Friday, July 7, 2017

Work day at Labagh Woods and play day at Bluff Spring Fen

Last weekend's work day was at Labagh Woods, in a wetland area. See those big spiky clumps? That's yellow flag iris. Blue flag iris is native to Chicagoland, but yellow flag is an old-world invasive that rapidly chokes out all other plants. 

This is a before-and-after in one area - ignore the lighting difference.

The area was apparently ALL yellow-flag iris as recently as a year or two ago, but volunteers have been restoring the area. The stewards saw the effectiveness of their earlier efforts, which prompted this continued work. I and other volunteers collected the stalks of seed pods in trash bags for composting and lopped off the juicy, celery-like leaves. Then the steward leaders sprayed the tops of the lopped-off stalks with pesticide so the plants wouldn't grow back.

Here's another before-and-after view.

See that clearing in the photos? That is a sign of deer having bedded there the previous night. I know deer are far too numerous, they strip natural areas of native foliage, and they spread ticks, but I was totally charmed by the fact that we had come upon the sanctuary of this peaceful (and cute, ok? They're cute) species.

This was a wetland area, right off the edge of a slough, and I don't know wetland plants. I took a couple snaps and, when I couldn't identify them from iNaturalist, asked the amazing Illinois Botany group on Facebook for some IDs. They are Carex albolutescens, Greenwhite sedge (left) and Sium suave, water parsnip.

The next day I was out in the once-country-now-'burbs so I stopped by Bluff Spring Fen. Land stewards and conservationists get super excited about this area because of its unique ecological characteristics and hospitable conditions for birds and other wildlife, but the only entrance is through a cemetery, and I arrived close to when the cemetery closes, and my car had its Check Engine light on and my phone battery was close to empty, and I'll admit I felt like I was maybe walking into a scary after-school special.

But here are some photos of the fen.

There was a prairie section, too.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) and lead plant
Lead plant (Amorpha canescens), one of my faves

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)?

Spiderwort (Tradescantia), all closed up for the evening

Pretty. I'll have to return with a little more time. And some juice in my phone. And after the car gets checked out. And with a friend who can distract me from my irrational fear of the dead. Okay, let's get out of here.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Prairie ID walk: summer blooms still cloaked for spring

A couple weeks ago I went on a prairie plant ID walk with Cindy Crosby at Morton Arboretum's Schulenberg Prairie. This was an Advanced class, I think because we were looking at summer blooms in the spring, identifying plants just by their leaves.

I was amazed by how much I somehow absorbed over the past two years of taking guided and unguided walks through prairie and woodland areas.

"Hey! That's gentian!" I said.

"Now how the heck did I know that?" I next said.

Admittedly, its leaf arrangement is distinctive, as is its color (more so later in the season when the nearby plants aren't in their baby stages).

For me, it's good enough at this point that I can figure out the genus (gentian). But it's probably time to start being a little more precise (cream gentian, Gentiana alba). In bloom there behind the gentian are a couple shooting stars, Dodecatheon meadia.

Another genus whose leaves are easy to spot is wild indigo, baptisia. Look at that steely color and the pea-leaf-like shape (baptisia are members of the pea family). You can see one or two buds just starting to open on this one, cream wild indigo, Baptisia brachteata.

This is starry false Solomon's seal, Maianthemum stellatum.

Or is it regular false Solomon's seal?

Anyway, it's just starting to bloom. The leaves of Solomon's seal (starry, false, and smooth) have parallel veins and so are pretty easy to spot.

I like how the leaves are splayed to echo the starry shape of the flower in this photo.

Note the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) there in back. By the end of the year those sweet fuzzy leaves will be rough as extra-coarse sandpaper, and gigantic.

Speaking of gigantic, big bluestem is below—little bitty baby big bluestem. These little grass blades will grow to tower overhead by mid-late summer.


Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), on the other hand, doesn't grow higher than a foot or eighteen inches. It's not a grass; it gets its common name from its thin, grasslike leaves. The "blue eye" is the dot at the base of the v formed by those...things the petals attach to. Now what are those called?

I find that observing its delicate, slightly fringed petals has a calming effect. You can see those petals a bit here.

Below is trout lily (Erythornum albidum), a spring ephemeral—you can see the flowers are gone by now. Cindy, who also writes beautifully about the prairie in her blog and has a new book out, explained that trout lilies mostly reproduce through rhizomes, connections underground. But occasionally a mature trout lily will produce that podlike thing you see below, which attracts ants, who then disperse the seeds within to farther-flung locations.


One treat of late spring/early summer at Schulenberg Prairie are the wild hyacinth. Deer love them so they can tend to have a hard time establishing themselves in preserves in the Chicago area. Unfortunately I only have a fairly cruddy picture from our May 13 walk (right, below), but here's a link to a better photo from a post from last year. On the left below is a wild hyacinth bud. I love examining the neat little patterns of stored energy evident in flower buds.

The prairie in the spring is a huge quilt of patterns created by plants growing up together. Here—enjoy the swirls and bends of coreopsis, golden alexander, and prairie dock intermingling.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A response from Starbucks

A while ago I wrote to Starbucks about their use of throw-away materials and the lack of composting and even recycling at many sites. I got a letter back, almost immediately, actually.

Chris Johnson (via US Fish & Wildlife HQ) CC 2.0
Dear Kaara, 
Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company. I just finished reading your email and appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns with us.
Starbucks is committed to significantly reducing the waste our stores generate - especially when it comes to recycling. 
We know this is important to our customers, to us and our planet. In fact, we get more customer comments about recycling than any other environmental issue - especially when it comes to our cups.
To learn more about our work in recycling read our Starbucks Global Responsibility Report at
Starbucks white paper cups, used for hot beverages, are made of paper fiber and the industry standard liner (low-density polyethylene plastic). The paper provides the rigidity for the cup, while the plastic layer keeps the paper layer intact by protecting it from the hot beverage. This plastic layer also makes the hot beverage cups unrecyclable in most paper recycling systems. We are continually evaluating alternatives to the current plastic coating, and are currently conducting life cycle assessments for bio-based plastics.
Other actions taken by Starbucks to reduce the environmental impacts of our disposable cups include:
  • Working to eliminate most double-cupping by utilizing corrugated hot beverage sleeves made of 60 percent post-consumer recycled fiber.
  • Offering the $1.00 reusable, recyclable Starbucks cup with lid
  • Giving customers a $0.10 discount when they use their own reusable cups.
  • Providing "for here" mugs for customers who choose to enjoy their beverages in-store.
  • Please know that we appreciate your comments and that we take our responsibility to the environment very seriously. Your concerns will be forwarded to our utility specialist, who manages in-store recycling for North America

For more information, please visit us online at
If you ever have any questions or concerns in the future, please visit us at
Have a great day, Kaara.

Tammy H.customer service

They've clearly gotten this question before, and this is clearly a form letter. Recycling is not the only issue I mentioned, and is an unsatisfactory solution. Reduce, Reuse, then Recycle.

Not that it's Starbucks' problem only, of course. It's our problem, that so very many of us purchase throwaway/recyclable-in-theory items day after day after every damned day. But since Starbucks is socially responsible in many ways and is a powerful and influential leader in its field, it could really make a dent in changing people's behavior. I am disappointed with their answer.

By Dhscommtech at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0