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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

From buckthorn jungle to oak savannah

Another day cutting buckthorn, this time at Forest Glen, a site new to me, and new to restoration. The buckthorn are so big here they are trees, big, thick trees. The goal is to turn the place back into prairie, rolling into oak savannah. I'm so excited! As you might recall , prairies are my jam.

I also enjoyed looking for tiny little sproutlings.

I was very proud of myself for recognizing these as trout lilies.

There were also spring avens, which are common but native, and loads of these low-to-the-ground spring plants with yellow flowers and which name I can't remember, dangit, but which are invasive and everywhere (anyone?). There were also the soft, fuzzy-leafed beginnings of what looked like mullein, which was brought over by Europeans for medicinal purposes. I wish I'd taken pictures of these things.

Chief Forest Preserve Friend, Josh Coles, showed me some other things growing there: cow parsnip, golden alexander. He said they'd put a seed mix a few weeks ago and some of the other tiny bladelike sprouts we were seeing were likely from that.

Little baby cow parsnip
Little baby golden alexander
We couldn't figure out what this is. Does anyone know?

The anticipation of spring is so fun, plant-wise. I'm looking forward to visiting and working at this site again, watching the plants we identified grow and change, and seeing what else comes up from the ground.