Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My First Ironweed

Such a pretty color, no?

We are hopping across the pond for a few days -- not sure if we'll be able to log on over there, but I'm sure I'll have a ton to write about when we return! (A place where purple loosestrife is native, imagine!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mystery Plant, Revisited

The mystery plant of 2 days ago is a probably non-native orchid called a helleborine.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rollins Savannah

A pair of sandhill cranes in a prairie pothole. We didn't see a colt.
Milkweeds are making their seedpods, but they're tiny (1-2 inches long) at this point. Cute, like miniature milkweed seedpods.
Compass plant blooming. Mine seem to be doing extremely well, full, several stems... but they're slow. No flowers yet, when all the others have several. It's a mystery.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mystery Plant

Growing, unbidden, in my parents' yard (right by the doorstep, actually), is this plant:
It emerged in the spring and started to grow elliptical leaves with parallel veins that clasped the stem. At this point it is about 18 inches tall, though there is a second one that is about half the height. It was an interesting plant; we had no idea what it was and I don't remember seeing it before in their yard. It bloomed, going, in my opinion, from interesting to fascinating. Look at these flowers! Like little orchids, all in a row up the stem. (And yes, they are covered in cobwebs.)

10 points (redeemable for... nothing, really...) to anyone who can ID it! Answer to be revealed shortly if no one chimes in!

Short and Sweet

The flower buds on my ironweed are turning purple! Yea!

We got a baby green dragon from a friend.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blooms of the Past Few Days

The flowers of most grasses are tiny and barely merit notice from most people, but they are beautiful. They hang down like dangly earrings, and swing precariously in the wind. It looks as though, if you touched them, they would fall to the ground, but they don't. They are wind pollinated, thus their subtlety and movement. Here, the deep purple flowers of prairie cordgrass -- a spartina species with razors for leaves -- hang from its future seedheads.

Cattails have formed the corn dog-esque seed bombs for which they are commonly named.
This Michigan lily is a rare and beautiful prairie plant. Its head bent over as though it were studying the ground, these flowers literally spill their sexual parts out for the world to see.
Close-up of a blazing star, with a little beetle peeking out.
Mountain mint began to flower, its irregularly shaped blooms small and subtle. They have purple dots and are really quite lovely if you notice them on your way past. Which is a big "if".
OK, I know this is a totally blurry picture, but I was excited to have this monarch on my butterflyweed. I am hoping she laid eggs and I will get a caterpillar. (And then I can possibly find the chrysalis!)
Also blooming: marsh plantain and meadowsweet, a native spirea that has quite lovely pale pink flowers (but I still don't like spirea).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

More Arkansas Adventures

OK. Let's pick up where we left off last, which, you may recall, was rural Arkansas. If I had grown up in rural Arkansas, there is a chance that I may not have become the Nature Nerd that I am today. A lot of nature there sounds... well, scary. We parked the car at Chris' grandmother's house, which has a long, up-hill gravel driveway (not great for Prius' suspension) and grass parking spaces. The grass has not been mowed since I don't know when, but my money's on last summer. So it was quite tall. And as we're walking getting out of the car, I am warned to watch out for rattlesnakes in the tall grass, and red ants. Also chiggers, but you can't watch out for those because you can't see them. Not to mention ticks, although I thought it was too warm for those. Grasshoppers were hopping out of my way, but there were so many of them that a lot just landed on me. This I didn't mind, but I could see where if you were a little kid or a person who was unaware of the grasshoppers' benign status, that you could be a wee bit freaked out.

I did not get bitten by any of the aforementioned terrors -- well, I do have itchy feet, but I'm assuming its mosquitoes and NOT chiggers -- and I will admit that the presence of 4 very cute little kittens (and several adult cats) definitely overshadowed the threat of snake bites. (I took about a hundred pictures, but I'll spare you. I'm sure there are other blogs out there about kittens.) Chris, in an effort to be kind and also possibly relive his youth, mowed the lawn At first I thought this was a good idea, but then I started to feel terrible, because when a lawn becomes that long, it ceases to be a boring monoculture and becomes a habitat. In addition to the aforementioned terrorizing creatures and grasshoppers, there
were crickets trying to escape death by lawnmower blade, spiders (see right) the size of golf balls (I exaggerate not at all. They were fast, too), praying mantises (see below for a baby on thumb) and other things. He only mowed a small part of the lawn due partly to time but also to the seeming cruelty of making all these things homeless.

