Tag Archives: wild bergamot

The Trouble With Milkweed

“We have to convince the nursery industry that native plants are about more than just looks.” — Doug Tallamy

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Lately, I’ve been diving into seed and plant nursery catalogs. Making elaborate lists. Planning new pollinator gardens. Is there a better way to spend these rainy April days? Other than going for a hike, of course!

Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As I thumb through the catalogs, planning to plant more prairie at home, I’m amazed at the number of “native” plants now on offer. Natives are hot, hot, hot! I wonder if the push for us to support monarch butterflies, native bees, and other pollinators may be having a positive influence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, 2016.

As I flip the catalog pages, I take a closer look. Wait a minute. I know this plant—the wonderful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a favorite of mine in my backyard prairie patch and a magnet for monarch butterflies and monarch caterpillars. But what is ‘Hello Yellow’ Milkweed? Hmmm… . Not the orange version I see on the prairies in the summer.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2014).

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed, is another favorite of mine. It loves the wet spots in my backyard prairie planting and attracts plenty of monarchs. I page through another nursery catalog and there it is. Or…is it? The scientific name is the same. But it’s called ‘Soulmate’ Butterfly Flower. And here it is again…yet another catalog lists the same scientific name, but the milkweed is white and called Swamp Milkweed ‘Milkmaid.’ Is this the same plant I see on my prairie hikes?

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Are these native milkweeds? Do I want them in my garden?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2021).

What’s in a name, anyway? As it turns out…a lot.

Many cultivars—sometimes called nativars— are popping up in garden catalogs, right alongside the native plants (or even touted as natives). It’s confusing isn’t it?

Purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2017).

Time to begin searching for more information.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Some of these “native” plants in the catalogs are cultivars, or sometimes called nativars. Cultivars are—simply put—a species that has been selected for certain traits, such as a particular color, and then bred to ensure the subsequent plants of that species exhibit those traits. On the positive side, many native plant cultivars have increased vigor. That’s good, right? As a gardener, I like that in a plant. But does it perform in the same way, if it finds its way to our natural areas?

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I’m not sure we know. Yet.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL (2020).

How can you spot a native that’s a cultivar or nativar? A good clue here is a fancy name, vibrant color, a doubled flower, or a larger-than-normal size. Look for a cute name in quote marks (i.e., Echinacea purpurea ‘Purple Passion’). These native cultivars may appeal to gardeners who want more jazzy blooms than the native itself might offer. Echinacea —coneflowers—often get this treatment. Evidently milkweeds are getting it too. And why, I wonder, when the native itself is so pretty?

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I continue looking for information, and learn multiple sources recommend avoiding double-flowered native plant offerings, as they can be tough for pollinators to gain access to pollen and nectar. Some cultivars of particular species may not set seeds. As seeds are valuable for wildlife, this seems like a missed opportunity.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2020).

I also learn that cultivars that have purple or red leaves may be tougher for caterpillars to feed on. The National Wildlife Federation also notes, “Presumably, the more variegation (in foliage), the less nutritious the plants are for wildlife.” Does this mean none of my plants should have variegated foliage or have purple leaves? Of course not. But learning about these plant features reminds me to be intentional when I plant. My desire for these attractive features would need to be balanced by including other wildlife-friendly plants. And in my small yard, how much room do I want to give to plants that aren’t pollinator or wildlife-friendly?

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2020).

I found this article compelling from the National Wildlife Federation: “Native, or Not So Much?” It includes a wonderful interview with Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, and helped me clarify my thinking as I prepared my catalog order.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I also appreciated this article: The Nativar Conundrum. It reminded me that cultivars can offer us disease resistance and bigger fruits in garden plants, like trees and shrubs. There are benefits! But there is so much we still have to learn about native prairie plants and cultivars. For now, with my prairie natives, I will choose the originals first. Until we know more, I’d rather stay with the tried and true. I’m not ready to trade in the original species. I’ll like to know more about the impact of the fancier cultivars on pollinators—and our prairie communities.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Which brings us back to the milkweeds. While deciding what milkweeds to plant this season, I learned all milkweeds are not necessarily beneficial to monarchs when planted in my state. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is a great example, as it is not native to the United States, and has been noted as detrimental to monarch butterflies when planted in the Midwest. Monarchs love tropical milkweed—and their caterpillars seemingly flourish on it. When I read this article from Xerces Society, I learned the damage this beautiful milkweed may cause the monarch population, including breeding confusion, potential toxicity to caterpillars as our climate changes, and migration interference. Who wants to be a part of that?

