around. . In my backyard prairie patch, I’ve never had enough of them to worry much. I enjoy seeing these “tiny bubbles” (sing it with me!) on the prairie, and thinking about yet another unusual and memorable citizen of the diverse prairie community.

Dewdrop on unknown grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

2) Frequent Fliers are Out: Skippers, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies are showing up in larger numbers now on the prairie. I’ve had my Illinois skipper ID book out for the first time this year, trying to ID some orange-tan look-alikes. This one appears to be the “Hobomok Skipper”, although I’m never 100 percent sure with these little critters.

Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok) on red clover (Trifolium pratense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I have more ID confidence with the female common whitetail dragonfly; a frequent sighting on the prairie in June.

Common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ditto for the first calico pennants, one of my favorite prairie fliers.

Calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Even though the male eastern forktails are one of the most numerous damselflies in the Chicago region, they always awe me with their bright blue abdominal tip; their vibrant neon green thorax stripes. And those eyes and eyespots! “The better to see you with”—indeed!

Male eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

3) New wildflowers open each day: I know I keep saying it each week — but there are so many new blooms on the prairie to discover! Seeing the first pale purple coneflower on my workday June 1 was a great way to usher in the first day of meteorological summer. Have you seen them yet?

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I enjoy the different prairie pairings, such as the way the giant prairie dock leaf mingles with this not-yet-blooming pale purple coneflower.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And I wonder. Why do the stems of the pale purple coneflower twist and turn? One of my prairie volunteers asked me this question—and—I have no idea! But I love the sense of motion they bring to the tallgrass; almost as if they were swaying underwater.

Pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

They seem to be dancing to some unheard music that only coneflowers can hear. If you picked a song for coneflowers to dance to, what would it be?

Insects and spiders have been hard at work, doing June tasks on the prairie. How did this spider capture a golden alexanders plant so completely? I’ve been on this particular prairie for more than two decades, and have never seen a weaving quite like this one.

Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

One of the joys of the June prairie is finding the panic grass in full “bloom.”

One of the panic grasses (Dichanathelium sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And these “bugs” and blooms are only a few of the wonders unfolding. The grasses are complex—and already, making their presence felt among the wildflowers.

Squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Spending time on the prairie—walking it in all weathers, touching the leaves, admiring the wildflowers and grasses, marveling at the spiders and insects — is a way to come into relationship with a small part of the natural world. As one of many volunteers who love and care for this prairie through acts of restoration, I feel satisfaction helping heal a system that has been broken.

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus),Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And, as I hike, I find that the prairie helps heal some of what has been broken in me.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Good reasons—all of them—to go for a hike on the June prairie.

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Robin Wall Kimmerer (1953-) is the author of the bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass. My favorite of her books is Gathering Moss. If you haven’t read both books, you’re in for a treat.

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Join Cindy for a program or class this summer!

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, to poetry, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden witnew eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST–Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

The Wild Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies:Online, Thursday June 17, 7-8:30 p.m. CDT, Rock River Valley Wild Ones. Discover the wild and wonderful lives of these fascinating insects with the author of “Chasing Dragonflies” in this hour-long interactive Zoom program (with Q&A to follow). To join Rock River Valley Wild Ones and participate, discover more here.