But by far the most spectacular thing about the lawn was the dragonflies. There were probably 50 of them, swooping around all over. There was a pair of pondhawks, pictured below, which species has been a DotD in the past. There was also a twelve-spotted skimmer. Most of the dragonflies were some other sort of skimmer (I think) that was yellowish-orangey and black and never stopped. I never saw one perched at all. This impeded my ability to photograph or ID them. Amongst those, rarely, flew some large black dragonflies (some sort of darner?). These were the biggest odonates I have ever seen. There was a hummingbird that hovered around some of the yard's flowering shrubs, and these dragonflies were larger.

Praying mantis and carpenterworm moth. This picture does not show you that this moth was over 2 inches, strikingly large, actually.
Male and female eastern pondhawks.
This photo is trying to show how many dragonflies there were, since they never landed. Each black dot in the sky (I know, hardly visible at all at this small size) is a dragonfly.

Summer in Arkansas is also -- and I don't mean to state the obvious here -- hot. In a humid sort of way. We were lucky enough to be there during an unusually cool streak; it was also unusually cool here. The weather still gave me something to write about, though. Monday afternoon a storm blew in. The clouds -- grey and whirly -- rolled through and we were surrounded by lightning strikes. It teased for a while -- we stood outside waiting for rain, which finally did arrive. On Tuesday, when we drove home, there was more rain. A lot more rain. The radio said 2 inches in an hour, and this made visibility sucky. And that was all before 8 am. The rain continued for most of the afternoon, with flash flooding and everything. Of course, here, where we need rain very badly, there fell not a drop! [It did rain here on Tuesday night a little bit and a little on Wednesday, so I can't complain that much.]

One thing that I would quite enjoy about living in Arkansas is the growing season. (To clarify... this would be good for growing food. I do like me a good cold winter to kill off the molds, chiggers, etc.) In Arkansas, people were harvesting tons of tomatoes already, and even melons. They put these things out in the ground in early April, I guess. Here, there are a few tomatoes, but not a lot yet -- not enough to be canning salsas or making the year's worth of tomato sauce.

What we are getting here is cucumbers. In mass quantities. Some carrots and tomatoes. Also the first green beans. Small peppers are almost ready. And we harvested our garlic today, 17 bulbs hanging in the basement.

In the world of prairie plants, not a whole lot new has bloomed since we left, but there's just more of stuff. More bergamot, more yellow coneflower. Grasses are near to seeding, though, so look for that news soon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Digression from the Ordianry

The past few days' absence was due to an unexpected trip to Arkansas. We left because of a "family emergency," which, of course, is usually a euphemism for "somebody died." In this case, that someone was Chris' maternal grandmother, who passed away last night. I didn't know her at all, so I honestly don't feel like I should say too much about it. I have been told that, back in the day, she was a voracious reader who used to send Chris outside to do whatever [go fishing, it sounds like he did a lot] while she preserved summer's bounty for winter consumption. On the surface, that sounds a lot like... well, me. I'm sad that I came too late into his life to know this person who helped to shape his childhood, just as I'm sad that he missed knowing my mom's parents. But it would be silly for me to try and eulogize... and so I'll ignore that aspect of the trip and focus on some other interesting Arkansas observations.

I have long been a car voyeur,* looking out the window and catching little glimpses of other people's lives, wondering what their stories are, what it would be like to live where they lived. When I lived in the city, I loved driving down Lake Shore Drive at night, especially in the winter, when you could see into all the illuminated windows of the lake-side apartments with their sophisticated furniture and imagine the people who lived there. Even in the suburbs, I think about that... although it's not often too exciting... "Can you imagine what it must be like to have impatients growing in your yard? Look, those people have a republican campaign sign... what must it be like to live in a family like that?" But of all the places I've been, Arkansas holds the most mystery for me. Little Greek villages? Impoverished Caribbean children? New Yorkers? For wondering, none of them hold a candle to these folks. [And I'd like to say, here, that I am describing with great respect, and if it appears otherwise, I apologize.]

