Saturday, November 19, 2016

Texture:The Autumn Prairie

The first flakes of snow blew through this morning. It's been a couple of days of high winds heralding the end of autumn and the arrival of winter. I've been soaking in the textures of the prairie this November. The dried leaves, flowers, and seedheads have left a ghost of the plant, often to stunning results.

Silphium terebinthinaceum, prairie dock
Prairie dock has dried into huge deep brown handkerchiefs curled into fantastic shapes. Their sandpapery leaves now showcase their large pores and elegant veins. They rattle in the wind like a clutch of gossiping ladies.

Silphium perfoliatium, cup plant
Cup plant's daisy flowers have dried into pale ghosts of their golden glory. It's sturdy leaves still wrap around the beefy stems, only more fragile and melancholy.
Silphium laciniatum, compass plant

Like frozen dancers, the leaves of compass plant twist in impossible contortions. They are woven through the grasses, stealthy in their pavanes. These stiff leaves and sturdy stems are unbending in the relentless winds. They clatter and cackle with abandon, not caring who hears them.

Goldenrod in full fluff
In contrast, goldenrod's fluffy poofs of faded flowers and fuzzy seedheads dot the ocean of grass and dip with the breeze. They are holding their seeds tight, still, unwilling to release them to the chances of weather and storm. Tawny cotton candy, their bounce adds buoyancy to the prairie.
Asclepias syriaca, common milkweed

The monarchs have fled to the balmy air of Mexico and the milkweed releases its bounty to the breeze. I have always been fascinated by the many textures of milkweed pods. The silky hairs of the seeds call out to be stroked. Ice and snow cling dramatically to the nubby pods. This milkweed feels abandoned to its fate now that the seeds have dispersed.

Like this bit of seed and down, I am caught. Captured by the textured of the prairie, I am drawn to reflect on how these living breathing plants have become elegant skeletons. The birds still descend upon their seeds. The rabbits hide in their fronds and muskrats harvest them for homes. But for now, they are arrested, halted, frozen. Their small sculptures give a subtle punctuation to the landscape. Their bare leaves and branches await the lacy limn of frost and snow.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fallen Stars of Autumn

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Autumn stars have fallen to earth - as asters! October brings us a treasure trove of brilliant daisy-like flowers in a rainbow of colors. Smashing paired with grasses and evergreen shrubs, asters can be found from shade to sun. I love them for their late season color, but also because they are a last feeding stop for pollinators.

Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum)

We are blessed with a large variety of native asters in Illinois as well as a huge selection of cultivars on the market. The native asters can be quite rambunctious. I find that if you pinch them back in July, they will be much more bushy in habit and bloom later for an extended season.

'October Skies' aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies')

I do have a soft spot for one cultivar of aster -'October Skies'. This stunning large rounded plant features quarter-sized soft blue flowers with golden centers. I like to run my hands over the foliage as it is particularly fragrant. As with any aster, it is beloved by bees.

There are tall asters like Drummond's (Symphyotrichum drummondii) which can grow deep in the woods. There are tiny asters like heath aster 'Snow Flurry' (Symphyotrichum ericoides 'Snow Flurry') which is a groundcover that forms a soft wave of tiny white blossoms on needle-like foliage. There are robust plants like New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) that resemble a shrub. With so many to chose from, they are easy to add to a perennial border or native landscape. The bees and migrating butterflies will thank you!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Benefits of Thunderstorms

Rolling in over the prairie...

One of the benefits of living in the Midwest and having a rural commute is I get to experience a lot of big sky. Huge sweeping panoramas of clouds, sunrises, sunsets, and thunderstorms. It's been a terrific summer for the big boomers. I haven't had to water anything but the plants in containers. There is something magnetic about the majestic scope of a supercell rolling over your head.


We love a good thunderstorm and are known to turn off all the house lights just to watch a lightning show. Not only does a storm bring needed rain, that lightning plays an important part in the garden. It ionizes nitrogen which then falls to earth and is readily absorbed by plants. You might notice that your lawn will green up after a thunderstorm and put on some extra growth. That little extra shot of nitrogen did the trick.

