Tag Archives: white wild indigo

A July Prairie Vocabulary

“I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” — Robert MacFarlane

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How can we fix a vanishing landscape like the tallgrass prairie in our minds and hearts?

It may start with words. Here are a few proposed vocabulary words for this hot July summer on the prairie.

Croakfloat:

A frog hanging out in a pond.

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Bumblebloom:

When two or more bees visit a flower.

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Petalrash: 

The splotches of color left behind when pale purple coneflower petals fade.

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Furflower:

What happens when a bison hybridizes with a compass plant.

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Powerpond:

When manmade meets prairie wetland.

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Monarchmagnet:

Any one of the native milkweeds (like this whorled milkweed) that provides life for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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Bisondifference:

Being ignored by a small herd of bison.

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The July prairie season is in full swing.

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What new words will you add to our summer prairie vocabulary?

***

Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote is from his book Landmarks. In it he reminds us of the power of words, and lists many of the words that have been lost in describing the landscape of the British isles. Read what a New York Times reviewer said about it here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebees on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with bison (Bison bison) fur, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.SaveSave

A Prairie Wildflower Solstice

“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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Tonight at 11:24 p.m.—not to put too fine a point on it—is the summer solstice. Simply put, it is the official date summer begins in Illinois. The solstice also marks the longest day and shortest night of the year for the northern hemisphere.

On the tallgrass prairie, the summer solstice means it’s time for wildflowers. Lots of them.

White wild indigo reaches for the clouds.

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The indigo is alive with pollinators, going about their buzzy business.

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Seemingly overnight, pale purple coneflowers open across the tallgrass. People who don’t think about prairie much at other times of the year stop and stare. Linger. How could you not? Coneflowers are the great ambassadors of the tallgrass; the welcome mat that compels us to step in and take a closer look.

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And then, there are the oddly-named summer wildflowers you forget about until you come across them in bloom again. Scurfy pea. The name alone provokes smiles. It earns a 10—the highest possible score—in the Flora of the Chicago Region, but for most photographers and hikers in the tallgrass, its primary value is as a pretty backdrop for the coneflowers.

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The unpredictable juxtapositions of plants are a never-ending source of enjoyment on the prairie in June.  Like this daisy fleabane with lime-green carrion flower.

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As June progresses, the black-eyed Susans, white and purple prairie clover, lead plant, and flowering spurge open alongside the indigo and coneflowers. Such an outpouring of color! The prairie holds nothing back. What in the world will the tallgrass do for an encore?

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And then you glance up.

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Although the wildflowers take center stage in June—as do the skies—grasses bide their time. Soon they’ll be the stars of the tallgrass prairie. The grasses and sedges at this fen are already lush and hypnotic in the wind.

 

They are also alive with insects. Dragonflies pull themselves from the streams and ponds, clamber up grass blades; pump flight into their newly unfurled wings.  Like this Halloween pennant, cooling off on a hot day.

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Or this little damselfly, neon blue in the grasses. The name “bluet” is perfect, isn’t it?

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This day calls for reflection. How have I spent my time this week; this month; this year? Have I paid attention? Where have I focused my energy? What will I change about how I’m spending my days, if anything, in the upcoming weeks?

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The prairie is just beginning to work its magic.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

***

The opening quote from Annie Dillard (1945-) is from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book,  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). I read it every year; there’s always something new to think about.

All photos and the video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bumblebee (unknown species) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) duo, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum) with a single pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; carrion flower  (probably Smilax herbacea) and daisy fleabane (probably Erigeron philadelphicus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  mixed Schulenberg Prairie wildflowers at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rainbow and storm clouds over the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; grasses and sedges at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet (Enallagma civile) damselfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) under storm clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; gravel two-track with great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

***

What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

****

British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Resurrecting Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again. “–Thomas Wolfe

***

Pulling sweet clover and giant ragweed from the prairie on hot June mornings can seem endless. On one workday, sweating and tired, a volunteer turned to me and sighed. “Tell me again–why are we doing this?”

I can’t remember exactly what I said. But this is what I wish I’d said.

Just a few hundred years ago, more than half of Illinois was prairie.

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Settlers moved in,  looking for adventure and a better life. Agriculture and the John Deere plow soon turned prairies into acres of corn and soybeans. There was good in this–we need places to live, and food to eat. But we didn’t remember to pay attention to what we were losing.

And when we forget to pay attention, our losses can be irreplaceable.

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For a while, it looked as if the prairie would become nothing more than a ghost. A distant memory.

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But, just as the tallgrass had all but vanished, a few people woke up to what we had. They panicked when they saw how little of the Illinois prairie was left…

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Then, they sounded an alarm to save those few thousand acres of original tallgrass that remained.

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They persuaded others to reconstruct prairies where they had disappeared, and to restore degraded prairies back to vibrant health. Soon, prairie wildflowers and their associated insects returned. Purple milkweed and bees…

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Wild quinine and tiny bugs…

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…the prairie’s roses and crab spiders…

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The drain tiles that piped the wet prairies dry were broken up.  The land remembered what it once was.

Dragonflies returned and patrolled the tallgrass.

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The rare glade mallow raised her blooms again in the marshy areas, with a critter or two hidden in her petals.

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These reconstructed and restored prairies are different, of course. Bison roam…

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…but within fenced units. Power lines and jet contrails scar the skies that were once marked only with birds and clouds. Today, you may see houses along the edges, where once the tallgrass stretched from horizon to horizon.

