Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Another DotD

Dragonfly of the Day: Blue Dasher. This is a female, thus she is not actually blue at all. The males are quite blue in the abdomen.

Some fun facts about dragonflies:
  • Their insect c lass, odonata, means tooth-jaw and actually refers to the aquatic nymph, rather than the ephemeral air-born adult. Dragonflies live underwater for a few months to five years, but generally spend less than a month living as adults. (The exception is migratory dragonflies, of which we have a few in Illinois.)
  • Dragonfly fossils have been found that allow scientists to place them on earth at least 300 MYA.
  • Some of these ancient dragonfly fossils have wingspans of over 2 feet, making them the largest insects ever to grace planet earth (that we know about). Today, the largest dragonfly species has a wingspan of about 7 inches, but you have to go to the tropics to see that.
  • Dragonflies' huge compound eyes have over 30,000 lenses and allow them a 360 degree field of vision.
  • Dragonflies can hover and even fly backwards. They catch insects on the wing (as opposed to their damselfly cousins, who sometimes eat insects right off of plants).

Monday, June 29, 2009


Twelve-spotted Skimmer (male).

This may have to be the last in the dragonfly of the day series. Although I have seen at least 3 more species in my yard, they are not all as cooperative to being photographed as others. So we'll see...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Daily Dragonfly, Drawing and More

Chicory is blooming on roadsides, its periwinkle flowers adding a new color to the weedy bouquet of medians and field edges. Chicory originally hails from Europe, where its roots have long been cooked, ground up, and used as a coffee substitute. This usage followed the plant across the pond, where people do still substitute the bitter root for exotic coffee beans.

Dragonfly of the day: this meadowhawk (and presumably a few of its buddies) have been hanging out around my yard of late. Its orange is quite striking, its movements darty, and its body more compact than the pondhawks pictured previously.

Bottlebrush grass is flowering; the tiny yellow grass flowers hang and blow in the breeze as though hardly attached at all.

In the garden, strawberries are finished, but snap peas are coming in strong -- we're getting large handfuls a day since Thursday. (Blurry) broccoli is starting to form flowerheads and will be ready soon, and cukes are tiny little mini-fruits.

And. It has been pointed out that I am the first to complain when it is too hot or cold or wet or windy, but fail to express gratitude when it is perfect. Today was perfect, weatherwise, and I am thankful to the weather gods for this -- I spent many hours outside. (Now if the weather gods could just chat with the mosquito gods...)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Daily Updates

Something is eating my nasturtiums. I am not entirely certain what...
but I found this guy on the most eaten of the leaves (shown above). Leafhoppers are vegetarians, so that could be the culprit.
Cinquefoil blooming (unbidden) in my garden.
Water lilies at CBG.
One of many endless varieties of susans/yellow composites that are just starting to bloom.
Rattlesnake master is getting quite tall. This is a fun prairie plant for several reasons. The most obvious to a reader is its name, derived from the rattling noise its seed heads will make in the wind (later in the summer). The most obvious to an observer is its strangely desert-plant-like appearance. With its spiky, almost succulent leaves, it would look more at home among aloes and agaves than big bluestem and blazing star, and yet, here it is.

Goose babies are beginning to look precisely like goose mommies and daddies. (Can you tell which is which? The two in the back, slightly larger, are the adults.)

Love Bugs

A lot of bugs are mating right now!
Beetle love.
Butterfly love.
OK, so this guy isn't mating right now. I included him because he is the male counterpart to yesterday's female pondhawk picture. (Note how different they look!!!) Also, I have been seeing a lot of odonates flying around together today...

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Bug Eat Bug World

Aphids attack!
Aphids, small members of the insect order homoptera, eat (or drink, I guess) plant sap. They can be quite the garden pest, but they're fascinating -- they come in many shades of red, orange and yellow, as well as the less exciting green, black and white. Aphids don't chew; rather, they pierce plant flesh and sip as though through a straw. They have cornicles -- tubes which come out of their abdomen -- which emit a defensive waxy substance. (Aphids also produce honeydew -- sticky-sweet drops of left-over sap which can leave little dots all over cars parked under infested trees.) They are pear-shaped and slow-moving... which is OK. Most aphids don't go very far in their lives, staying right on the stem where they began life! These aphids are flightless, but when a plant gets too crowded, some flying aphids will be born. These pioneers leave to start colonies on new plants.

