Announcing Spring

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Pussy willows display soft wooly catkins and glint in bright sun against a pale blue sky. Tiny flowers are just starting to appear through silvery fur. These will provide the season’s first sweet nectar. Bees and other pollinators will soon throng to the only feast around this time of year.

Pussy Willow Flowers

Pussy Willow Flowers

New green tulip leaves edged in red are pushing their way through dirt and arching towards the sun. The wintertime spruce and pine arrangements in the large patio canisters have given way to simple, striking red osier dogwood twigs. Cardinal calls echo through the grounds. Chickadees state “fee-bee” continuously. A lone dark-eyed junco flits up into a tree.

Lungwort

Lungwort

My friend Barb points out the Lungwort leaves pushing through a mulch of leaves and twigs. Their tiny hairs shine in the sun, and their spotted leaves confirm their identity. A raucous blue jay calls as it flies between tree tops. I watch for a minute to see if he is warning others of a nearby predator. Lamb’s ears’ leaves are already four inches long!

Doubtless their wooly jackets protect them from freezing nighttime air.
A rafter of turkeys prance out of a garden onto the lawn. The male, sporting black-tipped breast feathers, tiptoes out first and pauses. The size of his beard and spurs shows that he is 2 or 3 years old. His feathers glisten, iridescent in the sun. The females stand timid at the lawn’s edge before darting across the lawn. The male flies down to the Green Heron Pond trailhead, and the females rapidly follow.

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Prairie smoke leaves are up already, forming small mounds. No sign yet of Pasque flowers! And we could not find any visible skunk cabbage. A pileated woodpecker sounds its prehistoric cry from the trees beyond.

One maple syrup bag near the woodland garden looks ready to burst its seams! Another next to it is completely flat. A tiny, pale green fern rises up from snow-crusted leaf litter. We are mocked by a white-breasted nuthatch as we hike out of the woods.

Fern in Snowcrust

Fern in Snowcrust

Tamarack’s wooden cones have grown large over the winter. There is no evidence yet of needles prying through the many small woody buds along the branches and twigs.
A male hooded merganser sculls around the center of Green Heron Pond. He puffs his white hood fully open, glaring in bright sun. Sure she must be nearby, we search for the female but saw none.

Two red-winged blackbirds call back and forth from the cattails, claiming territory boundaries. They have not arrived yet at the wetland near my home, and I am grateful to hear their raspy voices. Not melodic, but still heralding the arrival of spring.

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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The Missing Ingredient.

By Richard DeVries

Last week the Maple forecast was looking really good. Nighttime temperatures were dipping into the mid-twenties and the daytime highs were well over forty degrees. I predicted we would have great sap flow, but it never came. Just when I think I have it figured out mother nature puts me in my place and shows me there is more to it than I know.

It seems like we were missing one important ingredient, March mud.

March mud is not added to the syrup to give it the golden brown color but it provides the water that the trees need to make the sap. After Sunday’s snowstorm the sap-flow increased dramatically even though it was not that warm on Monday.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trees take up the water from the ground and add sugars that are being stored in the roots. Cold nights and warm days help the Maple trees build up pressure to bring the sap to the tops of the trees. The pressure in the tree makes the sap flow out of any wound, like broken branches, squirrel nibblings and also our tap hole. We only collect a small portion of the sap that flows through the tree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bags, buckets and sap storage tanks are filling up nicely. We will keep most of the sap for cooking demonstrations during the next open house on Saturday March 28 from noon till 4. We will have two cookers going, a large evaporator for Maple syrup and a small wood stove for Walnut syrup. Visitors can participate in tapping demonstrations, taste sap from the Sugar Maples and try some pure Maple candy.

Even though the sap flow is hard to predict and can not be controlled I am pretty sure the sap will be running Saturday afternoon, but I have said that before. At least the weather forecast looks great.