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It’s not perfect. But when we made a promise to future generations to bring back the prairies for them, we crossed a bridge of sorts.

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We put aside our own instant gratification.

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Every weed we pull; every seed we collect and plant, is in hopes that the Illinois prairie won’t be a ghost to the children who grow up in Illinois in the future.

Rather, it will be the landscape they love and call home.

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Photos (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; old barns, Flagg Township, Ogle County, IL; moon rising over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Scribner’s panic grass (Dicanthelium oligosanthes), The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo or false indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture rose (Rosa carolina) with a crab spider, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; child crossing the bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, I; sunset over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The introductory quote is from Look Homeward Angel, by Thomas Wolfe, an American novelist in the early 20th Century. This quote is used to describe the lost prairie by John Madson in his seminal book on tallgrass, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.

May Daze on the Prairie

“The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.” — Edwin Way Teale

On a sunny day in May, find a high place to survey the tallgrass prairie.

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Look for the lovely lupine, which paints patches of the prairie purple.

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Hike a trail, and hunt for May-apples. Gently lift an umbrella-like leaf and observe how the flower transitions to fruit.

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Prairie phlox blooms pinwheel through the grasses. Makes you want to do a cartwheel, doesn’t it?

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The smooth, milky-white meadow anemones lift their petals to the sunshine.

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Cream wild indigo is in full bloom; white wild indigo, looking like spears of asparagus, promises to follow. Soon. Soon.

 

Shooting stars flare, reflex their petals, fade; then move toward their grand seed finale.

 

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Wild geraniums finish their explosions of blooms and form seeds, with a tiny insect applauding the performance.

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Wild coffee shows tiny reddish-brown flowers, ready to open.

 

A few blooms of American vetch splash the grasses with magenta…

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…while the new buds of pale beardtongue dip and sway, ghost-like in the breeze.

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Have you been to the prairie yet this month? No? Go!

You won’t want to miss the flower-filled, dazzling days of May.

Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980) , whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL. He is best known for “The American Seasons;” four books chronicling his trips across the U.S. His book, Near Horizons (1943),  won the John Burroughs medal for natural history writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Clear Creek Knolls, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grassslands, Franklin Grove, IL; May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemones(Anemone canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata) and wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and a pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two views of wild coffee (late horse gentian) (Triosteum perfoliatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American vetch (Vicia americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale beardtongue (penstemon) (Penstemon pallidus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Stories from the Tallgrass

Walk with me on the prairie.

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Listen. For the prairie is a storyteller.

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After a baptism by fire each spring…

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…it appears to be defeated. And yet.

 

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It reminds us that resurrection from the darkest night of the soul is possible.

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We learn from the prairie about reliance. The grasses and flowers depend on prescribed burns each season to keep the tallgrass open. The frequent fires make make the prairie the best it can be: over the long haul.

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The prairie tells us stories of resilience.

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The prairie grasses and wildflowers plunge their roots deep into the black soil. Anchored and nourished through drought, wind, fire, and flood, they survive–and thrive.

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The prairie tells us about the value of diversity. That nothing is too small, ignored, or overlooked to be important.

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We need every grass and flower.  Each shaggy mammal.

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Every tiny insect. 

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There is violence and suffering on the prairie…

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but we see the bigger picture. Redemption.

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Listen to the prairie. Draw from it strength and the courage to keep moving forward.

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Discover what stories the prairie has for you. 

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And in the listening, find comfort and peace.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge with Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Glen Ellyn, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild white indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie willow (Salix humilis humilis), Schulenberg Prairie right before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie plantain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; regal fritillary, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  12-spotted skimmer, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloud break over the author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; boardwalk over prairie fen, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; path through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

It’s a fleeting pleasure: white flowers on the prairie in early June.

Saucy, fringed daisy fleabane. A little weedy? Yes. But cheerful all the same.

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Lacy, delicate meadow rue.

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Humble bedstraw.

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Graceful anemone.

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But the real show-stopper on the Illinois prairie this week is white wild indigo.

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Although its new growth looks like asparagus; ironically, white wild indigo is in the legume family, Fabaceae, sometimes called the pea or bean family.

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Asparagus and bean allusions not withstanding, early settlers were wary of the indigo, as its foliage is toxic enough to kill grazing horses and cattle.

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White wild indigo’s scientific name is Baptisia leucantha or Baptisia alba. Baptisia’s name comes from the Greek, bapto, “to dye.”   But the source of the dye that colors your blue jeans once came mainly from tropical plants in the genus Indigofera, although other species of Baptisia were also once used to dye textiles. Today, indigo dye is almost always made synthetically. White wild indigo is also known as false white indigo. The word “false” indicates that it is not the “true” indigo of the tropics.

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False it may be. But it is truly this week’s extravagant offering of the Illinois tallgrass prairie. Next week, the spikes of white may be gone, their blooms finished for another season.

Why not see them while you can?

All photos by Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (from top to bottom) Daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) ; northern bedstraw, Galium boreale; meadow anemone, Anemone canadensis; white wild indigo (Baptisia leucantha or Baptisia alba macrophyllaor even Baptisia lacteal);white wild indigo; edge of Schulenberg Prairie and savanna; white wild indigo.

Information about indigo as a blue dye comes from http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/landscape/flowers/hgic1184.html and http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_baau.pdf