Prairie Silhouette

A 4:23PM sunset really sneaks up on you. You’re enjoying the golden brown prairie hues and suddenly it’s nearly pitch black.

Blackberry Trail Blackberry Trail Blackberry Trail

The middle photo above is a naturalized stormwater detention basin burned this fall.
The following prairie plant silhouettes are from Blackberry Trail Forest Preserve in Kendall County, IL.

Blackberry Trail Silphium perfoliatum cup plant winter silhouette

Silphium perfoliatum (cup plant)

Blackberry Trail Sorghastrum nutans indiangrass winter silhouette

Sorghastrum nutans (indiangrass)

Blackberry Trail Andropogon gerardii big bluestem turkeyfoot winter silhouette

Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem, more lovingly known as turkeyfoot)

Blackberry Trail Ratibida pinnata grey-headed coneflower winter silhouette

Ratibida pinnata (grey-headed coneflower)

Blackberry Trail Panicum virgatum switchgrass winter silhouette

Panicum virgatum (switchgrass)

Fall Prairie at Jay Woods

New England aster at Jay Woods
One of the brightest prairie flowers blooming right now is New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), here with the ellipsoid (egg-shaped) seed heads of grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), whose seeds, by the way, smell pleasant enough to rid your hands of snake musk if you ever happen to be looking to remove that particular odor from your hands.

Fall prairie at Jay Woods

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), more grey-headed coneflower, with stiff and tall goldenrods (Solidago rigida and altissima) in the background.

Jay Woods Forest Preserve Bing Maps Kendall County

Jay Woods is a charming little forest preserve in northwest Kendall County. The western half is a restored prairie while the eastern half is a remnant woodland through which the Little Rock Creek flows.

Illinois Public Land Survey Map Jay Woods Forest Preserve
The Public Land Survey maps show stark lines between what they deem “timber” and “prairie,” but these lines would have been more blurred in reality, with a mosaic of oak openings in the transition from woodland to prairie. As an aside, in recently exploring these township plats, I’ve been amazed by the amount of woodlands that were cleared for agricultural purposes. Joel Greenberg notes in his wonderful book, A Natural History of the Chicago Region:

“For many immigrants used to forest, there was a strong prejudice against treeless scapes; lands that were incapable of supporting trees could hardly be suitable for agriculture.” (pg 39)

Knowing America

Wolf Road Prairie Prairie Dock Blazing Star Rattlesnake Master

The following is a quote by notable botanist Gerould Wilhelm, in the book A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenburg. He is recounting an early experience from his time with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, assessing whether different areas were suitable (low-quality enough) to dump dredge materials.

We visited thirteen sites that day. At each, Floyd [Swink] would rattle off the Latin names of 50 or 60 species, all Eurasian or native weeds. I saw sticks and rabbit poop. Floyd couldn’t make it the next day so I went with Ray Schulenberg, who would do the same thing: listing off in Latin all these weedy plants. (Although I didn’t know what they looked like, by now the names were becoming familiar.) But when we were finished with each location, he would say: “You can spoil here. You can’t hurt it, it will grow back.”

On the afternoon of the third day, we reached spoil site C-2. We stepped across this black mustard berm when Ray stopped dead in his tracks and just looked. In a more hushed voice, he said, “Here is Sporobolus heterolepis, Petalostemum purpureum, Petalostemum candidum, Parthenium integrifolium, Potentilla arguta, and Silphium laciniatum.”

I got weak in the knees. Oh lord, I looked at the place and saw America. I knew that this guy was able to identify America by its plants. I collapsed emotionally and decided right then and there that I didn’t want to live another day without knowing whether I was in America; whether I could spoil or whether I couldn’t.

Photo my own, from Wolf Road Prairie, July 2012. Prairie dock, blazing star, grey-headed coneflower, rattlesnake master, and more.