Denizens of the Grass

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Strolling into the prairie, the chirping of snowy crickets becomes ever louder. The ones nearest me become silent with terror as I approach. I count the number of chirps in 14 seconds and add 40; sure enough, the temperature is 75⁰!

Monarch on Northern Plains Blazing Star

Monarch on Northern Plains Blazing Star

A monarch nectars on a Northern plains blazing star. The prairie resembles a sea of yellow dots against green and beige grasses. Tall Cup plants are in full bloom. Rosinweeds’ yellow blossoms and thick green buds bend its own stems sideways. Many types of goldenrods are flowering and others starting to set buds.Prairie dock’s golden sunflowers stretch several feet above me on stout stems that rise from a clump of huge leaves at the base.

Red Meadowhawk Dragonfly

Red Meadowhawk Dragonfly

A gorgeous red meadowhawk dragonfly rests on a seedhead. It has tiny amber rectangles near its wingtips, and golden amber glow to the inner half of its wings. Its bright red body sports black triangles smartly along its sides.

Masses of Boltonia stand out stark white against the prairie green. A goldfinch gorges on seeds atop a Cup plant. Nearby, round-headed bush clovers are starting to bloom. They will leave interesting brown seed pods that rise above the snow for winter interest in the garden.

Prairie Dropseed

Prairie Dropseed

Little bluestem is releasing its fluffy white seeds. Indian grass’ metallic amber florets sway in the breeze. A closer look shows tiny yellow anthers dangling. Even smaller pink stigma stick out sideways like tiny brushes. My favorite grass, Prairie dropseed’s graceful beige flower stalks dance in the breeze above lime-green foliage.

Coneflower

Coneflower

Geese are grouping overhead, honking as they flap in and out of loose V-formations. Blue jays and crows are raising their voices now that many migratory birds have gone. Flowering spurge, many types of sunflowers, wild quinine, and still some monarda are blooming. Purple coneflower petals have withered. The cones expand and the disk flowers open.

Green Sweat Bee

Green Sweat Bee

The insects are truly fascinating! Tiny mosquitoes are whisked away by the stiff breeze, allowing me to stop and look. What is this metallic green sweat bee doing on a Brown-eyed Susan, I wonder? Ladybugs, little spiders, milkweed beetles and myriad pollinating flies and bees are interesting to watch. A yellow-brown Meadowhawk with black triangles on its abdomen rests on a leaf. White and pale blue butterflies and tan moths flit through grasses and flowers.

Gray-headed coneflowers have lost their petals and the cones are starting to swell. Arb member Eva of Deephaven and I relax on a bench and chat about native plants for her shade garden, enjoying the breeze, singing birds and crickets.But noon seems to have arrived sooner now that the days are shortening. The change in season is reflected in the grasses and flowers as summer winds down.

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

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A Late Summer Walk

By Boak Wiesner

Pairs of squirrels, both gray and red, chasing each other, oblivious of me, and of everything else, as teenagers are wont to be, remind me that soon I, too, will be dealing with my own sets of squirrels when school soon starts, ha!

Summer’s fullness is slowly giving way to the dryer, cooler, and more colorful fall. This morning there’s a bit of a break from the heat of recent days. Dogwoods, both Pagoda and Red Osier, have berried out. Both have nice red colored fruit stalks. You know how to tell the difference, right? By the bark! (Couldn’t resist.) Really, the berries of each are the way to tell: Pagoda has the nice blue ones, while Red Osier has the familiar white ones.

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

It’s always refreshing to come to terms with just how much one does not know. Along the path, just past the new orchid plantings, which I’ve traipsed along lots of times, I come across a fungus that I have never seen before. White and foamy, I think it might be some sort of slime-mold. I guess I get to find out later. I know the orange kind that grow on red cedar trees around here where it’s wet but not this one.

Tapioca Slime Mold (Brefeldia maxima) (I think)

Tapioca Slime Mold (Brefeldia maxima) (I think)

I was feeling a mite stupid when I came across some refreshingly familiar Maple Spindle Galls, which are the domiciles of – wait for it – mites. What gall it must take to make yet another pun! Mites are tiny relatives of spiders but these little guys don’t have eight legs, just two. I guess they’re a mite short of legs! Secretions of its saliva cause the plant to produce the familiar shapes.

Maple Spindle Galls (caused by Vasates aceriscrumena)

Maple Spindle Galls (caused by Vasates aceriscrumena)

The vines of Wild Cucumber sprawl across my way. It’s nice to see flowers so late in the season. They’ll develop into hollow, spiky fruits that hang from the withered vines, sometimes all winter.

Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)

Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Refuge of Moisture, Scent…..Life

By Greg Lecker

I arrive at Spring Peeper Meadow just before sunset. The heavy, warm day has transferred its heat to the abundant foliage. Now, the land gives back this energy in softness, moisture and fragrance. The mown turf paths are springy with thick grass. Just slightly damp; though not yet dewy.

Turkey foot (Big Blue Stem) towers over everything. Through the netting of three-toed flower heads and plant stems, I see a variety of sky glories – to the west bright setting sun…..to the north, building clouds.

Turkey Foot and Goldenrod

Turkey Foot and Goldenrod

Even more thickly than do its pale pink flowers and blue-gray green foliage surround, the scent of Wild Bergamot (Bee Balm) astounds. Imagine Earl Grey Tea fused with oregano.

Gray Headed Coneflower

Gray Headed Coneflower

Bright yellow petals of Gray Headed Coneflower droop – mirroring my body’s own flagging in the day’s humidity.

Cup Plant in Full Bloom

Cup Plant in Full Bloom

Another yellow plant, Cup Plant, is now in full bloom. Flower stalks stretch upwards above the diagonal cups formed by leaves that clasp flower stems. Water collected from Thursday evening’s downpour remains two days later – shaded from evaporation by the large rough leaves. In the hot, dry habitats where these plants grow, this life-giving moisture must be welcomed by its inhabitants.

Cup Plant and Trail

Cup Plant and Trail

Along the trail, I side-step a bit of canine scat. Not just because dogs are prohibited, but because of its unusual, wild, unprocessed contents, I diagnose the scat as from a coyote. Camping overnight during the recent blue moon, I was serenaded by the distant sounds of coyotes. Though the campgrounds were shared by many dogs accompanying their human alpha leaders, man’s best friends were not the source of the distant yelping.

Coyote Scat

Coyote Scat

I do not hear, nor do I see birds. A number of bumblebees hover around wild bergamot, escaping my camera’s capture. Nature is slowing for the evening; settling in for the night. Insect repellent applied in the early morning has worn off. Mosquitos are lightly testing me – they usher me along the paths, hurrying me along on my way to my next appointment.

While I often enjoy the quiet solace of Spring Peeper Meadow, I do encourage visitors to expand their perception of the Arboretum from mere flower gardens to nature refuge.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Prairie Sun

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The sun plays hide-and-seek behind drifts of fluffy white cumulus clouds as I ramble through the wetlands. Goldfinches and chickadees make furtive little “tik” calls to each other.

Ironweed

Ironweed

Tall stems of deep purple Ironweed reach for the sky. The blossoms morph to deep rust. Early goldenrod is already sporting yellow-gold blooms, but most goldenrods are just setting buds. Many have interesting galls: bushy bunch galls at the stem tip, or round ball galls halfway up the stem. The plants will flower unharmed while protecting tiny insects important in the food chain.

Male and female Pearl crescent butterflies sun on a leaf and dance in the air. Lavender Allium and yellow Goat’s beard peek between cattails. Small yellow Common St Johns wort and tall yellow Cup plants flower alongside feathery, lavender Joe pye weed and Purple coneflowers.

A tiny blue butterfly flits to a Black snakeroot flower. Common yellowthroats call back and forth. Wild rose hips are green and Jewelweed is chest high. Finally – a Jewelweed flower! Hummingbirds need this sweet nectar to prepare for migration.

New England aster

New England aster

In the prairie, the sun-warmed scent of bee balm and white sage sooth my lungs and I inhale deeply. Flat-topped white aster and deep purple New England aster are already in bloom. Yellow coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, Prairie dock, and Cup plants all sport golden-yellow flowers. Giant sunflowers stand 10 feet tall with attractive reddish purple stems. Several crickets are calling: a high, constant whirr; a C-note repeated continuously; and a funny buzz that might be a bird…

White Boneset and Blue vervain are in full bloom! A Black saddlebags skimmer sits on a cattail. A Twelve-spotted skimmer – a dragonfly with white and black spots on its wings – suns on a leaf. Sedges bloom with explosions of brown nutlets at their tips. Indigo buntings warble back and forth at each other from the maple trees in the prairie.

Riot of color

Riot of color

The Prairie Garden is a riot of color: Billows of tiny white Flowering spurge, tall white spikes of Culver’s root, golden-yellow sunflowers and Gray-headed coneflower, green spiked balls of Rattlesnake master, and soft, lavender Lead plant. Short spikes of Purple prairie clover and tall purple Gayfeathers add texture to the fray.

The turkey-foot buds of Big bluestem and graceful panicles of Prairie dropseed buds sway in the stiff breeze. Indian grass is tipped with shiny brown buds.

