Summer has arrived in the north and south: sedges are in their glory

It had been two weeks since I was last at Maple Grove Forest Preserve, and yesterday it seemed summer had arrived. The sedges are in their glory: at least 16 species can be found here now in flower or fruit. Carex hitchcockiana, C. albursina, C. jamesii and C. sparganioides greeted me in full fruit at the Gilbert Park entrance yesterday morning, with flowering Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum) near the end of flowering, fruits developing, and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) with flowers spent, the seeds inside starting to develop. In the uplands, Carex rosea is forming dark green clumps nearly a foot tall, and right next to it in some places you can find the similar C. radiata sprawled across the ground, culms and leaves nearly flattened, as though they’d be trampled (they haven’t: this is just what C. radiata does). Carex hirtifolia is laden with fruits, seemingly exhausted, arched over and largely hidden in the forest understory. There is a colony of C. woodii that I’d never seen before. I paced it off to about 20 feet across. There are scattered fruiting culms throughout; I wondered if it might be a single clone. There are few species growing interspersed, though I didn’t wade through the thicket of foliage as I would have liked, loathe to disrupt it. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a perfect stand of this species, which has long been one of my very favorites for the lush burgundy of its basal sheaths and its gracile, fountain-like habit. Beside it, I found Carex oligocarpa, a relative of C. hitchcockiana that I didn’t realize grew here. Both are sweet, svelte plants with slender perigynia etched with dozens of fine, narrow, impressed veins. They are a joy to find.

In the flat leading out of one of the ephemeral ponds I try to visit most Sunday mornings, a small grove of Carex grisea is growing with a few C. blanda. I hadn’t realized before yesterday that this was a drainage, but it is evident how happy the sedges are, and the vegetation along its keel appears to have been flattened by occasional runoff from the pool just uphill. These two sedges have produced a garden of sedge seedlings, a few upslope, but most within the drainage, and a particularly dense patch lodged along the edge of a branch that has fallen onto the forest floor. A solitary C. tribuloides is flowering, a floodplain species that shows up in depressions throughout our forests. In southern Wisconsin, I know this species primarily from floodplains, but the soils there are of coarser texture than the clayey soils of Downers Grove. Following the drainage upslope to the pond margin, I found several more friends I made in Wisconsin floodplains: C. squarrosa; bushy C. lupulina in full flower, anthers spread wide; the comely C. grayi in fruit; a modest-sized clump of C. crinita, inflorescences arched and flowing like water. Growing with them are fowl manna grass (Glyceria striata), ragwort (Packera paupercula), a giant knotweed (Polygonum sp.), hairy wild rye (Elymus villosus). Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is coming into bloom. Maple Grove is wonderful for these little wetlands, and they are in their early-summer splendor.

The floodplain along St. Joseph Creek is a bed of knee-high wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) and flowering dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), with honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis) and black snakeroot (Sanicula odorata) flowering along the overlooking trail. Annual bedstraw (Galium aparine) is scrambling up through the nettles, heavy with paired fruits: in the uplands, the bedstraw is sprawled across the forest floor. Beside the fallen bedstraw you can find the shriveled stems of false mermaid. At first glance you may not notice it, but look closely for the brownish threads tangled mycelialike on the leaf litter. I sat and considered a patch of this stuff for several minutes. There were Virginia bluebells growing strong here a few weeks ago, but now they are yellowed, reclining against adjacent trees and fallen logs, lying out on the trail, a few shriveled nutlets remaining in the bases of the spent flowers. Elsewhere in the woods, the large-flowered trilliums have lost their petals while prairie trillium petals are desiccated and blackened. The last fruits are hanging onto Enemion biternatum. Hydrophyllum appendiculatum flowers are past. Some shrub I did not recognize has been devoured by what looks to have been tent caterpillars: had I not been watching it consistently this spring, I would assume the webbing was old enough to be last year’s. As I write, I recall the Psalmist: “My heart is smitten, and withered like grass.”

But while the spring flowers are past, many are swelling into fruit, and summer flowers are coming out. Ovaries are swelling on the Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). Yellow violet (Viola pubescens) has gone to fruit along with sweet cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis), blisterwort (Ranunculus recurvatus), large-flower bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), whose green capsules are swollen with nearly-ripe, lustrous, honey-brown seeds crested with whitish elaiosomes to attract ants. Blue cohosh (Caulophylum thalictroides) seeds are developing but not yet blue, and green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) is starting to flower even as the staminate inflorescences of its cousin Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) are giving up and falling over. Shining bedstraw (Galium concinnum) is in flower here and there. I found one inflorescence of wild leek (Allium tricoccum) emerging on its naked stalk, leaves already gone. The woods are filled with pewees and indigo buntings and great-crested flycatchers.

Our warblers have mostly retreated northward. Last weekend I heard them in Door County, where I was teaching at the Festival of Nature in Ridges Sanctuary. Black-throated green warblers, black-and-white and chestnut-sided warblers were all singing. Things up there are behind us by at least a couple of weeks, which I must confess I recognize mainly by the sedges. Bristle-leaf sedge (Carex eburnea) has fruited in our garden but is just flowering there, where it belongs (C. eburnea is a cedar-glade species, thriving to my surprise in our DuPage County garden). Pennsylvania sedge (C. pensylvanica; yes, the species epithet really is spelled with one ‘n’) is still in full fruit in the dry uplands, while ours appear to have dropped their seeds. Inflorescences on the lovely Carex arctata — aren’t they all lovely? — are threadlike, while the kind-of-look-alike C. gracillima in our garden is in full fruit. Topping them all, in my book, was a find of the aptly named beautiful sedge, Carex concinna, on the property of the friends with whom we were staying. The species is state-threatened, diminutive, and a treat to find thriving beneath the white cedars within spitting distance of the lake shore. But these are all a bit outcompeted by the gardens of dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris) and gold-thread (Coptis trifolia) that line the trails, the twig-rush (Cladium mariscoides) carcasses in the sloughs, and the ferns, ericads (bog rosemary! Labrador-tea!) and mosses that remind you you’re really up north.

As I review my notes from my walks of yesterday and last weekend, I am in the loop, having just finished a PhD defense at UIC. The defense took us to Argentina and Peru, and afterwards my colleague Robie and I walked out to the bike racks together. She reminded me of eating lunches outside together as a lab group when she was doing her sabbatical at the Arboretum five years ago. That was a delightful fall and feels about as long in my memory as a summer afternoon. As I left her and biked toward downtown, I passed students hoeing up a garden bed on campus, dressed for planting, tending the tomatoes in their concrete raised bed. Now, eating lunch in the park just north of the public library, under the shade of a fully leafed-out European alder, looking up at what appears to be a stone eagle or pelican or some kind of bird perched on the northeast corner of the library — not the gargoyle I expected to tell you about — I am surrounded by people walking in the sun, a dog in arm, a friend by their side, a child in hand, an envelope tucked under their arm to mail. Two seagulls are stalking towards me, curious to see if I have a sandwich. At the corner of the park an older man is reclining against a bedroll. Two girls are sitting and talking; a middle-aged man is sitting on the curb, smoking. On the retaining wall along the sidewalk is a quote from Goethe: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” This, I think, could be the punchline of every one of these blog posts. Door County, Downers Grove, Chicago, all coming into summer together in their own way, each one giving you exactly the day that you get, and it’s more than enough.

Into the library now, and back to work.

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