For part of the year, female aphids give birth to live young. Beginning in the spring and early summer, only female babies are born, which grow through the warm parts of the year. Later in the summer and fall, males are finally born and mate with the females. This late-season generation lays eggs, which will hatch in the spring. Live aphids do not survive the winter.

That aphids reproduce quickly is bad news for gardeners, but good news for carnivorous insects. Among many others, ladybugs eat aphids, and so do lacewings. And lest you be worried that you don't see that many lacewings around, know that each one can eat 200 aphids a week!

Another interesting aphid interrelationship involves ant farming. Some ants will protect colonies of aphids on their host plants, and live off of the carbohydrate-rich honeydew that is produced. These ands will actually stroke the aphids' antennae, causing the honeydew to be secreted. This mutualistic relationship is a win-win -- the ants get their food and the aphids get protected. The plant is the only loser.

Speaking of carnivorous insects, (which I was, a while ago) my yard is lucky enough to be host to many varieties of odonata (my favorite!!!) despite the lack of pond or other water. Perhaps they come due to the high mosquito population. Anyhow, I rarely get to photograph them because they have the pesky tendency to move. Fast. But I caught this beautiful bright green pondhawk (I think) resting last night.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Another hot one...

We were supposed to have a cool wave, but it doesn't seem to have come through yet. Anyhow.

Thistles are blooming on the roadsides and in lower-quality prairies. Thistles are a weed* I hate to love, and love to hate. Their flowers are quite pretty, big (in this case) purple orbs that actually look fuzzy. They are a beautiful color. But if you've ever been involved in a thistle removal project -- as I was a few years ago -- you quickly learn how... let's just say, well-adapted they are. Thorns are painful and plentiful, roots are deep. They're tall so your whole body gets scratched up when you try to remove them. And before too long you start to dislike them despite their beauty. Or even feel violently anti-thistle. I wrote an essay about that a few years back, which I thought about including here... but I can't find it. Oh, well.

*I say weeds, but it should be noted that there are some native thistles. You just don't see them too often. Only in really high-quality prairies, actually. And their colors are more muted.

Our false sunflowers are starting to bloom. The picture on the left shows one almost open... and the picture on the right shows what seems to be happening to the fully open ones! I'm not sure what's up. Last year we did have an issue with some neighbor kids picking these flowers as they bloomed, since they're right by the mailbox/street. But if you pick it, you at least get to, you know, have it. Why someone would just snap the head and leave it hanging is beyond me. So perhaps it was a bird? Either way, I'm hoping it was bad luck and not a trend that will occur as each flower blooms. If it does, I'm going to install a flower cam to solve the mystery.

Milkweeds beginning to bloom. Shown here are purple milkweed (left) and possibly poke milkweed(? or some white, slightly narrow milkweed. The latter picture was taken on Tuesday, so there are undoubtedly more flowers open now. Common milkweed is at the same point as purple milkweed... mostly not flowering but a few blooms on selected plants are opening up.

By the way... 20 quarts of strawberries yielded:
  • 1 pie
  • 16 quarts of delicious and hard-earned jam, some of which jelled great and others of which stayed slightly liquidy, but all of which will be a welcome treat in the middle of winter!
  • a tiny bit of temporary insanity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It is HOT. And? Humid. That's all I really have to say about today. Yesterday, I spent about 4 hours doing yard work, and probably sweat about 5 lbs. off. (Also, I got several mosquito bites, including 2 on my face, despite using spray; and strange sunburn stripes in little odd places that I missed with sunscreen. Plus, I discovered that spiderwort at this stage in its life (slightly past peak bloom) seems to have a deep blue sap, which is actually beautiful but stains clothes and skin. So I looked pretty beat up at the end of yesterday. This morning, we went strawberry picking with some friends, and despite the fact that we were done before 10 am, I still sweated buckets. Oy.

This picture, taken from the car window, shows some early coneflowers. None in my yard are blooming at all. They are close, but not that close.

Juneberries (Serviceberries)... will they be ready
in June?
Some are reddening, but they need to be deep purple
before they should be harvested.

Almost-flowers on basswood/linden tree.