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Back to the catalogs. There are so many tempting “natives” to consider buying! But–because I receive a lot of catalogs from all over the United States, many of the “natives” they list aren’t native to the place where I live. Yes, even some milkweeds! If I’m not sure about a plant, a good source for determining if a plant is native to my area is to use the USDA website. I’m also leery of the “prairie mixes” touted by various catalogs. So many of the species aren’t native to my region. Better to buy the species I know.

Are all my garden plants native? No! I have a mix of about 70 percent natives in my garden and 30 percent traditional garden plants. I doubt I could part with my zinnias!

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Cut-and-Come-Again Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But I want to continue increasing my native plant percentages. And I want to know what I’m buying—is it the “true native” or a cultivar?—and make my decisions thoughtfully and intentionally. Every plant I grow needs to earn its place in the garden. I’m still learning about native cultivars, and as more studies are done, I’ll keep an open mind. The trouble right now is we just don’t have enough information.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2019).

With milkweeds, I’m finding the decision this spring is easy. In Illinois, there are more than 20 species of milkweed native to our state. A good list of milkweeds found in the Chicago region is listed here from Wild Ones. Or click here for the list of milkweeds found in Illinois, and to see images of these beautiful monarch magnets.

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

Seeing these lists makes my milkweed buying decision easy this spring. No trouble at all. With so many beautiful native milkweeds available to me, why settle for less than the real thing?

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The opening quote is from Janet Marinelli’s National Wildlife Federation interview with Doug Tallamy, which can be found at Native, or Not So Much? All of us who love the prairie need to keep learning and keep an open mind as new developments occur in the native plant arena, and work toward a healthier, more diverse natural world that benefits all creatures. Tallamy’s books are excellent reads, including Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks. Thanks also to Lonnie Morris of DuPage Monarchs, who brought the tropical milkweed issue to my attention.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in April! (Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more).

Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL. Open to the public (in person). Click here for details.

Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online only, and open to the public. Register here.

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

A Time for Prairie Wonder

“Sudden swarm of snail clouds, brings back the evening’s symmetry.” –Mykola Vorobyov

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Sunday marked the end of astronomical winter, as the vernal equinox signaled the transition to spring. The earth spins on its axis, balancing day and night. For a few months ahead, the hours of light will outnumber the hours of darkness.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Temperatures soar into the 70s. Spring bulbs, planted as solace during that first pandemic autumn, wake up and unfurl their colors: purple, lemon, cream. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem Peonies in which she asked, “Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden“? Yes! As I start the coffee, I glimpse a new crocus or jonquil from the kitchen window and rush outside to see it. Welcome back! The return of these flowers reminds me it’s the two-year anniversary of the lock down in Illinois.

Jonquils (Narcissus sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Two years! So much has happened.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve come a long way. Uncertainty still shadows our days.

Prairie and savanna burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We dig deep. Find resilience. When it isn’t enough, we dig deeper and scrape up more.

But we’re tired.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

We hang on. What else can we do?

Marcescent leaves on an oak , Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

As I read the newspaper each morning, my thoughts drift to halfway across the globe.

Sunflower (Helianthus sp.), the national flower of Ukraine, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

How do we make sense of the senseless? The world seems ripped apart.

Spider silk, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Global pandemics. War. Uncertainty. They remind me to cherish each moment.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman writes: “So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

It takes so little to wake up to wonder. But that “little extra energy” feels drained by the past two years. And yet. I don’t want to squander this time I’ve been given.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

What a joy it is to have the freedom to rise in the morning and go for a walk, just to admire the world! To look at the sky. To appreciate the clouds, or hunt for the first shoots of new plants. This week, I’ve been reminded of what a privilege it is.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

There is so much I can’t do. But no matter what is happening in the world, I can pay attention to the beauty around me, no matter how small.

Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I’m looking for signs of change. Memos of hope.

Blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

The days pass so quickly. But I can make these moments count.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Cultivating hope this week means digging deep for that “extra energy” to pay attention, even if it’s only a moment in the garden, time at the kitchen window watching the birds, or taking five minutes to admire the sunset. I don’t know any other way to make sense of the senseless.

Sunset, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I only know I need to stay present to these moments of wonder.

Keep walking. Keep looking. Stay awake.

