Ghosts in the Forest

Here’s the cool plant of the week, a charming ghost of dark places in the forest: Monotropa uniflora — “Indian pipe”, or “Ghost plant”, or “Corpse plant”.

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

We found clusters of these scattered about the grounds of West Virginia State Wildlife Center (AKA “The French Creek Game Farm”) near French Creek, WV, each cluster shaded by trees and shrubs a little distance from the path. The Wildlife Center houses a small collection of zoological wildlife native to West Virginia, with assorted botanical wildlife on view for the alert along the path.

Sunday Morning at Nachusa

On Sunday morning of the reunion weekend we finally got our first look at Nachusa Grasslands, some 3100 acres (about 1254.5 hectares or 12.5 square km) or a bit more of Illinois prairie “remnants, restorations, and reconstructions” near Franklin Grove.

Nachusa Grasslands

Nachusa Grasslands

In 1986 the Nature Conservancy bought 250 acres of pasture land near the Rock River in Ogle County, Illinois. This little bit of land was too rocky to plow, so it remained largely native prairie while most of rest of the county was being turned into corn and bean fields. Over the years the Nature Conservancy continued to acquire more land, and much of the newly acquired land was similarly blessed by lack of plowing. Native plants, native birds, native insects abound. In a recent report the Nature Conservancy said that “Nachusa is home to 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds.” It’s a wonderful place to see, if only briefly and only in small, what Illinois, the Prairie State, looked like 200 years ago when it was about to join the Union.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at Nachusa

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at Nachusa

This is Ogle County, home territory for the first 18 years of my life. But I had not been back to this spot of land in a long time, and somehow I had managed not to hear about the Grasslands until a couple of years ago. When I did hear of it I was fascinated — it’s a relic of the prairie amidst the corn fields of eastern Ogle County, less than 20 miles (32 km) from Rochelle, my home town. It’s too far to travel from my current home for a quick visit, but the reunion would bring me back to Rochelle for a few days. Lisa and I decided we had been presented with an opportunity to see, not just old friends, but also this recovering Prairie for ourselves. Sunday morning we were joined at Franklin Grove by our long-time friend Margaret Carney, and we drove the few remaining miles along Lowden Road to Nachusa. Margaret’s description of the day can be read [here].

What’s so exciting about a prairie? I think Margaret makes it abundantly clear. There is very little that my words might add to her story, so I’ll content myself with posting a smattering of pictures, which I hope are evocative although none will be adequate.

Nachusa plants

Cluster of plants at Nachusa

Nightshade at Nachusa

Nightshade (Solanum ptycanthum?) at Nachusa

Nachusa Grasslands view

Nachusa Grasslands vista

Celadon with Fluffy White

Luna moth

Brand new Luna moth

We were on our way to the store when I happened to notice something unusual on the sweetgum tree (Liquidambar) — a bit of celadon porcelain with something fluffy and white attached.

A Luna moth (Actias luna), newly emerged from its cocoon, so new that its wings were still stuck together, it had climbed part way up the tree trunk and was waiting patiently while it became fully adult. We looked under the tree, but never found any remnant of what had been shed.

Its wings stayed folded for a very long time while we came and went, checking on it at intervals. Eventually its front wings opened revealing a pair of “eyes”, turning its back into a kind of eerie mask.

Luna moth, partly open

Luna moth, partly open

We waited some more. Toward evening the sky darkened and rain, sporadically hard, fell. The moth climbed a bit higher in the tree, settling amid a large patch of lichen nearly the same color as its wings.

Luna moth on lichen

Luna moth on lichen

When I checked on it again later, to see if its hind wings had finally opened, the moth was gone.

Black Hawk

The reunion was to be in Rochelle in mid-July, but all the motels in the area were already fully booked months earlier. We thought about this situation a while, then decided to spend the weekend camping at Lowden State Park on the Rock River outside Oregon, Illinois. The park is less than a half-hour drive from Rochelle, and we intended to drive around a bit in the county anyway.

Lowden Park includes one of Lorado Taft‘s most famous concrete statues, the one that Taft named “The Eternal Indian” but which is commonly known as “Black Hawk”.

"Black Hawk" from across the river

“Black Hawk” from across the river

When we were planning this trip we talked about meeting friends for lunch on Sunday at what used to be Maxson’s Manor on the west side of the river, but by the time we got to Illinois those plans had changed. We all decided it would be easier to meet in Rochelle instead. Nevertheless, I thought we should drive over to the old restaurant and take in the view from that side of the river before we claimed our camp site.

"Black Hawk" from below

“Black Hawk” from below

Later we drove across to the park and visited the statue in person. Taft’s chosen medium was poured concrete, and over the 100 years of the statue’s existence the environment has taken a toll. If you look closely at the first picture you can see that part of the figure’s right arm has fallen away. Currently restoration work is in progress, and a small fence prevents visitors from getting too close to the statue. We walked around the statue for a while, but chose not to visit Ganymede Spring further down the cliff.

Camp site at Lowden State Park

Camp site at Lowden State Park

Our camp site was in a very pleasant oak woods, made even more pleasant by the fact that the events of “Oregon Trail Days” all took place in the larger camp ground on the other side of the road. Few campers and nearly no noise from the festival came into this smaller camp ground. Instead we were visited, annoyingly, by swarms of mosquitoes each evening and, much more pleasantly, by red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) and American robins (Turdus migratorius) throughout the days we were there. In the mornings we were serenaded noisily by mysterious birds who sang from the tops of the trees and hid among the leaves, only sometimes allowing us to see their silhouettes against the sky. We eventually decided that they must be orchard orioles (Icterus spurius).