By Mary Beth Pottratz
A small hawk flies against a clear blue sky as I head to the wildflower garden. Golden tamaracks light up the landscape. Their soft needle bases are still pale green.
Deep purple asters survived this past week’s hard freeze, sheltered by the forest. Frothy powder puffs of showy goldenrod seedheads stand tall.
Chickadees and robins flit quietly in the forest. Chipmunks and squirrels are busy stocking their winter larders. I treasure the distant chortle of a bluebird, knowing he will soon head south.
Witch hazel shrubs have just started to blossom. The tiny yellow four-petaled flowers will be easier to see once their matching yellow leaves have fallen.
The forest is deep in transition. Red oak leaves are still rich green. A sugar maple beneath it is golden. Another sugar maple has lost almost all its leaves. White baneberry shows off its white berries and little black dots of doll’s eyes. The warm sun glows through a green and yellow jigsaw puzzle of river birch leaves.
Mushrooms have finally popped up after the recent rains. Stalkless oyster mushrooms spread along nursery logs. Brown and maroon and ivory fungi peak out from fallen leaves. Strangely shaped polypores march up the trunks of snags.
Dramatic interest is provided by groups of seedheads of blue vervain with six-inch spires of tightly packed nut-brown seeds. Whorled milkweed’s needle-like leaves have dried to curlicue poufs in shades of tan and cappuccino.
Up in the prairie, common, swamp, and butterfly milkweed pods have already dried and split open, spilling flat brown seeds with silky white sprays to carry them in the wind. Their leaves have dried and fallen, leaving bare crooked stalks with pointy oval pods jutting out.
They not only provides us with winter interest above the coming snows: Milkweed stalks are valuable to wildlife. It is the only plant that monarch larva can survive upon. Important insects, including pollinating flies and bees, use its stalks for winter protection. And come spring, orioles build their flannel-soft nests by stripping thin strands from dead milkweed stalks before weaving them into warm nests. Good reasons to leave those milkweeds up!
Joe Pye weed sports large fluffy seedheads atop tall stems. Rosinweed’s thick bottom leaves are green but dangling dry on top. Its thick green calyxes are now brittle blue-gray.
The prairie grasses are the true stars of fall! Graceful prairie dropseed rises neatly in thick sprays three feet tall. Lime green grass blades are highlighted citrine and lowlighted deep muted orange. Delicate blond seedheads sway in the breeze.
Big bluestem rises above the prairie fray in sprays mostly bereft of seeds. Fuzzy little bluestem seedheads glow ivory in the sun atop brick-shaded blades. Switchgrass and Indian grass stand tall in jumbled stripes of cream, tan, brick and khaki. And those spots that are tamped down flat? Deer beds!
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the program is available at www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org