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The opening quote is a line from Ukrainian poet Mykola Vorobyov (1941-) from the poem Muddy Shore in his collection, “Wild Dog Rose Moon” (translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk). Vorobyyov studied philosophy at the University of Kiev in the 1960s, but was expelled and then monitored by the KGB, who refused to let him publish his work. Today, he is the author of four poetry collections and two children’s books.

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Join Cindy for a class or program (see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more)

March 26, 10-11:30 am — Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers at Brookfield Garden Club, Brookfield, IL. (Closed event for members only, to inquire about joining the club, click here.)

March 28, 7-8:30pmAdd a Little Prairie to Your Garden at Grayslake Greenery Garden Club, Grayslake, IL. Contact the club here for details.

Three Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez

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I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.

Wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Really?

Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.

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  1. Interesting Plants

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.

Carrion flower (Smilax sp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?

Indian Hemp/Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.

2. The Joy of Tracking

Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.

Along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?

Tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who took a frigid plunge?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.

3. The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements

Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.

Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Bundle up.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.

Iced-over trail at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.

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Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams (1986), which is still my favorite of his works.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)

The Prairie in December

“I wish you peace, when the cold winds blow….”— Patti Davis and Bernie Leadon

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Strange weather. Crazy headlines. The holidays. I’ve been caught up in a baking frenzy, turning out cinnamon rolls, Italian Christmas cookies, and bread. Lots of bread. All good—but if I’m going to bake—I need to hike. And nowhere is hiking better than the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What about you? Why not come along? Enjoy a stress-free hour. Blow those stressful headlines out of your mind. On the prairie, your biggest decision is not what size/what color/how much and “will it arrive in time?” Rather, it’s…

Which trail should I take?

Bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Or, Which aster is that?

Unknown aster (Asteracea sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Take a deep breath. Listen. What’s that sound? Perhaps it’s the ice cracking under your boots.

Ice on the trail, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The hushed whisper of wind stirring the tallgrass.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Or the chick-a-dee-dee-dee song rising from a tiny fluff-ball in the prairie shrubs.

Black capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Prairie Walk and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL. (2017)

So many wonders are all around, changing from moment to moment. Simple things, like a jet etch-a-sketching its way across the prairie sky, leaving contrails in its wake.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The accordion shape of a December prairie dock leaf.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look for its soul-sister, compass plant, aging gracefully nearby.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Go ahead. Look. Really look. Let it soak in.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Admire the prairie in its December garb, from a single leaf…

Pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…to its chorus of spent wildflowers…

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…to the reflections in a prairie stream.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Then, find some milkweed floss.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Thank the plant for its service to monarchs this year. Pluck a single seed, make a wish, and send that seed on its way.

Common milkweed floss (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

As it travels on the wind, let your worries and stresses go with it.

Indian hemp, sometimes called dog bane (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Then, pause. Tuck away this memory for later, when you need a good one.

Great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Here’s wishing for a peaceful week ahead for you. Enjoy the hike.

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The opening quote is from Patti Davis’ and Bernie Leadon’s song, “I Wish You Peace,” sung by the Eagles on their album, One of These Nights. Disagreement over including the song on that album is said to be one of the last straws that led to Bernie leaving the group; he was replaced by Joe Walsh. Oddly enough, Patti Davis is the daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, which was said to be another part of the dispute. An interesting story about how she came to write a song for the Eagles can be found here. “I Wish You Peace” is often dismissed as a “trite and smarmy” song, but Jeff and I had it sung at our wedding, almost 40 years ago. Still love it.

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Seven years ago, I penned “Tuesdays in the Tallgrass” for the first time and invited you to come along for a hike each week. Where did the time go? Thanks for reading, and thanks for your love of the natural world. And thank you for sharing prairie, and keeping the tallgrass alive in people’s hearts and minds. I’m grateful.

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Join me in 2022 for a prairie program! Visit www.cindycrosby.com for current class and program listings. Need a speaker for your event, class, or program? See the website for more information.

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.” —Barbara Brown Taylor

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Late November.

Sandhill cranes cry high above the prairie, scribbling indecipherable messages in the sky. They’re on the move south.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Glen Ellyn, IL (Spring 2021).

I’ll scan the skies the next few weeks, admiring them as they leave. The prairie skies will be emptier this winter when they’re gone. Months from now, I’ll see them again, heading north in the spring. What will the world look like then? It’s impossible to know.

