Ode to Oaks

By Boak Wiesner

“Leaves were falling, just like embers, in colors red and gold, They set us on fire…” I could sense Roly Sally standing right next to me in the woods today as his words spring to mind. Blustery winds are breaking the leaves off at the petiole, sending yellow towards the ground in helical paths. That shape is so common in Nature – DNA’s structure being only the most famous example. Molecules like proteins and starch come in spirals, and whole plants also circum-nutate as they grow, in ever-widening helices.

Black Ash

Black Ash

I’m surrounded by the suffused gold of Sugar Maples, Ironwoods, Black Ash, among others, hoping that this ethereal yellow light could somehow be “canned”, to be taken out and savored in the dead white of winter.

Path in yellow woods

Path in yellow woods

At the edge of the woods, I find Red Oaks. They’re favorite food of white-tailed deer who eat both its leaves and the acorns, as do turkeys. Since they have to chew them, and they’re hard, food stuffs like this are termed ‘hard mast’. Had we black bears around here, we’d find them eating acorns as fast as they could. Acorns are a very convenient food source, as they cover the ground during the years when a copse of oaks drops them so animals need not travel far for a feast. Last year was one of those, with tons of acorns falling; this year, not so many.

Red Oak Leaves

Red Oak Leaves

Nutrition, thy name is acorns. Half their calories come as fat, the rest, mostly carbs. It’s easy to see how animals get heavy quickly on a diet of them. They also contain all the amino acids that animals need to make proteins.

White Oak Acorns

White Oak Acorns

Tannins also slow decomposition so oak leaves make a good covering material over gardens for the winter. These days, tannins are also a topic of conversation among oenophiles – wine-lovers – as red wines are aged in oak barrels, and our own state is a leading producer of oak wood for barrels. There are several wineries close by the Arb. Salut!

DSC_0195

Boak Wiesner in a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

Posted in Nature Notes | 1 Comment

Looking High and Low

By Greg Lecker

A sunny but cool 48 degree morning steered me towards Green Heron Pond. I walk through the Ordway Shelter and happen to notice a tribute to Arboretum donors – intricately carved directly into the overhead beam! Placed on the edge of the shelter overlooking the wetland, benches beckon one to bask in the warming eastern sunlight. I decline the invitation and walk along the sunny northern edge. Right away I marvel at the early color change of the tamaracks (larch) nearest the visitor center buildings. The lowest needles are a fading green, but most of the tree has turned yellow gold. The branches and small cones are dark against a blue sky.

Yellow Tamaracks

Yellow Tamaracks

The green hues of the woodland edge are fading. The foliage of white snakeroot, a favorite woodland native, has turned a pale chartreuse and its formerly white flowers have burst into fluffy tawny seed heads.

Wurtele Boardwalk

Wurtele Boardwalk

As I enter the Wurtele Boardwalk, I marvel at the shiny textures of the grasses and rushes. Cattail foliage is turning yellow from its base upwards, even as its frost nipped tips are turning brown and wilting.

Shiny Stripes

Shiny Stripes

The waning moon is a faint cameo in a deep blue western sky. Over the past week, I’ve watched it rise and set later each day. When it is next full, the weather and the landscape will certainly have turned. The moon seems to bob amidst the foliage that waves in a welcome southern wind.

Turning my attention to a narrow path, I notice that cattail seed down has blanketed the ground – mirroring the frosty white that is now brightening green lawns on early mornings.

Further along the boardwalk, two common trees of this wetland flank the walkway. The quaking aspen is turning yellow; this tamarack has not yet reached peak color. That will come between now and the end of October.

Tree Canopy

Tree Canopy

A leafless tree snag is especially intriguing with the raking light of a low sun. It is this morning light that accentuates the wetland textures. How could I have overlooked all the forms and interest of this place in favor of the showy blooms of the woodland and prairie collections?!