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Seeking Interest in Nature’s Forms

By Greg Lecker

Before setting out on the trails, I stop inside the visitor center to investigate the art exhibits. First, the Arboretum Photographers Society presents the best images of the seasons (Restaurant Gallery through April 5) – putting my best efforts to shame. Next, the Society of Minnesota Sculptors show includes many nature themed pieces (Oswald Great Hall through April 12). Finally, the Reedy Gallery showcases luminous botanical art from around the world (through May 17). An illustration of the dried leaves and flowers of a white bird of paradise reminds one that there is interest beyond green plant forms alone.

Barely a week separates my recent entries; and many changes are taking place.Dark watery scallops nibble at the edges of lake ice, which itself is changing from a white cameo to pale jade and darker emerald and sapphire. With the color change, greater light (and heat) absorption speeds the melting process. Outside the Arboretum, I’ve been hearing calls of male red-winged blackbirds that have returned to stake their territorial claims at lake edges.

Next to the sunny foundation of the Snyder Building, tulip and daffodil foliage have returned as well. Elsewhere in the perennial gardens, bearded iris pokes its spears through warming earth. Several holes have been dug within the hyacinth bed; and one bulb lies partially pealed on the patio. Is this evidence of spring fever on the part of an impatient squirrel? The broad leaf forms of coral bells and Lenten rose attract with their purple and gray-green leaves, respectively. Forsythia and lilac buds are swelling.

Turkeys circle the fenced enclosure outside the former tea room. Chickadees mob the feeders. Just below the patio, I admire the curlicues of unknown leaves.

Leaf curlicues

Leaf curlicues

A pair of Canada Geese rest next to the Sensory Garden parking lot. Have I really never noticed that the eyelid is white? I learn that this coloration is purposeful – a disguise of the eyelid to possibly act as a defense against predators.

Eye disguise

Eye disguise

In Grace Dayton Wildflower Garden, the path edges are cleared – by the hands of wind or gardeners, I don’t know. Replacing leaf litter and forest duff, there is the spreading of basal leaves of foam flower and prairie smoke. There are no flowers besides the subtle immature blooms of witch hazel. But there is much appeal in the spiral form of large unknown leaves that dangle from their plant stem.

Leaf Spiral

Leaf Spiral

The formerly erect spires of goat’s beard flowers now dangle not unpleasantly from the plant’s drooping flower stalk.

Goat's Beard seed heads

Goat’s Beard seed heads

Yes, there is much to appreciate before the spring show arrives over the next few weeks.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Sunlight and Snow

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Bright Sunlight

Bright Sunlight

A brisk wind rushes in my ears but I refuse to don a hat! Bright sunlight warms me beyond the day’s 44⁰. An azure blue sky is dotted with a few fluffy cumulus clouds. What a welcome change from the gray stratus clouds of winter!
Black-capped chickadees are calling from everywhere at the Arboretum. “Cheeeeeseburger” they say, or “Chickadee-dee-dee-dee.” Then I hear “Feee-beee,” the second syllable lower than the first. This special call is often given by a male defending his territory – a sure sign of spring!

Squirrel Tracks to a Fallen Log

Squirrel Tracks to a Fallen Log

Squirrel tracks in the snow lead to a fallen log. The long tree trunk sits perpendicular to the slope, helping to prevent erosion. Its outer bark is half-on, and heartwood eaten and rotted out. A cozy curtain of leaves keeps the snow and wind out of this squirrel cabin.
Insects, plants, microbes, bacteria (the beneficial type!) and fungi also use the nutrients and moisture in this decomposing tree for food and habitat. The nutrients once absorbed by the tree from sunlight, air and soil are recycled back into the earth.

Tree Shadows

Tree Shadows

Tree shadows stripe the snow in moonlight-blue, their bare branches creating artworks that change by the minute. They follow me from tree to tree, reminding me of Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow” song.
Blue bags hang almost flat on maple trees in the woodland. The sap runs when daytime temperatures are in the high 30s to mid-40s and nighttime is freezing. The next few days should start that sap!
Cardinals call their territory and courtship calls: “Whit whitwhitcheeewww.” Usually I see one or two nuthatches at the Arb, but today they seem to be everywhere! And I miss dark-eyed juncos. I wonder, have they already migrated back up north?