The prairie in November.

I hike the prairie, deep in thought. It’s so easy to focus on what is being lost. November, with its seasonal slide into long nights and short days, seems to invite that. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what is in front of me. What the season offers. Seeds. Everywhere, the prairie is an explosion of seeds.

Silky seeds.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Flat seeds.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

Silvery seedheads.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum).

Seeds like pom poms.

Savanna blazing star (Liatris scariosa nieuwlandii).

Seeds born aloft, in spent flower heads, like so many antenna.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Seedheads are skeletal. Architectural.

Sweet joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Seeds are impressionistic.

Bridge over Willoway Brook.

Seeds reflected.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

Seeds wind-directed.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

Bird-nibbled seeds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata).

Seeds feathered.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Seeds flying high in the prairie sky.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum).

Seeds caught in mid-fall. Almost there. Almost.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra) in American bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia).

The pandemic has dragged on and on. Just when I thought we’d turned a corner—almost!—it feels like we’re headed in the wrong direction again. Seems we’re not out of the woods yet.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

It’s easy to get distracted, worrying about the future. Sometimes my mind turns over my fears in a relentless cycle. Reading the newspaper over breakfast just fuels the fire. I forget to remind myself of all I have to be grateful for.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum.

Family. Friends. Food on the table. A roof over my head. This prairie to help care for.

Schulenberg Prairie entrance, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It helps me to list these things. And then, to remind myself what’s good and lovely in the world.

Bridge over Willoway Brook.

I’m thankful to see the prairie seeds.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

They remind me that another season has passed.

Oak (Quercus spp.) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

A new season is just months away. Seeing the prairie give its energy to creating life through its seeds fills me with hope. Such a cycle! What a marvel.

The prairie in November.

Here, in the tallgrass, I see a world full of color. Motion. Sound. Beauty. The only tallgrass headlines are “Wow!”

The prairie in November.

How wonderful it is to be alive.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

I walk, and I look, and I walk some more. How amazing to have the luxury of going to a beautiful place, with time just to think. How grateful I am to have a strong knee now, to take me down these trails that just three years ago gave me tremendous pain to hike.

Prairie two-track.

How overwhelmed with thanks I am that my body is cancer-free, after two years of uncertainty and fear. How grateful I am for this reprieve. There are no guarantees. We can only, as the late writer Barry Lopez wrote, keep “leaning into the light.”

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum).

Your list of worries is probably different than mine. So, I imagine, is your list of what you’re thankful for. I hope this week finds you in a good place. I hope you have your own list of what brings you joy, in the midst of whatever you are dealing with.

The prairie in November.

This week I’m going to put aside my worries about the future. I’m going to focus on joy. There’s a lot to be thankful for. The prairie reminds me of this. I hope you can go for a hike, wherever you find yourself, and be reminded, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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All photos this week unless otherwise noted are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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The opening quote is from Barbara Brown Taylor’s (1951-) An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She is also the author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and many other books.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

Little Prairie in the Industrial Park

“Don’t it always seem to go—That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”–Joni Mitchell

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What a beautiful week in the Chicago Region.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

An excellent excuse to hike the West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s been a while since I’ve walked here. The 358-acre tallgrass preserve is off the beaten path, nestled into an industrial complex. Overhead, planes from the nearby DuPage Airport roar…

Small plane over West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

…while a long, low, whistle sounds from a train going by. The Prairie Path, a 61-mile hiking and biking trail that spans three counties, runs along one side of the prairie.

I look to the horizon. Development everywhere.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

It’s a reminder that this prairie is a part of the suburbs. People and prairie co-exist together.

Fall color has arrived. At last.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

My shoulders brush the tallgrass and spent wildflowers as I hike the challenging narrow grass trails.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

The spent seeds of goldenrod and other decaying plant flotsam and jetsam cling to my flannel shirt.

West Chicago Prairie hiking trail, West Chicago, IL.

I stop and pop a withered green mountain mint leaf into my mouth.

Common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Mmmm. It still packs a little tang. Not as intense as the flavor was this summer, but still tangible and tasty.