I reach the end of the boardwalk and search in vain for orchid foliage to remind me of their gorgeous flowers. But the many photographers toting tripods and zoom lenses remind me that the view is upwards – towards the color change that is drifting downward from the top of the tree canopy! Turning back towards a flickering light, I am further cheered by the sparkling sun.

Woodland Sparkle

Woodland Sparkle

On your next visit to the Arboretum or your favorite natural area, make sure to look up and down.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment

Change Is In the Air …

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Fall colors are evident at the new entrance to the Arboretum, but they are not yet at peak. There are still sunflowers towering tall over grasses and shrubs. The deep purple of New England asters compete against a backdrop of autumn-hued trees.

New England Asters

New England Asters

Sumac berries are fuzzy red, and most of the foliage is deep scarlet. Rosehips are now bright red as well. American bittersweet berries glow bright orange, not yet split open to reveal the red fruit inside.

Maples are the most colorful right now, in shades of red, yellow, green, orange and brown. I am delighted to find Zigzag goldenrods blooming low in the shaded woodland. Unlike most goldenrods, these petite plants have petals blooming from the axils.

Maple Leaves on Bench

Maple Leaves on Bench

A large planting of bright red turtleheads, native to the southern part of our state, glows in the subdued light of the forest. A barred owl calls, “Who, who, who cooks for you all?” from the hill above.

Someone calls my name, and I find a longtime family friend beaming at me. Kevin has just proposed to Megan in the Woodland Azalea Garden, and she accepted! I take their photo in the forested shade, enjoying Kevin’s grin and Megan’s giddy joy. Love is in the air…

Kevin and Meg

Kevin and Meg

Huge leathery white oak leaves resemble an artist’s palette in greens, scarlet, yellows, plums. Pagoda dogwoods are turning yellow-orange and red-plum on the outer edges. A white-breasted nuthatch laughs teasingly from beyond the tree line.

Salt Marsh Moth Larva

Salt Marsh Moth Larva

Milkweed pods have dried and split open and are now spilling their seeds into the brisk wind. A Salt marsh moth larva languishes on a bunch aster flowers. Its orange tufts and long black hairs seem exotic in the brisk Minnesota wind.

Lavender clusters of stiff gentian flowerheads resemble wrapped-up morning glories. The six-inch plants bloom in small clusters at the end of upright, branched stems.

Goldenrod Seedheads

Goldenrod Seedheads

Tall stems of Showy goldenrod have now burst into thick woolly seedheads. Hairy false golden aster is still in bloom. Prairie grasses rise in luxurious volume, and I admire the mathematic precision of Canada wild rye seedheads.

Eight geese rise from the prairie pond in V-formation, honking raucously over the iconic gnarled maples in the prairie. The trees are completely orange-red, many leaves already blown away.

The waxing moon rising over the eastern horizon reminds me of the total lunar eclipse of a full moon occurring this Wednesday at 5:51 a.m. Let’s hope for clear skies!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer Program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment

Inescapable Colors

By Boak Wiesner

“Blazing in gold and quenching in purple” certainly described well the edges of the Ordway Prairie. Goldenrod, Sunflowers, and at least two shades of purple of New England Asters greeted me on maybe the last hot day of the year. Emily Dickinson sure knew her stuff.

The red leaves of a Pagoda Dogwood drew me in as their deep red offers such a contrast to the otherwise gold and purple. A closer look yielded an unexpected treasure: a small spider had spun its web in the dished area of the folded leaf.

DSC_0185Next to the dogwood, I noticed that some of the leaves of Milkweed leaves that had gone yellow were eaten along the edges. I thought it a little late to be Monarchs just hatching out. Turning the leaf over, voila!, Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars. These colorful little guys will metamorphose into rather small, drab, white moth soon.

DSC_0207Collecting pollen on an aster was a Common Honeybee. That she can fly at all with all that pollen to carry is wonderful to behold!

DSC_0269Another bee caught my eye but wait! Look again, it’s a fly. How can one tell? It only has two wings – most insects have four. It’s a Bee Mimic Fly. A rather straightforward naming I’d have to say.