Also noted but not photographed:
  • thistles are blooming (have been since about Saturday).
  • wild indigo is blooming, but not in my yard, as I can never get it to take very well, and it comes back, but small and stunted...
  • a lot of almosts right now... almost false sunflowers, almost coneflowers in my yard, almost milkweed, almost queen of the prairie...
Stay cool!!!!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Prairie Home Phenology

Last night we went to see the Prairie Home Companion live radio broadcast, which has pretty much become an annual Ravinia father's day weekend tradition (although my father couldn't come -- we missed him!) Garrison Keillor is really an excellent phenologist, although of course that's not what he would say is the point of his show, or even that segment. What is the point? Not sure... but it is seasonal a lot of the time. Human phenology. But he begins each week in Lake Wobegon with a really nice summary of the weather, what's blooming in MN -- a little phenology report. The only thing is, he describes it way better than I ever could. Some cases in point:
  • I would have said it was sweltering hot, what with the humidity coupled with the high temps. He said is was (I have to paraphrase here) one of those days when you're a little bit too aware of your underwear, and you wish you could make it looser.
  • He described the cottonwood seeds (which I noted in 1/2 a boring sentence) as making it so the whole world seemed as though it were in a giant snowglobe, being shaken up by God. But of course god wouldn't play with a snow globe, a 6-year-old would. A 6-year-old with ADD, and what will happen when he drops the thing in search of new entertainment?... see, the guy's just brilliant, really.
  • I also quite liked his line about watching the lightning storm while eating strawberries from a bowl (see? even seasonal fruit) and he said that some people liked it so much the went inside to catch the reruns on the Weather Channel.
Something to aspire to, I guess...

The birds and the bees

The point of a flower, of course, is the seed. Spring's blooms are going to seed now (if they haven't already). Here's a look at celandine poppies as they go from flower to seed pod. (All the pictures were taken today; the plants started flowering early and still aren't finished, so they are simultaneously at all stages in the process...)
A new flower (next to a forming seed pod). The stamen haven't let go their pollen yet and everything looks fresh.
A fully open flower, displaying, at the base of the pistil, the swelling ovum which will become the seed pod. The pollen is mostly gone, which is good, because the petals, whose job is to call in the pollinators with their ultraviolet "Eat at Joe's!" signs, are starting to look ratty. They will fall off soon, leaving...
A newly-formed seed pod, pistil still attached. It's not large, less than 1/2 inch at this point, though the photo doesn't show this. It will grow until...
It's ready to start to burst open (the pistil will split into three strands soon...). At this point it's almost an inch long, and still bearing seeds. But soon they will pop out...
And it's popped open and distributed the seeds, which will grow tiny little celandine planties, some of which are already present under the parent plants!
Here is a ready-to-burst pod split open so the seeds inside are visible (also note split pistil in top left of photo).

Some other seeds forming...
1. Columbine plant showing seed pods and flowers.
2. Columbine seed pod, still green. It will turn brown and dry up, and the seeds, which look like poppy seeds , will spill out.
3. Anenome seed pod
4. Wild geranium seeds, brown and ready behind green and almost-there.
5. Prairie smoke, displaying the reason for its common name.
6. Pasqueflower.

This is not a seed, I recognize, but it is a cool cicada shell I found while braving the mosquitoes to attack the creeping charlie in the humidity, and activity which lasted half-hour, probably didn't help that much in the long run, and will leave me scratching for days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Storm Casualties

My peonies finally bloomed, later than everyone else's due to their full-shade location. This happy thought is meant to bolster you for the sadness to come...

Yesterday evening's storm was even worse than yesterday morning's. There were 70 mph winds reported in Chicago, and some places reported 3 inches of rain in an hour. Our rain gauge reported another 2 inches of rain throughout the storm, which lasted longer than an hour (but the really torrential part less than an hour). I don't think the winds hit 70, but they were quite strong. Trees were whipping wildly around, their branches bending at unimaginable angles, but not -- in our immediate area -- breaking. Leaves were literally brushing the ground as the limbs of 5o-foot trees swung around and down.

The power went out, but only briefly; a screen fell out of its window onto the ground below. The sump pump got a good workout, and is still working, with the low area next to my house becoming a small pond that has encompassed plants that are definitely terrestrial, not aquatic. Lots of plants are bending to the ground... but it's hard to be too sad about that. I mean, its weather. Plants need to deal with weather. They'll be OK.

But we did discover one sad casualty of last night's storm -- a beaver. At least, I imagine its death was tangentially related to last night's storm. He was laying dead on the road near a severely flooded stream that flows out of Rollin's Savannah. I imagine that his lodge got flooded as the river rose, so that the area normally out of the water, but accessible only from under the water, became submerged. So he left his abode, and went looking for another spot to wait out the weather. But he made a critical mistake, wandering onto the nearby road at a time when visibility must have been terrible. And he got hit. (It may have happened when visibility was fine... I know roadkills occur all the time. But we'll say it was the storm.)