Wild bergamot, another tasty plant, rims the trail. A close examination shows insects have commandeered the tiny tubed seed heads. At least, I think something—or “somethings” are in there? A few of the “tubes” seem to be sealed closed. A mystery.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Maybe seeing these seed heads is a memo from Mother Nature to me to not be overly diligent in my garden clean-up this fall. Insects are overwintering in my native plants. As a gardener, I always struggle with how much plant material to keep and how much to compost or haul away. I’m always learning. Although I just cleaned up one brush pile, and still do some garden clean-up—especially in my vegetable garden—I now leave my prairie plants standing until early spring. One reward: I enjoy my backyard bergamot’s whimsical silhouette against the background of the snow through the winter.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I pinch a bit of the spent flowerhead and get a whiff of thymol. Bergamot is in the mint family. See that square stem? Thymol is its signature essential oil. I think bergamot smells like Earl Grey tea. Confusing, since the bergamot found in my Lipton’s isn’t the same. (Read about the bergamot used in Earl Grey tea here.) Some people say wild bergamot smells like oregano.

It’s cold, but the sun is hot on my shoulders. Even the chilly wind doesn’t bother me much. I’m glad I left my coat in the car.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

If I look in three directions, I can almost believe all the world is prairie. Yet, in one direction I see large buildings and towers; a reminder this prairie co-exists with many of the systems we depend on for shipping, agriculture, and transportation.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

After the mind-numbing battle to save Bell Bowl Prairie in October (see link here), a trip to West Chicago Prairie is an excellent reminder that industry, development, and prairies can co-exist. Kudos to the DuPage County Forest Preserve, the West Chicago Park District, and the West Chicago Prairie volunteers who keep the prairie thriving, even while it occupies what must certainly be costly land that could easily be developed.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

We need these prairie places.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

And, these prairie preserves need us to care for them. To manage them with fire. To clear brush. To collect and plant prairie seeds. Hiking this preserve today reaffirms that we can have prairie—and development—together.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

I hope future generations will look back and see we did all we could to protect our last remaining prairies for them.

Mullein foxglove (Dasistoma macrophylla), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Here in the “Prairie State,” let’s continue to make our prairie preserves a priority. Our need for infrastructure and development go hand in hand with our need for these last prairie places.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

Our minds, bodies, and spirits benefit from hikes in the tallgrass. I feel more relaxed and less stressed after my prairie hike today.

Thanks, West Chicago Prairie.

West Chicago Prairie, West Chicago, IL.

You’re a good reminder that prairies and people need each other.

*****

The opening lines of today’s blog are from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell (1943-). Listen to her sing the full song here, then read more about her life and music here.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

November Arrives on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Show’s over, folks. And didn’t October do a bang-up job? Crisp breezes, full-throated cries
of migrating geese, low-floating coral moon. Nothing left but fool’s gold in the trees.” —Maggie Dietz

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It’s transition week on the prairie.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL.

This past weekend in the Chicago region we had our first freeze warning. In my garden, I’ve long given up on the tender perennials. Basil and zucchini were zapped by frosts last week. But parsley, rainbow chard, and zinnias still hang on, as do some overlooked cherry tomatoes. I plucked infant “Giant Italian” green peppers from the plants, chopped and froze them. Then, I picked bowlfuls of hard green tomatoes which slowly ripen on the kitchen counter. Each one is a memory of a warmer season past.

October is over. Welcome, November.

Now, the leaves flame into color, then drift through the cold air like confetti in brisk winds.

Maple (Acer sp.), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now, the late prairie wildflowers transform to seed or are plundered by birds.

Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL.

Grasses, nibbled and worn by weather and wind, sprinkle their progeny on the prairie soil.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

It’s all about the seeds.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL.

And will be, until fire touches the dry grass and wildflowers. Months away.

Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In the mornings, I brew large carafes of coffee and sip slowly while reading the paper. The news is both encouraging—and disheartening. The pandemic seems to be winding down. Vaccines are widely available. And yet. As of November 1, more than 5 million have died from Covid-19. Who would have imagined this, just two years ago? Later, I pull out my journals and revisit those early days of March 2020, when the pandemic began. Wiping down groceries. Waving at our grandkids from the driveway. Counting how many rolls of toilet paper we had left. It’s been a long haul.

Searls Park Prairie at the end of October, Rockford, IL.

Despite the grim news, I feel hopeful going into the winter of 2021. Much more optimistic than I’ve been since the pandemic’s first days.

Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL.

There was good news over breakfast. On Monday, November 1, Chicago-Rockford International Airport was to bulldoze the Bell Bowl Prairie. At the eleventh hour, thanks to the tireless work of many dedicated people, it received a stay of execution until March 1, 2022. Perhaps not the type of closure we hoped for. But a step in the right direction. You can read more here.