Another benefit of thunderstorms are rainbows. This was a particularly bright one and I didn't notice until I pulled it up that it has a faint double. Now this is the parking lot of the grocery store, and I was surprised that I was the only one pausing a moment to savor this stunner of a rainbow. If Mother Nature is going to put on a show, I like to take a minute and appreciate it. It's garish and loud and an exuberant reminder of the clash of water and electricity. The final fireworks of a summer show.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Now Is the Season For Insects

Tiger swallowtail on Liatris spicata

This year August has brought back the big butterflies. I've got monarch eggs on the milkweed finally and I've tallied more than 35 so far this year. 35 is a high number it seems, but I've been out photographing sites for work, which means spending a lot of time in prairies, woods, and wetlands. Need a butterfly fix? Head to the prairie or bring a piece to your own backyard.

I've planted the raingarden primarily in native prairie plants because their deep roots hold the soil in place and absorb more water. This year, many of them have reached the three year mark so I have a bevy of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), gayfeather (Liatris spicata), bee balm (Monarda sp.), blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia sp.) attracting a wealth of insects. Not to mention a lot of milkweed.

Zabulon skipper on Rudbeckia

The swallowtails have been casing out the place, although I haven't found a caterpillar - yet. We have a smattering of skippers, tons of bees, wasps, flies, bugs, and spiders. It's been remarkable how determined the bees are to get to the nectar of the bee balm. There are only a few florets left here and there, and still, they are magnets. Some bee species cut into the base of the flower for a quick sip instead of trying to negotiate the long tubular florets. Adding a few native plants really does make a difference!

Skipper on Echinacea

Crab spider defending its territory.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pretties from the Prairie

Pictured clockwise from top: Ratibida pinnata, Monarda fistulosa, Helianthus helianthoides, Silphium terebinthinaceum, and Echinacea purpurea

As you may have noticed, activity on this blog has been spotty at best. Why? I've been working hard on trying to wrap up my first novel. I'm in the last stages, so it claims quite a bit of attention.

However, my regular job still involves lots and lots of prairies. I'm lucky to have one right outside my office window. I've just come back from a four day national conference on prairies and all that dwells within them where I got to meet some amazing people and reconnect with colleagues.

Because I have a big beautiful prairie to play in, I can indulge in my fascination with flowers. This is my desk bouquet. I keep a couple of vases in the office because life is better with blossoms up close and personal. The nursery staff likes to bring me ones that have broken off or been cut back. Some species do well in a vase and some go downhill almost instantly.

The coneflower in the raingarden has burst into bloom as well, so I have lots of composite flowers decorating home and office. I don't deadhead the purple coneflowers as I do the daisies because the finches will snack on the seeds come fall.

I encourage you to pick a posy to brighten your inside space! Sometimes it's really important to stop and smell the roses. To pause. To notice. To listen and pay attention and let the seconds tick slowly by while you count the petals.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Janustory - Wrap Up

It's been a crazy tradeshow week, so I haven't been posting. Here's the last threads of the little experiment I call Janustory:

27.       Running up to the tip of the highest hill and back each day, I am finding new muscles that constantly complain, ignoring the need for constant vigil.

28.       I am heartily sick of cold crab meat, but they are the easiest to catch in the myriad tide pools that are lined with colorful anemones and starfish.

29.       Having decided that this poor island may be my forever home, I’m headed into the trees to find more permanent shelter, yet I cannot give up hope of rescue.

30.       At last, at last, a beautiful big industrial freight ship has spotted my giant whipping flames and is turning rapidly about towards my solitary island, searching for this lonely traveler.

31.       As I watch the retreating frothing waves, I remember my long days and shimmering star-filled nights, but my heart lifts like the bouncing bow at my return to my dearest love.
This has been great fun to create and has really helped spark creativity elsewhere. Not to mention, re-start this blog. I hope you have enjoyed the journey!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Janustory - Day 26

Today's installment: Will I miss this stretched out solitary time, filled with searing sun, diamond stars, and a bone white moon that calls my name at darkest midnight? #janustory #wordcount26

Winter makes me want to hide away in my own little world. I do my best thinking while alone, which is why my hour commute on country roads is actually rather nice. I can tune out and let the brain simmer away on whatever problem. Yet, I still like to be connected. Today, a photo of a solitary spider - all alone, but still within a web.