Autumn Morning: Prairie Remnant Exploration


This past Sunday morning, I took a walk to a prairie remnant near my home.  Somehow, it escaped the plow and other development to still be with us today – very unusual in this part of Chicagoland.  At one time this ten acre parcel was part of a golf course, subdivided into tiny lots – but never “improved” with roads, etc.  At one point, the land went into tax default and subsequently up for auction.  The adjacent town of Crete purchased the property and wanted to annex the unincorporated land in to their town.  Crete’s neighbor, the town of Steger said that it was already part of their town, so bugger off Crete.  The Great Recession of 2008 caused a detente over rights to this taxable plot of land, which is one reason it still is open land, full of bird life and a rare example of prairie plant and fauna biodiversity. 

On one of my walks, I saw a rare green Grass Snake – not much bigger than a pencil.  Pretty cool, and so is the prairie remnant.  Maybe Crete and Steger will realize, one day, that its best use would be as preserved green space, not houses, not a strip mall, and not green space as in ball fields either – a park can be more than ball fields and play equipment – in this case it could be a place for adventure, learning, and relaxing.

So while we still can, let’s enjoy the rare beauty of the Midwestern landscape:

























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Downy Gentian – A Midwest Beauty in Fall



Found growing on dry hill prairies and well drained mesic prairies, Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) is a real knock-out.  Just as many plants are looking the worse for wear, or are huge five foot tall plants in bloom at this time of year, Downy Gentian is a true exception.  At only one foot tall, its royal blue flowers are a fall surprise amongst all of the yellow goldenrods and sunflowers.

My first encounter with Downy Gentian was in a smallish, unmanaged remnant prairie south of Chicago.  I was immediately smitten by the bright, one and a half inch wide, star-shaped flowers.  When the time was right, I went back to collect seed – although, from the holes that I saw, I realized that another intrepid gardener was digging the plants – not good.  That October, I sowed the tiny seeds in flats of soil and protected them from digging varmints with window screen laid on top of the seed flats.  I had been successful in propagating Bottle Gentian (G. andrewsii) and Yellowish Gentian (G. flavida) by this method.  Not so with Downy Gentian.  The following spring, when other seeds where sprouting in my native plant nursery, the flat of Downy Gentian only grew weeds.


An autumn surprise in a restored/reconstructed prairie.

I, of course, tried again the following year.  No luck.  So, ten years on, I was very surprised to see my favorite fall flower, blooming in a little prairie restoration I had worked on.  I had planted Rattlesnake Master, Rough Blazingstar, Indiangrass, Big Bluestem, Prairie Dock, and others – both by plant and by seed.  All of those grasses and wildflowers took off, and filled in the area left bare by the utility company workers.  In frustration, I must have also sown my remaining Downy Gentian seed as well, because there is was in bloom, so many years later – I could not have been more surprised if I had found gold coins laying on the ground!


I collected seed from these new plants and cast them out into my little backyard prairie, hoping that in ten years (or less) it would also be home to the elusive Downy Gentian.  This year, I will also plant a flat of seeds as well – maybe I will have better luck this time around.


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Usher in Autumn with These Three Perennials That Provide a Punch of Color



What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “fall color?”  Trees?  Yes, fantastic fall color.  Many Trees have great fall color, from the gold of the much maligned Cottonwood to the red, oranges, and yellows of the mighty Sugar Maple and the more petite Ironwood.  But what about perennials?  Mums you say?  Sure, but this isn’t 1956, let’s think a bit more creatively, when we think of fall perennials.  Here are three great ones:

‘Iron Butterfly’ Vernonia


The dwarf cultivar of Narrow Leaf Ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii) known as ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a recent introduction by Allan Armatage of the University of Georgia.  Growing to 18″ to 24″ in height and width, this late summer blooming has outstanding purple color, not unlike many asters, but unlike asters, this one does not look like a weed when not in bloom.  The finely cut foliage has the appearance of Amsonia hubrichtii and meshes well with other perennials, waiting its turn to enter the autumn spotlight. 

This butterfly magnet prefers full sun and well drained soil, but can handle part sun and periods of wet soil, making it a great plant for rain gardens.



Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Admittedly Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’  aka. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ has been around since Georg Arends of Germany introduced it to American gardeners in the early 1950’s, and is certainly not underused.  It is however, too often misused.  Planted in rings around the base of Silver Maple trees, or massed with daylilies and purple coneflowers, ‘Autumn Joy’ seems a bit joyless – especially when it flops over due to an over zealous irrigation system.  However, planted as single accents throughout a garden, in full sun with ornamental grasses such as Switchgrass, Prairie Dropseed, or Little Bluestem it is a late season standout.  The butterfly attracting flowers start out green, turning pink, then burgundy, and finally a rich rusty brown that stay upright all winter long – a feat other large flowered sedums simply can not match.


Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ growing with Amsonia hubrichtii. The bright gold foliage of Amsonia will complement the seedheads of the sedum later in autumn.



‘Blue Twist’ Allium (lower left) is just fading, as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’ take center stage in the late summer garden.


Blue-stemmed Goldenrod


For a more shady location (or full sun), Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is a real charmer.  This Midwestern native goldenrod can be found growing in woodlands under oaks and Sugar Maples.  Clusters of petite golden yellow flowers form along its arching stems, creating a bold mass of color in the late summer landscape.  Blue-stemmed Goldenrod grows in neat clumps, 18″ to 24″ high, allowing it to be placed among other plants without fear of is forming a massive unruly colony, unlike the stoloniferous ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) often seen in garden centers.


While Blue-stemmed Goldenrod may reseed, the plants grow in tight clumps, rather than forming aggressive colonies in the garden.

Placed where afternoon sun will fall on its bright yellow flowers, this plant can be spectacular under the open shade of large trees, brightening an otherwise dark corner of the landscape.  Plant in well drained soil with Drummond’s Aster (Aster sagittifolius) and Solomon’s Beard (Smilacina racemosa) for a pleasing fall display.



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