Tag Archives: wild bergamot

The Prairie in Color

We come and go but the land will always be here.” —Willa Cather

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Just when I made a New Year’s resolution to learn the names of cloud types, a sheet of gray stratus clouds moved in last week. Gray. Gray. Gray. That was the story here. There’s something to be said for consistency, I suppose. On a walk with friends along the Fox River this weekend, I looked for color. A few mossy greens. Some russet leaves.

Creek through Bennett Park, Fox River, Geneva, IL.

The creek that ran to the river reflected that metallic, stratus-filled sky.

As we watched the Fox River slip by, even the birds seemed to lack color. The Canada geese were spiffed up in their yin-yang tuxedoes.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Common mergansers floated by, intent upon their errands, barely within the reach of my camera.

Common mergansers (Mergus merganser), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

In the distance, a few common goldeneyes floated just out of reach of my zoom lens. But wait—what’s this?

Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

A tundra swan! A bird I’ve never seen, and one of the more infrequent ones for Illinois. Our friends, who brought us here specifically for this reason, pointed out the ID markers which differentiate it from other swans, including a small amount of yellow on the bill.

Nearby, two other tundra swans floated under the flat, silvered sky.

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

I knew that later, hours of my afternoon would be spent reading more about these unusual birds, and trying to understand more about what we had seen.

The last bird of the morning turned out to be one of the metallica species.

Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Ha! Almost fooled me.

Along the shoreline, I spotted a few prairie plant favorites. Familiar, but still welcome. Wild bergamot mingled with evening primrose.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Blue vervain’s silhouette was set off by the river’s reflection of that silvered sky.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

And—is that a mallow? I love the cracked-open seed pods of mallow…perhaps it’s the native swamp rose mallow? iNaturalist thinks so, but I’m not completely sure.

Swamp rose mallow (Hibiscus grandiflorus), Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Plant identification in winter is always a challenge. If this is swamp rose mallow, it is a far cry from those beautiful pink blooms in the summer. (You can see them here.)

Thinking about swamp rose mallow reminds me of Pantone’s recent pick for “Color of the Year” — “Viva Magenta.”

Courtesy Pantone.

You can see why the swamp rose mallow would approve! Thinking about the mallow and its magenta leads me down the rabbit trail of other prairie magentas. After I posted the “Viva Magenta” color of the year announcement this week on Facebook, many folks chimed in with their favorite magentas in nature.

Prairie smoke.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI. (2019)

Prairie sunrises and sunsets…

College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018).

The deep, rich magenta of dogwood stems in winter.

Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL (2021).

The rich magenta of sumac-washed leaves in autumn.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

The bramble sharp branches of iced wild blackberry, which winds its way through the prairie, ripping and tripping.

Common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2021)

I think of the dragonflies I chase across the prairies in the summer’s heat. None of the Illinois’ species bring the color magenta to mind. But! I remember other dragonflies in other places, like this roseate skimmer in Tucson, Arizona.

Roseate skimmer dragonfly (Orthemis ferruginea), Sabino Canyon, Tucson, AZ. (2021)

Today, here on the Fox River, magenta isn’t much in evidence. But there’s joy in every bit of color along this river, no matter how subtle.

Fox River, Geneva, IL.

There is delight in remembering the times nature has exploded with “viva magenta” both in flight…

Roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island, FL. (2020)

…and in bloom.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus sp.), Captiva Island, Florida (2019).

And there is happiness in seeing some rarities that while, perhaps lacking in color, don’t lack for excitement and awe.

Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus) feather, Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Who knows what else January may bring? The new year is off to a great start.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from writer Willa Cather (1873-1947) from O Pioneers! Cather spent part of her childhood in Nebraska, and graduated from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She wrote compellingly about life on the prairies.

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. Class size is limited. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. For more information and to register visit here.

Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.

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Illinois Prairie needs you! Visit Save Bell Bowl Prairie to learn about this special place—one of the last remaining gravel prairies in our state —and to find out what you can do to help.

Special thanks to John and Tricia this week for showing us the tundra swans!

A Prairie Season on the Brink

“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger

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Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.

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

The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.

Early morning, first snowfall, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.

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

Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.

Snow on prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), early morning, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.

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

I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…

Celery (Apium graveolens), Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.

Bok choy (Brassica rapa subspecies chinensis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.

Rare irruption of common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) in March, 2022, feeding with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. Jeff and I counted hundreds of redpolls congregating at a time.

A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…silver…

Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…bronze…

Cream gentian (Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…dull aluminum and copper…

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…rust…

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

…steel…

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.

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

Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…looking forward to something new.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.

Sure, they can be rough.

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

But bring on the change.

Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.

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The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.

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Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

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Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.

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.

*****

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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?

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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.

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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