Tag Archives: white prairie clover

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

*****

The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

To Make a Prairie (With Apologies to Emily Dickinson)

“To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee.” So begins Emily Dickinson’s well-loved poem. It’s doubtful that Dickinson ever saw a tallgrass prairie, of course; cloistered for years in her bedroom in Amherst, MA. Nonetheless, her verses on prairie live on.

But are “a clover and one bee” enough to make a prairie?  With apologies to Dickinson, here are a few more suggested ingredients. What would you add?

 

To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee (tle)…

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A bison, or two or three (and bulls)

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And a butterfly or two, if bees are few.

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To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee (fly)…

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Perhaps a tree or trees (nearby)

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A prescribed burn or two, to keep the trees so few.

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To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee …

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Someone who cares enough to see

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A volunteer or two,  ensures that weeds are few.

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To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee (balm) …

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Swirling clouds, perhaps a breeze (calm)

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A pond or stream or two, if drops of dew are few.

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To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee …

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Egrets and birds,  all feathery

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Tall grasses bright of hue, if birds are few.

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To make a prairie … it takes you.

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Poetry excerpt from Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems (1924) Part Two: Nature XCVII. Complete poem: To make a prairie/ it takes a clover and one bee./One clover, /and a bee. /And revery. /The revery alone will do, /if bees are few.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Beetle on white prairie clover (Dalea candida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (note that males and females both have horns), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; buckeye butterfly, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stand of trees, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteer Tricia Lowery shooting photos, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; a few members of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie work group, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; overcast sky, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pond, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on white prairie clover (Dalea candida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; egret, Busse Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  Autumn on the Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

 

Seeing Prairie

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I took a friend of mine, a professor, to see the tallgrass prairie where I volunteer as a steward. He listened as I enthusiastically chattered about the amazing array of plants, the value of diversity, the use of prescribed fire, and the excitement of preserving and restoring native landscape. As I spoke, he was silent. Finally, I quit talking and waited to hear what he thought.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s nothing but weeds.”

How do you see prairie?

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For Native Americans, the prairie was a grocery store, full of good things to eat. Bastard toadflax seeds were a tasty snack, the young shoots of many prairie plants tasted like asparagus. It was also a pharmacy, with plants that were believed to have potential to heal anything that ailed you, from snakebite to colic. The prairie contained roots used as  love charms and fire-starters; leaves to smoke during ceremonies or — if you knew their secrets — plants you could use in concoctions to eliminate your worst enemy.

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Early settlers saw the prairie as a place to conquer. The deep, interlocking root system of prairie plants, which evolved to withstand drought, were almost impenetrable to farmers until the invention of the John Deere plow in 1837.

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For those who had made the long trek out to Illinois from the woodlands of the east, the Midwestern tallgrass prairie seemed lonely and barren. James Monroe, our fifth president, reported in 1786 on what is now Illinois with these words, “A great part of the territory is miserably poor… .”

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Others, like pioneer Eliza Steele, saw the Illinois prairie and were instantly enchanted. They had imagination to see the beauty of the treeless tallgrass that stretched from horizon to horizon.

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Developers or farmers might look at a prairie today and see wasted land — land that is a bare canvas, waiting for something useful to be done with it. They see potential. And dollar signs.

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Others, like myself, see the prairie through a kaleidoscope lens. It’s a place to preserve for the future through maintaining a vanishing landscape of plants, animals, insects, birds, and amphibians.  It’s a place of perspiration — we invest in it through the sweat equity we build when we pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds, and set prescribed burns. It’s a place of inspiration: for poetry, art, photography, and music.

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Some people argue the prairie has only the value we assign to it; that it has no intrinsic value of its own. I believe there is inherent value in the prairie, no matter what value we assign to it for ourselves.

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But unless we take time to really look at prairie, spend time on prairie, and attempt to understand what makes prairie something different and special, we’ll see the tallgrass as my friend the professor did.

Nothing but weeds.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top to bottom: Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whitetail deer, SP; white prairie clover (Dalea candida), SP; halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina), SP; autumn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; summer, SP; autumn, NG; volunteer, SP; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), SP.)