Tag Archives: winter prairie

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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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 (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.

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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.