This particular hit-and-run saddens me greatly. I have a special affection for beavers as an extremely well-adapted underdog. In their history with Europeans, beavers have had it especially rough. First, because of their fantastic fur, with its felt and guard hairs... high fashion made beaver hats the 17th century accessory of the day, and the beaver population plummeted. But even when silk replaced beaver as the hat material of choice, beavers and people have had an adversarial relationship. I think this is because we see ourselves reflected in beavers. You see, besides us, they are the organisms that most alter their environment through construction. They alter the flow of waterways, create their own ideal ponds. With no tools but their teeth and no blueprints but instinct, they rival the army corps of engineers in their endeavors. And so, of course, we don't like them. We should be the only ones that can change the planet. It's manifest destiny on a species level. Beavers are trapped and moved or killed so they don't tamper with the areas we want to tamper with ourselves. For this, I have a soft spot for them.

These lodges, by the way, are genius. (See right for my cartoon version of one, which only partly captures the concept, but it helps...) The underwater entry protects the beavers from predators, but allows them to breathe air. It also allows them to exit into the water even in the winter, when ice has frozen over the pond. Beavers don't hibernate -- but because of the ice, they will go unseen for months. They prepare a food cache of sticks/branches, and all winter long they will swim out to eat from it even if the ice keeps them from exiting the water in any location but their lodge. (They aren't that active in winter... but they're there!)

Plus, they're just darn cool. The largest North America rodent, one of their best known adaptations is the typical rodent teeth, which have the orange enamel on the front and continue to grow throughout life. These teeth accomplish amazing things, chopping down trees that I couldn't take on with a chain saw. They eat only vegetation, woodier in the winter and greener in the summer. And there's their tail, which slaps the water to communicate danger, stores fat and aids in swimming (like a rudder), but never, ever pats mud into place like in the cartoons. But they have other adaptations as well. A nictitating membrane prepares their eyes for swimming (also a good set of lungs). They can chew underwater because they can close off their mouth inside their teeth; their ears and nose also have flaps that close so water can't enter. Webbed back feet make them fast in the water. We already mentioned their fur, but not how they secrete castor oil and comb it in with a special claw to keep their fur water-ready. And they are crepuscular, and you don't get to throw that word around too often. I could go on and on about them, but I just get so upset about the one that died. So, enough.

Castor canadensis, I salute you and mourn the loss of one of your numbers in such a senseless way.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rain, rain...

Torrential downpour. Raining cats and dogs. Coming down by the bucketful. A wall of water. Every simile, metaphor, or cliched descriptive phrase applying to a heavy rain could have been used to describe the weather we had last night and into this morning. Over night, we got about 2 inches. This morning, rain continued to come in waves, but we haven't checked the rain gauge yet. There are branches in the yard. The rain barrels are gushing over. Plants have bended and folded under the weight of the water. The paths in our garden are flooded. We didn't need the rain -- we haven't watered in forever.

Days like this, it's hard to imagine that there will be times in August when the soil is cracked and the pavement emanates waves of heat and the plants are wilty, thirsting for water. And a few drops that practically evaporate before they hit the ground will seem like a tease, and the long anticipated thunder storm will quench the earth, bring us out to dance and celebrate the rain. It's hard to imagine...

Despite the fact that we're waterlogged, the storm was really quite lovely. I mean, when you could see through the water. Streaks of lightning reached from the ground to the heavens, jagged and bright, surprising. The air is (finally) warm, so running through the rain from one dry spot to another was actually fun, a game; we laughed and splashed like children.

Rain, rain, go away; we'll celebrate you another day!

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Nasturtium. (not a problem)
Mushrooms. (not a problem)

I have a problem. Several, actually. They say that's the first step to a solution. Admitting you have a problem. But my first problem -- that mosquitoes are inhabiting my yard in thirsty droves -- is prohibiting me from (comfortably) solving my other problems. The first other problem is the wild strawberries -- which I do like... but they're taking over, going crazy. That's why this picture of the blue-eyed grass flowers makes it look like they have strawberry leaves.

These little wood sorrels? Another problem. At first they look pretty, small and unassuming with tiny yellow flowers. Then they're everywhere. And my final problem (that I'm going to write about), undocumented by photos, involves more vegetable fungus. The basil is looking good. The tomatoes have been attacked, their leaves yellowing and spotty. Grrr. I have never had these problems before, but then, we don't usually have such cool, wet Junes.

Flowers on Solomon's seal (slightly blurry) and

red baneberry looking really, really red!