So driving to Chris' grandma's house, you leave the highway and before long, you turn onto a gravel road. Some of the residences on this road... OK, here's one. It's a one-story red brick home with a corrugated metal roof. The roof hangs off the front creating a sort of porch, from which hang about 100 wind chimes of all sizes, shapes, and colors. A large part of the yard is fenced and running around in there is a pack of toy dogs. Tiny ones, like daschunds. I saw maybe six of them. Do they breed these little dogs? Just think they make really good pets? I don't know.

Further down the road two kids -- about ages 3 and 5 -- sat on the front steps of an old trailer. Surrounding them in the lawn was the debris of several lifetimes. A sofa, fluffy and brown, though not necessarily originally. A lawnmower, recently used, stopped in the middle of mowing. A mangled trampoline. The rusty pick-up and tires you'd expect. The list goes on. And I wondered... what do those children DO all day? I mean, since they clearly can't trampoline. (Several hours later, we drove into town and I discovered the answer. Apparently, they sit on the steps without moving all day, because they were still in the exact same places.)

The other crazy thing about this drive is that these kids, living in a trailer -- and I don't mean a prefab home, I mean an actual trailer -- as likely as not have neighbors that have a big stone home with the disjointed roof lines of new construction and a manicured lawn. Or, you know, an antebellum mansion. If there's a wrong side of the tracks, then the trains are cris-crossing the area like mad.

Just before the turn for Chris' grandma's street, there is a taxidermist. His advertisement is a hand-painted sign, orange on wood. I'm not entirely sure who sees the sign, but either there's more traffic than I'd expect or word of mouth is good for the taxidermy business, because I guess this guy's been doing that since Chris was a kid. He dumps the skeletons down the road and vultures come to pick at them, which I saw last time I was in Arkansas. Right in the middle of his yard there's a thing. I know that's not very helpful, but I don't know what it is. It looks like a submarine, except that instead of a periscope, it has a chimney that smokes all day. I can only guess at what this is for. I don't think you need it for taxidermy -- at least, I didn't cook anything when I had to taxidermy a specimen for a class once. But maybe it has to do with eating the meat? Waste not, want not.

Those are some of the characters I got to wonder about as we drove to Chris' grandma's house. (All that's visible of that from the road is the end of the driveway. Not too interesting for other passers by to daydream about.) At the house, I did see some things that actually fit in with the normal topic of this blog... plants, dragonflies, spiders, and such... but I think I'll save that for tomorrow, along with an update of what's happening here, not that I know. It was dark when we returned.

*not that kind. Just in the sense of observing from the outside.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Metamorphosis

Monarch Caterpillar
It seems to be the time of summer for monarch caterpillars. In just a short span yesterday, we found 4 plump ones like this on both butterflyweed and common milkweed. These are some of the best-known caterpillars, famous for the terrible taste they get from eating the sticky white sap of their host plants. After their final instar, they will create a jewel-like chrysalis, a shimmery green with gold and black dots. I would love love love to find one of those one day. I have seen them, even seen them in the wild (as opposed to a butterfly house)... but I've never found one. I looked on all the chewed milkweed plants I saw that didn't have a caterpillar on them, but to no avail...
Flowering spurge (I think).
Yucca flowers beginning to open yesterday at Illinois Beach.
Female 12-spotted skimmer. The male of this species was a previous dragonfly of the day; the female has brighter yellow on her abdomen.
Ruby meadowhawk, male. (Also previously shown, but, oh well.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Bergamot, with leaf and flower details. Not my favorite sketch ever. The flowers are so complex that I thought some details were lost to other details. But, oh well, here it is!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Diamonds in the Rough

Jewelweed. This is one of the first flowers on the jewelweeds that I transplanted from my parents' house this year. Jewelweed is an annual, so the plants themselves won't come back. The hope is that, if the location is good, their seeds will spread and next year I will have even more jewelweed without any work. I'll have to wait until next year to find out if my area is moist enough for them. (I'm pretty sure its shady enough).

