Midewin at Home

Midewin measures about 20,000 acres. My backyard garden measures .010330 of an acre. But there’s a lot in my postage stamp-sized private refuge that keeps me connected to the largest prairie recreation effort in the country.

My backyard boasts about 30 of the nearly 200 native prairies species found at Midewin. Here’s a few that are currently in bloom.

120617 spiderwort

Common throughout much of the eastern half of North America, Ohio spiderwort sports clusters of three-leaved flowers the colors of the Swedish flag. Each blossom lasts only a day; often times only a morning. Purportedly, spiderwort got its name from its sticky sap, which, when dabbed, stretches into long, thin, spider silk-like strands. This same quality lends spiderwort an alternative and decidedly less poetic nickname: cow slobber.

120617 butterfly weed

True to its name, butterfly weed is a magnet for several butterfly species. But Native Americans prized chewing its tough roots as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, giving it the name, Pleurisy Root.

120617 prickly pear cactus

Eastern prickly pear cactus. Cactus in Illinois? Yep. In about half its 102 counties, including both Cook (where I live) and Will (where Midewin is located.) It has fewer thorns (or, technically, spines) than most western species of cactus. But they are more than sufficient to protect waxy sunshine yellow blossoms.

120617 leadplant

Lead plant is aptly named for the lead-like color its leaves. But when in flower, its “pubescent spikes” of purple are all the more dramatic for the conspicuous reproductive parts: reddish stamens and bright yellow anthers.

120617 rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master. This alien-looking member of the carrot family bears an equally curious name. Early pioneers erroneously thought the root of this native prairie plant would cure rattlesnake bites.

Beyond their beauty, beyond keeping me connected to Midewin, these and other native plants help make my garden truly green. Uniquely adapted to the Midwestern prairies, they require little to no maintenance. No fertilizers. No pesticides. And no watering.

This season, for instance, has been exceptionally dry. Many of my neighbors have had to water their lawns and keep their annuals well watered to keep them from dying. Me? Aside from a few basil and tomato plants I keep in pots, I haven’t had to water my garden once. And everything is healthy and robust, largely due to equally healthy and robust root systems. The roots of leadplant, for instance, can extend 15 feet into the soil, ensuring that it can withstand drought conditions.

120617 backyard garden

Happy Earth Day

Here it’s Earth Day and I’m stuck at the computer all day, instead of out at Midewin enjoying “Picnic for the Planet.”  Today, all over the world, people are gathering at their favorite nature areas “to celebrate the planet we live on…to enjoy good food in the company of great people.”

Fortunately, tomorrow I’ll be out at Midewin to continue the Earth Day celebration (why shouldn’t it go on all year) by pulling garlic mustard; one of the conservation world’s Most Wanted Out of our Woodlands invasive species.

Until tomorrow, however, I’m still able to get a bit of nature fix. Working at home, I take the occasional break in my own little private nature sanctuary – my backyard. It’s only about the size of my living room, but my backyard garden is chock full of different kinds of native plants, many of them pushing up through last year’s leaf litter.

110422 backyard garden 1

Around the pond, it’s easiest to pick out prickly pear cactus, which is abundant in the Calumet area in which I live. The paler green serrated edge spikes of rattlesnake master are easy to ID, too; as is prairie drop seed, which a friend has nicknamed Cousin Itt for its mounded shagginess. I’m able to identify the re-emergent black-eyed Susans, spiderwort and goldenrod largely because I know where I planted them.

110422 backyard garden 2

The leaves of columbine – one of the earlier bloomers of the season – are distinct for their ternately compound (divided into groups of 3 leaflets) leaves.

110422 backyard garden 3

And in the pond, the bulrushes and cattails are pushing up spikes. But it’s the marsh marigold that is the most delight – the only blossoms yet in the garden; a buttery yellow that puts lowly daffodils to shame.