DSC_0251A Grasshopper was resting on what was left of the inflorescence of a Sunflower. Petals don’t have nearly as much nutritional value as do leaves, so this little orthopteran wasn’t eating, just basking in the sun.

DSC_0317Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment

Take a Second Look!

By Greg Lecker

I hope readers took note of Saturday evening’s sky show. Following the wind and brief rain, skies gradually brightened west to east. Low light raked across the landscape, illuminating trees and plains against a warm gray overcast sky. To the south, clouds and sky cooked a layer cake of blue and orange. To the east, still thick roiling clouds glowed orange.

Entering Akire Drive, I’m relieved to see that Arboretum plantings sustained forecast threats of scattered frost earlier in September. The shift from summer to autumn foliage hangs suspended, barely changed from my last visit three weeks ago. Crimson and scarlet patches dot drifts of sumac. A few oak boughs and sunny edges of the Sugarbush hint at the colors to come.

From the Sensory Garden parking lot, I descend into Grace Dayton Wildflower Garden and make a double-take. At first glance to my right, a flash of creamy white and yellow tease me with the memory of Dutchmen’s Breeches, a spring ephemeral. Delicate, thinly textured, and low to the ground – check. On second look, I see that it’s a white woodland aster.

White Woodland Aster

White Woodland Aster

The temporary deception forces me to look a bit more closely. William Blake’s admonishing verse comes to mind: “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” I sit down and work to capture the fireworks bursts of zig-zag goldenrod. A brief hour color sketch; but still more time than I sometimes grant a plant. The rare goldenrod that not only tolerates but thrives in shade, the stems turn direction at leaf nodes and yield yellow blooms.

Zig-Zag Goldenrod

Zig-Zag Goldenrod

Nature delights me with her flora and fauna. Birds are calling; squirrels are collecting black walnut fruits; Canada geese are flocking. I study pink turtlehead; and I find a bee forcing its way into the partly closed flower. White turtlehead and closed or bottle gentian offer a similar challenged to our winged friends.

Pink Turtlehead and Bee

Pink Turtlehead and Bee

A bit deeper into the woods, near the green duckweed covered pool, I find the most interesting seed heads on sunflower braches. The ripe spherical heads are segmented into encircling papery segments that hold thin seeds. The plant stems are winged – unique among native sunflowers. I don’t find a plant label; but a Google search yields a probable name: Wingstem (Verbisina alternifolia). Yes, leaves are alternate. And, yes, the centers of intact flowers are indeed foreshadow the seed heads in form.

Wingstem

Wingstem

After extended exploration of the woodland, I make a quick visit to the Bennett Johnson Prairie Savannah. Goldenrods are beginning to fade; but New England asters have begun to bloom recently. Grasses are still rusty orange; though this color will mute to tawny gold by autumn’s end. Warm temperatures are forecast this week with possibly 80 degree highs by week’s end – fine weather for a visit to the Arboretum. Make the time.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment

Late Summer Lollygagging

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Twenty-seven species of mushrooms have been identified at the Arb, according to the Nature Notes whiteboard in the visitor center lobby. That’s a lot of fungi!
And the list includes interesting ones like the gooey white jelly fungus, ash bolete with its spongey pores in place of gills, giant puffball and funnel cap.

Cut-leaf Coneflower

Cut-leaf Coneflower

But I eschew mushrooms for wildflowers and am richly rewarded in the prairie: cut-leaf coneflower with its hundreds of tiny disk flowers like miniature golden trumpets; deep purple New England asters contrast next to smooth blue aster, and many shades of gold on sunflowers, goldenrods, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans.

Female American Goldfinch

Female American Goldfinch

Black-capped chickadees converse in a lone maple tree before flitting away, the discussion resolved. A female American goldfinch poses on a sunflower branch with a prairie backdrop under clouded sky. The bright orange of a milkweed bug larva catches my eye as it sunsatopa coneflower seedhead.