Chicago-Rockford International Airport, home to Bell Bowl Prairie, Rockford, IL.

Hope. Optimism.

It feels good to tap into those emotions again.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The prairie walks I take are a part of that optimism. They’ve kept my spirits up through the pandemic. Kept me in touch with the wonders that are always all around, no matter how grim the headlines.

Road to Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL.

I hope wherever you find yourself, you’ll go for a walk today. Pause. Soak up whatever beauty you see.

Then, say a “thank you” for wonders, big and small. And “thank you” for a little good news.

******

The opening lines for today’s post are from the poem “November” by Maggie Dietz is a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her first book of poems, Perennial Fall, won the Jane Kenyon Award. Read more about Dietz here. She lives in New Hampshire.

*****

Thank you to everyone who helped write letters, make phone calls, create art, music, and poetry, and give time to the Save Bell Bowl Prairie campaign. The prairie isn’t safe yet, but there is hope for its future.

*****

Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (CST): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

July’s Backyard Prairie Adventures

“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver

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Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.

Unknown bee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.

Dew on grass blade, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2016).

I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.

Scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with a backdrop of gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.

Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I enjoy the July transitions.

A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.

Sunflower (Helianthus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.

Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii Boyer de Fonscolombe) on whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.

Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticallis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.

Variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.

If only we could be present to them all.

In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.

Cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum), with a couple of bees, Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), with gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

You, too?

*****

The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories.  Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.

August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.

*****

Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!

Chasing Dragonflies

Plant a Little Prairie

“There is, however, a way out of this mess…It is not only possible, but highly desirable from a human perspective to create living spaces that are themselves functioning, sustainable ecosystems with high species diversity.”—Douglas Tallamy

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You know you want to. Go ahead. Grow a few native prairie plants this summer.

I’m prepping this week to teach a class, “Plant a Backyard Prairie.” If I was re-titling the class, I’d probably call it “Plant a Little Prairie In Your Front Yard, Backyard, and Side Yard.” Prairie plants can be tucked in anywhere! If you live in the tallgrass prairie region, there are few things you can do in your yard that will give you such joy as adding a few of these intriguing natives.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But Cindy…. say some of my friends. I love my roses/clematis/iris. Or whatever. You know what? So do I. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to rip out your garden and begin again (although you can, if you’d like). Start small. Invite a few prairie plants to the garden. Choose a few you admire.See how they look mixed with traditional garden inhabitants.

Summer in the backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When we moved to our small suburban lot 22 years ago, it was barren of almost anything but Kentucky bluegrass. Odd, you might think, since the previous owners had built the house in 1968, and lived in it 30 years. If I was a betting woman, I’d guess they were shooting for low-maintenance. Easy to mow. Not much clipping or yard work to do. Four towering arborvitae were planted at the corners of the house. After decades, they hit the roof eaves and shot off in all directions. There were a few yews under the kitchen windows; typical sixties’ foundation plantings. Hostas. A burning bush. A barberry. We got rid of almost all of them. And, over time, a whole lot of lawn has been traded in for raised flowerbeds, vegetable beds, and prairie plantings.

Raised flower and vegetable bed, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I believe that native plants are the best choice for my yard, as they are adapted to the Midwest and nurture many species of birds, butterflies, bees, and other insects. But I also like what writer and gardener Marc Hamer writes in his new book, Seed to Dust: “The truth is always deeply buried in the middle, where it wanders about, vague and unsure of itself.” So don’t be surprised if you visit my backyard this summer and see zinnias. A whole lot of zinnias. They aren’t native to my Chicago region (but rather to Mexico, further south), but I have a deep affection for them, and delight in the bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies that flock to them in the summer.

I also have a couple of non-native peonies and clematis, some self-seeded violas, and a few roses (“The Fairy” is one of my favorites). Raised beds are full of seasonal vegetables. A tropical moonflower vine opens hand-sized vanilla-scented flowers at night during August; an event that sends me out to the patio each summer evening to oooh and ahhh and inhale.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But these plants—while they’ve earned a place in the garden—are not my majority stakeholders. Look again. Prairie dropseed lines the patio.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native butterfly milkweed and prairie smoke have a seat in the dry spot under the eaves, and gray-headed coneflowers, blazing star, black-eyed Susans, and anise hyssop mingle with non-natives autumn joy sedum and deep blue salvia. Great blue lobelia joins the show later in the summer.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Early in the year, non-native spring bulbs have their turn. Species tulips. Daffodils. Snowdrops. They pop up in the prairie dropseed, fill in the bare spots left by last year’s prairie ephemerals. The natives rub shoulders with the non-natives. Each was chosen for a reason.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) growing up through the prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Another place the natives and non-natives mix is our small, hand-dug pond with no liner—just suburban clay. It’s a wildlife magnet and dragonfly and damselfly favorite.