Eastern swallowtail

Eastern swallowtail

Common milkweed now has small green pods. A blue metallic fly works on Wild quinine. Bright yellow Wholeleaf rosinweed flowers rise above the prairie. White wild indigo has ripening green pods, and the bees are on coneflowers. An Eastern swallowtail nectars on pale lilac Bee balm.

A tiny brown damselfly with deep blue on its tail eyes me from its perch. The Prairie sage is in bud, with a silvery glow in the deepening shade. It is a wonderful plant for a moonlight garden. An orange and black Fritillary darts through the grasses. Yet another monarch – this one in a spruce tree behind the prairie. I count nine monarchs today!

Liatris and indian grass

Liatris and indian grass

As I head home, I spot a Clay-colored sparrow with a mouthful of ants resting on a tall plant. I’ll bet that was not a cricket buzzing earlier! Gayfeathers and Indian grass glow as the sun sets over the prairie. What a glorious day!

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

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Sunday Brunch

By Boak Wiesner

Summer has settled on us and with it a veritable feast of color on the prairie. Everywhere I turn, colors, especially purples and gold, greet my eyes. Clouds and sunny skies alternate overhead, lighting them in different ways.

It’s not merely the flowers that show these colors but some insect visitors, too. On some Prairie Blazing Star what looks like a wasp at first glance turns out to be a Hoverfly. Its coloration perhaps serves to keep predators away; hence, it’s a mimic.

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)

I had to look closely to see the little gold flowers of Big Bluestem. These are pollinated by the wind and soon tiny, like, really tiny seeds will develop. A grass that dominates the prairie, gardeners and landscapers are returning to it for use in low-maintenance plantings. It’s quite nutritious, too.

Big Bluestem (Andropogan gerardii)

Big Bluestem (Andropogan gerardii)

Here’s a flower whose scientific name, Sun’s Eye, is sadly not its common name: Oxeye. The dark abdomen on the bee tells me it’s probably some kind of Leafcutter bee, an important pollinator around these parts.

Smooth Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Smooth Oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Something big flits near, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The blue scales on the back edge shows she’s a female. And another big-winged thing lands near me, a Monarch. The first nectars with open, fluttering wings, the latter with its wings closed.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Monarch (Danaus plexipus)

Monarch (Danaus plexipus)

Late in my walk, I come across a new species to me, a very large black and gold bumble bee, which, I’m not surprised to find out, is its actual name.

Black-and-Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus)

Black-and-Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus)

Many groups around our area are surveying bees, whose numbers are suffering due to a variety of factors, such as the use of some pesticides and climate warming. Considering how many native and agricultural plants require specific kinds of bees and their allies to be pollinated, their work can’t come too soon.

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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Summer Song

 By Mary Beth Pottratz

A song sparrow beckons us along the trail around Green Heron Pond with its delightful melody. With the woodland to my left and wetland to my right, I dash from one side of the trail to the other.

Meadowhawk

Meadowhawk

An orange Meadowhawk rests on flower buds of Culver’s root. Its wings reflects its body in orange sparkles. A chipping sparrow summons us further up the trail.
Little white cones with green spikes top Thimbleweed stalks in the woods. Wood sorrel sports tiny yellow flowers and green buds along the forest floor. Enchanter’s nightshade has tiny white blooms on slender stems rising above the leaves.
Wild cucumber is running its tightly-twisted tendrils throughout plants and shrubs on the edges of the wetland. Its first buds are just starting to form. Goldenrods are in bud and about to burst into flower. Wild quinine, Blue vervain and Ironweed are already in full bloom!

Glossy red and white berries glow in clusters above Baneberry’s matte green leaves. The burnt ochre of a mushroom head pops up through leaf litter.
White avens tiny five-petaled blossoms, pointed green sepals with a spray of cream-colored stamens from its green center. Once the petals fall, it becomes a ball of spikelets tipped with seed.

Ostrich Fern Spikes

Ostrich Fern Spikes

Ostrich ferns are setting their deep green spikes, which will release spores next spring. Golden Alexanders have lost their yellow flowers, and now sport an explosion of tiny green fruits.

Clusters of green berries ripening to red hang from the Bitternut hickory tree on the trail around Green Heron Pond. Virginia stickseed flowers are fading to fruits already.
Common yellowthroats call back and forth. A rich melody of mixed birdsong, tweets and whistles entices me further along the boardwalk. “A Catbird!” claims my friend, Mary. The concert ends in a few repeated mews, confirming her guess.

