Hunting the Wild Skunk Cabbage


Woods 1976sEven as a young boy, that’s me in the photo above in 1976, I enjoyed walking to the nearby forest preserve in Lansing, Illinois.  I’d always go with my older brother and/or my dad, sometimes we’d bring a can of pork-n-beans and a few hotdogs to cook over an open fire.  Three years later, in 1979, my family moved to Crete, Illinois, to a home surrounded by oak woods and near a small creek.  By then, I was old enough to go into the woods on my own, and explore.  And explore I did!  Last week, while visiting my mother, I decided to take a walk and see what the Skunk Cabbage was looking like – it’s one of the first signs of spring’s arrival, or rather, the close of winter, as it is often seen flowering in February in wet woodland seeps.  So I put on my boots and set out for a winter’s hike.


Looking back, towards the old homestead

The snow was deeper than I was expecting – at least a foot deep, and deeper in some places, but the sun was out and the temps were in the low 30’s.  Maybe I need to invest in some snowshoes.7340 The woods were so pretty with all of the pure white snow covering the ground – not a hint of green on this early March day. 7332 In less than a month, this sandy flood plain (the creek is just off to the left in the picture above) will be covered with spring ephemerals – woodland wildflowers that come up, flower, set seeds, then go dormant by early summer, not to be seen until next spring.  On this day’s hike, however, it was all about the snow. 7335 The creek is not that far from the house, maybe 500 feet or so, standing in the floodplain, the house can just be seen in the distance, with its snowy roof.

7336b The creek was still covered with ice.  As kids, we would go down in winter and ice skate in a wide part dug out by the land owner.  Today, there was too much snow covering the ice for that – and I was not brave enough, as an adult, to test the integrity of the ice anyhow.  Kids are fearless. 7330 In summer, I’ll sometimes see wood ducks paddling along the creek – they often see me first, however, and fly off, or if I see them first, I’ll stay still – they notice me there anyhow, standing along the shore, keeping a weary eye on me,  but still going about their business.  On one winter hike, I observed a family of beaver – I watched them work for some time, lying flat on my belly, high on an overlook (shown, two pictures above).  Soon enough though, a beaver swam parallel to where I was, looked up and slapped his tail on the water, warning the others of my presence – they all took off for cover.  No signs of beaver this year – except remnants of chewed trees from years past.7342 7347 7350 I kept walking to where I used to ice skate long ago – the wide spot is now silted in and overgrown with invasive reeds – Phragmites, which can be seen in the upper right of the photo above.  In the lower left of the photo can be seen a hole – one of the few signs of life that I saw on my hike – very few fresh animal tracks to be had that day. 7351 The hole was actually pretty deep – as the snow was deep, about 18 inches, or so.  Did the animal that dug this hole sense, or hope for, a meal for all of its effort? 7356 Alas, as I made it down to the area, shown above, that normally would be covered with the hooded flowers of the Skunk Cabbage plant, there was nothing to be seen but a thick cover of snow.  I left the snow cover (and the flowers that it hid) undisturbed.  But I WILL be back, when the snow is gone, I’ll be back, searching for the first signs of spring. 7357

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Indiana Dunes – Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center Landscape



At the gateway to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore you can find the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center, located in Porter, Indiana.  Used by not only the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but also the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Porter County Convention, Recreation, and Visitor Commision, a visitor can find information on all things Indiana.  The visitor center was named for Dorothy Buell (1886-1977), an active proponent in the 1950’s and 60’s for federal protection of the Indiana Dunes.  In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that established the national park (reference ). 

The landscaping surrounding the visitor center is mostly inspired by the surrounding natural landscape, including a recreated prairie, a rain garden, bio-swales, and landscape beds with a mix of regionally native and exotic species.  The landscape architects of record for the project are Williams Creek Consulting, of Indianapolis.

The Rain Garden


The rain garden is located along the west side of the visitor center, facing the street (Indiana 49).  This area and other areas were planted with the help of volunteers from Save the Dunes in 2009.  The garden is essentially a vegetated ditch (aka. swale, or bio-swale) that collects rainwater runoff from the adjacent parking lots and roof of the building, helping to clean the runoff of pollutants, including suspended sediment, before it enters the nearby creek and ultimately Lake Michigan, as well as allowing some of the runoff to percolate into the sandy soil.  A nearby interpretive sign explains the process as well a data sheet that can be found by clicking here.


The Rain Garden

Some of the plantings seen below in the rain garden, include the pink flowered Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), White Pine, Willows, as well as dune grasses and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) in the upper portions of the plantings.



Landscape Beds


The designed (more formally laid out) landscape beds are a bit hit or miss.  The Joe-Pye-Weed pictured above was also mislabeled as an aster, which is unfortunate, since part of this garden’s mission is education.  Also the salvia planted in front of it, which has nice blue flowers in June, is native to Europe and Asia; so while very attractive in bloom, Blue Mist Flower, (Conoclinium coelestinum, formally a Epatorium) a native to the Lower Midwest would have been a more appropriate choice for a native plant garden.