Great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It brims with cardinal flowers, marsh marigold, native iris, and blue lobelia.

Great blue lobelia (Cardinalis siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper butterfly (Polites peckius), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bullfrogs like it, too.

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Across the back of our property is a “prairie patch” full of taller and rougher prairie natives such as prairie dock, compass plant, prairie cordgrass, Joe Pye weed, and spiderwort. Culver’s root mingles with evening primrose. Cup plant takes as much of the lawn as I’ll give it. Near the queen of the prairie, we planted a pawpaw tree.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I try to be aware of why I choose each plant, shrub, or tree. Do the pollinators use it? Okay, the swamp milkweed earns a place over here. Is it a host plant for butterflies, or moths? The pawpaw tree takes a spot on the slope. Is it edible? I’ll let the kale and tomatoes have this raised bed. Does it offer winter interest? The wild bergamot stays on the hill where we can see it from the window.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) or beebalm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Does it offer birds protection from predators or severe weather, or give us privacy from nearby neighbors? Okay, I’ll leave one arborvitae on the corner of the house. Do I feel depressed sometimes in February? Sounds like a few early-blooming spring bulbs are in order, where I can see them from the house. What about beauty? Color? Structure? The deep purple clematis paired with the fire-engine red poppies and lavender catmint is a colorful and structural feast for the eyes—all three can stay, although they aren’t natives.

Poppies (Papaver orientale), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The shooting star would be lost in the bigger prairie patch, so we put it in a higher visibility area. Rattlesnake master is a native prairie plant with interesting structure and blooms, so it lives just off the porch where we can admire it all summer.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ve dubbed 2021 our “Year of the Native Shrubs” and a chunk of our garden budget went for just that. We’ve planted a battalion of native bush honeysuckles —Diervilla lonicera—on a bare, west-facing side of the house. We placed a hazelnut between two windows, and added a pair of spicebush for the butterflies in the perennial garden. Native witch hazel is sited on one side of the patio.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis sp.), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Next year, is the “Year of the Native Trees” and I’m already planning my purchases.

We’re still learning how to create a healthy yard. One fact I do know — the Kentucky bluegrass the Midwestern suburbs are so fond of demands heavy fertilizing, herbiciding, aeration, and watering. It’s an aesthetic choice, rather than a healthy choice. With this in mind, each year, our lawn grows a little smaller. We put in a few more natives and yes—a few more non-natives, too. We look for plants that are deep-rooted; those which sequester carbon. The yard has settled into a ratio of about 60 percent natives, 40 percent non-natives—if you don’t count the lawn. My hope is to swing it to more 70-30, but it will take some time, money, and deliberate intention.

I don’t have to let go of my zinnias. There’s also room for some spontaneous joy, like the bird-seeded asparagus or the impulse buy at the garden center. But I do want to be mindful of why I choose most of the plants I do—and that it isn’t just me that I’m planting for.

12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thinking ahead, I have plans—big plans. Our front yard needs a pollinator garden. What about bringing some of the prairie dropseed to the front? It’s a well-behaved plant, and shouldn’t raise any questions from the neighbors? Maybe I can take the old ornamental weigela out of the front yard, where they’ve been since we bought the house, and replace them with some shade-loving native shrubs next summer.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I keep reading, learning, and sifting through the arguments for making the best plant choices. There’s a lot to consider. A lot to sift through. I can’t make all the changes I want to overnight. Money and time don’t permit that. But I will continue trying to change our little suburban corner of the world as I read and learn about what makes my backyard a healthier place for insects, birds, and other members of the natural world. I’ll also keep working toward a backyard that delights the five senses, and offers joy in every season.

One plant at a time.

*****

Doug Tallamy (1951-) is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. He and his wife Cindy live in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

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Join Cindy for a program or a class online!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

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 Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, 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 with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon 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.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

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It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

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The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register 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. Register here.