White Meadowsweet

White Meadowsweet

Lavender Mint flowers bloom at the stem axis. Iris are setting their large green pods. White meadowsweet’s five-petaled flowers are accented by coral centers and white stamens tipped with pink. Horsetail and Sensitive fern carpet the wetland floor.
Stinging nettle is in full bloom. If someone touches it, there is plenty of thick-stemmed jewelweed nearby to help reduce the prickles with its soothing aloe-like gel. But it is unusual to see so much robust jewelweed, with no buds or flowers on any of them yet. Jewelweed nectar is important to hummingbirds. I hope they develop soon.

Spotted Joe Pye Weed

Spotted Joe Pye Weed

Boneset has fully open white blossoms. Spotted Joe-pye weed’s mauve buds are just starting to open. Flat-topped white aster is already opening its white petals to reveal gold centers and tan stamen.

The scent of Bee balm and Mint drift on the breeze. Pagoda dogwoods still have a few blooms left; most are covered heavily with white berries along red stems. Jack in the pulpits have tightly-packed, shiny green berries atop a short stem.
A Northern green orchid has just finished blooming. A Willow flycatcher calls “Fitz-bew”, a Phoebe repeats its name, and goldfinches twitter. A Tiger swallowtail dips over the wetland.

A turtle suns lazily on a log in the pond. Nearby, a female Mallard preens on shore. Stems rise above Water plantain’s large leaves, with whorls of flower-tipped branches every few inches. Billows of these airy plants resemble baby’s breath at a distance and create banks of misty white against green foliage.

Bulrush

Bulrush

Pennsylvania buttercup has both tiny yellow blossoms and larger green, spiked fruit at the same time. Bulrushes flower with brown spikelets, set off by long, thin leaves. The last of the white, tropical-looking Arrowhead flowers are visible deeper in the bog.

A Turkey vulture hovers and banks overhead. Maidenhair, Bracken and Lady Ferns add beautiful texture to the woodland bog. Grape honeysuckle vines are splashed with bunches of red berries.

I count three monarchs today at the Arboretum. Still very low, but far better than last year’s one and none at all in 2013. Avoiding insecticides and planting milkweeds and native plants will help.

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

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On Flying Things

By Greg Lecker

Arriving at the Spring Peeper Meadow parking lot, I view a prairie tableau: grassy expanse, bur oak, anise hyssop, and a female brown headed cowbird on fence post. Early mornings are good times to visit prairies and wetlands – especially on a day when a heat advisory is forecast. Even at 71 degrees Fahrenheit, dew on the grassy paths soaks the toes of my shoes.

Birds are active this morning. Swallows are flittering and gliding overhead, occasionally swooping downward in search of the insects – which appear abundant based on my observation of nearby plants. Red-winged blackbirds are chattering – but escape my photography. Only after I pass to they return to the plants flanking the paths.
In bud just two weeks after my last visit to Spring Peeper Meadow, showy milkweed is now reaching full bloom. On this early morning, their fragrance is faintly present. In the full soft heat of midday, their bouquet would be more obvious.

Showy Milkweed

Showy Milkweed

Besides birds, flying points of interest include the common mosquito – undaunted by my insect repellent and an elusive monarch. A single bumblebee reminds me of a recent radio story on the overall health of bumblebee populations. New evidence seems to suggest that the earth’s changing climate is threatening. Bumblebees are quite furry – and that suits them well in the cool weather of a late spring afternoon or a mild summer morning. As overall temperatures rise, one would hope that the bumblebee could expand its range northward. However, arboreal forests do not offer the flower nectar sources of the prairie.
Speaking of prairie blooms, Black-eyed Susan is one of the several yellow flowers now coming into bloom. At least two different insects feast on the flower.

Black-eyed Susan

Black-eyed Susan

Cup plant holds its yellow blooms aloft. Among of forest of cup plant stems, rosin weed flowers nestle. Aphids cover the stems of nearby goldenrod stems; and many stems display galls – tell-tale signs of insect habitation.

Another gall-like sign of an insect “nest” is the deformation of the growing top of a cup plant. On the plant stem, the name-sake “cup” is formed opposite clasping leaves that are pierced by the plant stem – “perfoliate” is the official term. But at the tops of several plants, leaves and stem are tormented and twisted. Furthermore, evidence of a dramatic exit marks the side of the gnarled mass. Nature offers insects a creative means of inducing a plant to form – or deform – a protective shelter for insect “young’uns” – protecting them from predation.

Cup Plant Gall - Insect Nursery

Cup Plant Gall – Insect Nursery

I turn to return to the parking lot. An overview of Spring Peeper Meadow includes sweeping waves of different grasses, and in the foreground, common prairie plants: showy milkweed, cup plant, and goldenrod.

Spring Peeper Meadow Overview

Spring Peeper Meadow Overview

Venture forth and explore the fleeting nature of the plains.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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