3247In the bed pictured above someone felt the need for a sign instructing whomever maintains the site, not to mow beyond the plastic edging.  I’m not sure that it is needed, but it is a bit discouraging to anyone who might want to try these plants in their own yard .. are they “pretty weeds” or are they appropriate native landscape plants?  The Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the foreground has awesome, bright orange, flowers in June and July, but can look a bit tired after blooming, (and does not like to be heavily mulched, as these are – their crowns tend to rot out.)  It may have been nice to interplant them with some native grasses, such as Junegrass (Koleria) or Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolis), the fern planted in full sun, next to a brick building may also have been better thought out.  The Mountain Laurel shrubs (Kalmia latifolia), an East Coast native, were is bloom during this July visit and seem to be doing well, however.


The picnic area to the east of the visitor center consists of broad swathes of perennials and shrubs, interplanted with shade trees.  The sweep of Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterilepis), seen above, seems to be doing quite well, despite the excess of bark mulch covering their crowns – it’s a beautifull and tough prairie native. 

In a nearby planting, Chinese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sp.)can be found at the base of a Midwestern Redbud tree (Cercis canadensis).  The Midwestern prairie has so many garden worthy grasses, including Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), that the use of miscanthus seems a bit silly, if not insulting.  I won’t even mention the Russian Sage to the left of the miscanthus (yeah, I know, I just did.)  The Eastern Redbud, is a great choice in the designed landscape.  As a member of the legume family (peas, soybeans, eg.) it is quite adaptable to various soil conditions due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the air through the process of rhizobial symbiosis.


In the same bed, can be found the Asian native, Ural Falsespirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia), next to a European Shasta Daisy.  While both plants are very attractive to the viewer (maybe not so attractive to pollinators), the Prairie Winged Sumac (Rhus copallina) and any number of our Midwest wildflowers, I would suggest Yellow Baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) or Cream Indigo (B. leucophaea), would have been awesome, not to mention … wait for it …… NATIVE!  Oh, well.  Russian Sage and Ural Falsespirea .. that’s a theme too, I suppose.





Near the delivery bays at the northeast corner (seen below) of the building there is a curious mix of native Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) along with a magnolia and the shade loving Asian perennial, astilbe.


Fragrant Sumac (rear middle left) can have great fall color

Some Japanese Deutzia near the front entrance; New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), a low growing prairie shrub, could have been chosen, and it has much nicer flowers.

3280While checking out the Japanese Deutzia, I thought I heard the sound of weeping, kind of a sad wailing, really.  I looked around and didn’t see anyone, then I realized, as I got closer, it was coming from the Virgina Sweetspire ‘Little Henry’ (Itea virginica).  They are a naturally low growing shrub with a nice fountain-like branching pattern.  These Sweetspire, however, where traumatized, sheared into little disfiguring gumdrops – I had to walk away, I felt bad for their predicament, but could do nothing but sympathize.


Gumdropified – What not to do to Virginia Sweetspire

Across the way, surrounding the flagpole, was the ubiquitous European ‘Karl Foerster’ Grass – again, like the Chinese Silver Grass, not a bad grass visually, just, well, really?  ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass, a prairie nativar similar in growth habit, with blue/green leaves, would have been a splendid choice for this area. Now I was beginning to weep.


‘Karl Foerster’ Grass


Wiping a tear from my eye, a smile immediately came to my face.  Beyond the wonky ‘Karl Foerster’ Grass, was a recreated prairie – really beautiful.  It turns out, it is also a bio-swale and acts as a floodplain for Dunes Creek, which flows through it.  An attractive alternative to the standard detention basin.


Grayheaded Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) shows off its stunning yellow flowers in mid-July


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How High’s the Temperature Papa?

She said it’s 8° and Rise’n

A cold, but sunny, New Year’s Eve.  A temperature of 8° with some overnight snow .. the morning sun, low in the winter sky, made everything glisten.  A good day for hot chocolate and a couple of Johnny Cash albums on the turntable.


A scattering of tree trimmings, drying out for a future bonfire



Tree trimmings ready for a spring project – what to construct with these?


An organic art installation – eat your heart out Morton Arboretum


‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea, a native cultivar adding interest to the winter garden


Wild Quinine still standing strong with caps of snow


Rudbecka laciniata – Golden Glow, the finches love the seeds, I love their drama


Switchgrass – still young, but looking good and catching some rays



The birds are not hungry enough to eat the asparagus berries yet


Some winterized Woodland Sunflower, Helianthus strumosus


Oh my, Pennisetum ‘Hameln’ .. a non-native charmer


Bits of unearthed construction debris stacked for a future project


Granite cobbles, as art, until needed for some other use


Neptune does not look happy – he never does, but he still makes me smile


White Pines and Cup-plant – lovely in winter too

When nature surrounds your home, there is always something that inspires awe – a kiss of winter sunbeams and a dusting of snow makes it all a bit more magical.


Happy New Year copy

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