Bumblebees, honeybees and myriad flies flit through jumbles of asters and sunflowers while I stand just to watch this living, moving, busy bouquet.
Interesting little bluestem grasses are topped with hard little seeds that erupt into tiny white frays, ready to blow away with a coming breeze.

Guara

Guara

Graceful red stems of prairie dropseed wave their seeds coated papery white in a lightly scented breeze. Tall and graceful, biennial guara rises above with bright scarlet pods near its branch tips. Rows of small green seeds tinged scarlet on the edges march up the stems in precise step.

I lollygag in the woods as a fox squirrel chatters and runs up a tree trunk, promptly sending acorns and twigs crashing to the forest floor. White snakeroot punctuates the cool dark. A vireo, chortling like a squeeze toy, calls in abrupt, short syllables. You can listen to a red-eyed vireo here: http://birds.audubon.org/birds/red-eyed-vireo.

Jewelweeds in yellow and black-spotted orange line the trail to the boardwalk at Green Heron Pond. A light buzz behind me makes me turn, scaring off a ruby-throated hummingbird. Hummers just love the sweet nectar hiding in the jewelweed spur.

Pink turtleheads

Pink turtleheads

Young Kayla giggles as her dad Chris bounces on the spongey bog while she rides the waves. She laughs at the pink turtleheads in full bloom. “They really look like turtles!” Kayla exclaims.

White clusters of fine water hemlock florets are almost invisible. Bunches of flat-topped white aster and explosions of green water plantain seedheads fill the marsh.

Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed

Mauve Joe Pye Weed, some still in bloom and others with brown seedheads sport leaves tinged brick-red. Tiny round buds of white smartweed are tangled in sunflower clumps and grasses around the bog. Drooping spires of pink smartweed are scattered throughout the wetland.

Ferns are tinged brown at the edges, and red maple’s outer leaves are shaded crimson. Leaf edges of woodbine vines and sumac shrubs are flushed red.
I could spend the entire day just taking it all in.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer Program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment

A Jewel of a Day

By Boak Wiesner

It’s hard for me grasp that there may be frost later this very week on such a warm and sunny day. School’s back in session and, since I’m a Gopher myself (’83), I wander the prairie parcels of the Arb in search of gopher activity. The U’s mascot doesn’t depict a gopher very accurately, but I hope that seeing it on the sidelines gets folks thinking about the animals of our state. Real ones aren’t above ground very much.

Gophers can move a lot of soil in a year – just one can bring up over a ton! – and so provide a mechanism for aerating the soil of open areas. In fact, an archaeologist pal of mine was alerted to artifacts in a nearby state park because gophers were bringing them to the surface.

DSC_0182Down here at the gopher’s eye view, one of the prettiest plants in Bottle Gentian. The corolla, that is, its ring of petals, never really opens up, so it looks like a bottle, hence its name. It takes a big beefy bumblebee to muscle its way in for pollination to occur.

DSC_0152Here at the end of summer, Goldenrod is one of the showiest common flowers. Many kinds of insects including Soldier Beetles and various kinds of wasps hide in the inflorescences and prey on insects coming in for a meal.

DSC_0176Goldenrod stems are host to the larvae and pupae of the small Goldenrod Gall Fly – not very aptly named as it doesn’t fly very well and instead crawls up and down the stems. Come winter, the larvae’s metabolism begins to produce glycerol (a small, soluble sugar) which acts as an antifreeze. Larvae carefully removed from galls can be used as bait for ice fishing.

DSC_0175Watching these critters eat brought thoughts of my own diet to mind and what should find almost was some rose hips. Their wine-red color stands out in stark contrast to the greens, yellows, and purples of a prairie in late summer. Rose hips contain lots of vitamin C and A, calcium and iron. A medicinal tea can be steeped from them and I’ve eaten them raw. Not overly tasty but better than having one’s teeth fall out from scurvy!

DSC_0197Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

Posted in Nature Notes | Leave a comment