Jewelweed. It's an interesting name to me. Jewel -- valuable, beautiful. Jewel tones are bright colors (and the flowers are bright orange). This part of the common name may refer to how the flowers hang down like pendants, or to the way water droplets sit on their leaves, or perhaps just to the treat of tiny orange dots among the solid green of the forest in mid-July. Weed -- unwanted, fast-growing. The two parts of its name juxtapose each other. Probably some people think they're undesirable, but I love jewelweed (as is obvious based on the fact that I transplanted some to my yard).

They have other names, too. Touch-me-not. Impatiens. Snapweed. Probably these other common names and the Latin genus name all refer to the fun seed dispersal methods of the plant. After flowering -- and the flowers are interesting, too... each flower has a male phase with pollen and then a female phase with an exposed pistil. The plants will have many flowers in different stages of bloom; insects will brush against the pollen when they seek nectar from a flower in its male phase, and deposit said pollen if they happen to enter a female flower. The nectar is way back there... Anyhow. After flowering, little seed pods will form. When something brushes up against a pod -- or even if a wind causes it to brush up against a leaf or stem -- it will pop open, spreading seeds everywhere. They are the ultimate poppers!

Many people know jewelweed as the poison ivy plant. The oils in the plant's stem will counteract the oils in poison ivy for some people, making it a cure for the itchiness of PI. People even say that the two tend to grow together. This is only partly true... PI tends to grow in a lot of places and be a pretty adaptable forest dweller. So near jewelweed, there is often PI. But there is also often PI where there is no jewelweed around. The truth of the matter is, where there's poison ivy, it grows near every other plant!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ablaze with Color

The prairie is jumping with colors this time of year. Here are some new prairie faces:
blazing star, not quite blazing yet, but starting to bloom.
butterfly (moth?) on false sunflower.
purple prairie clover.
yellow coneflower.
leadplant, a fantastic perennial legume that is actually a small shrub, with a woody stem. It blooms purple with orange pollen. I cannot get it to come back in my yard, but I keep putting them in...
rattlesnake master. Not a new face, but...
I thought the pinkish color on these newly opening Queen Anne's Lace flowers was really spectacular, although the plant itself is an invasive.


Sweet and seedy, dying your teeth and tongue purple, the black raspberries are ripe on the canes, falling off easily into your hands if you can stand the thorns and skeeters to get there.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12: A Day of Firsts

July 12: First bergamot flowers in my yard.
July 12: First tomato harvested in my garden. It's a roma, not big, but quite red. Also harvested: 5 cucumbers, 3 broccoli with disappointingly small flowerheads, some carrots.
July 12: First sunflower in my yard (I know I am well behind other people's gardens in this area, though...)
July 12: Yellow coneflower starts to take its shape.
And, another damselfly, this one unidentifiable. It's either a female or a juvenile and those are hard to distinguish... but it's still pretty!

A Mad, Mad World

The Gardens at Taliesin

Yesterday, we headed to Madison, WI, to spend the day exploring. Mad-town is really only about 30 miles north of us (and quite a bit further west). After visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's home at Taliesin (actually further west, in Spring Green), we headed to the Olbrich Gardens. Here is some of what we saw:
A pitcher plant with a fly perched upon it. The fly did not "go into the light," much to my dismay, how cool would that have been to see? The plant was in a bog planter, and I suspect I will be getting one next year, if possible, as someone (not me) was obsessed with them.
Flowering prickly pear, one of the only cacti that will grow outdoors this far north.

Tree seed series:
Sumac seeds turning red
Catalpa pods (small and green)
Sycamore seed (fallen from tree)
Redbud seed pods

Look at the size of this cottonwood!!!

And, speaking of really ginormous, look at the size of this tulip tree leaf! Have you ever?

In ickier news of the large, there was a huge population of Japanese beetles, and growing larger, as many were mating.