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Clumps of little bluestem grasses are a glorious shade of golden-orange against the snow. A few tiny white puffs of seed hang stubbornly on the stems.
Descending a hill, the wind calms to a breeze and a hush draws over the prairie. I suddenly notice it: “click, click, click, click, click” – first nearby, next all around me! Then I find the source: the dry, split pods of white wild indigo are clicking against each other in the breeze!

Goldenrod

Goldenrod

And I even find winter flowers! Their petals long gone, goldenrods’ calyces (those hard, outer parts that protect the bud and petals) are bleached white in the sun. Dark center mounds, their seeds now fallen, give contrast and dimension.
Despite sunblock, my face is starting to burn. What a welcome change from the freeze-burnt feelings of just a few days ago! I head home to check for juncos near my home. Could they really have left?

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

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Quiet and Gray

By Greg Lecker

It’s quiet, calm, and dim in the Arboretum this late afternoon. With luck, temperatures are bottoming out this weekend and will rise over the next few weeks.

I’m walking in a gray-scale world. The sky matches the snow in brightness and hue. There are few shadows to reveal depth and form.

Walking through the maple sugarbush, I find tracks of all sorts. A curving line, staggered dots, then a line again – this represents the wary path of a mole, vole, or mouse.

Vole Mole or Mouse Tracks

Vole Mole or Mouse Tracks

Squirrel tracks lead to and from tree trunks. The freshly fallen snow show toe pads. As the squirrel bounds, its larger hind feet overlap its smaller front feet. In this pattern, the squirrel resembles the rabbit. However, the squirrel’s front feet are aligned in contrast to a rabbit’s offset of its front feet. Most obviously, it makes sense that squirrel tracks, not rabbit tracks, could start or end at tree trunks.

Snow Snake Tracks

Snow Snake Tracks

Snow snake tracks are easy to identify for the sidewinder and serpentine patterns left in the snow next to a bench and leading towards the Bennett-Johnson prairie. Another characteristic of snow snake tracks ….just kidding – these patterns represent ridges formed by human footpaths augmented by sun warming on a south facing slope.

Ostrich Fern Fertile Fronds

Ostrich Fern Fertile Fronds

The fertile fronds of Ostrich fern remind me of the ornament atop headdresses of horse and knight on display in the Habsburgs special exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. But rather than fluffy and white, the fern’s spore structures are stiff and brown as they stand erect amidst the snow.

Wingstem Sunflower Seedhead

Wingstem Sunflower Seedhead

Walking through the Grace Dayton Wildflower garden, I find welcome interest in the same Wingstem Sunflower seed heads I found so intriguing in September.

Glossy Black Chokeberry Autumn Magic

Glossy Black Chokeberry Autumn Magic

Light snow is falling as I turn to leave. In contrast to the light, white snowflakes, the fruits of Glossy Black Chokeberry are shriveled and dark. Still, the cascade of black fruit falls offer the reminder of green shoots sprouting and springing to life as new growth in less than two months. I reach my car; it waits alone in the parking lot for my departure.

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Pairing Up

By Mary Beth Pottratz
An early spring garden greets me as I enter the Great Hall. Graceful, naked birch trees rise above clumps of cyclamen in valentine shades of white, pink and deep rose.

Birch and Cyclamen

Birch and Cyclamen

At the west end, a two-story tree composed of hundreds of showy tropical orchids is topped by a glass star sculpture. Although none of Minnesota’s 49 native orchids would survive transplanting to grace an indoor tree, many will bloom at the Arboretum this summer.

Orchid Tree

Orchid Tree

The 2nd New York Botanical Garden Triennial Exhibition is on display. Of dozens of watercolors and sketches, my favorites are a compass plant and prairie dock that have hybridized in nature, insect galls on winter rudbeckia stems, and a sketch of the ghostly white Indian Pipe.

But I eschew indoors for the deep blue sky spotted with sailing clouds. Twenty-five degrees feels balmy in bright afternoon sun this day before Valentine’s Day. The long, fast drumming of a hairy woodpecker beckons me.

Two Glorious Oaks

Two Glorious Oaks

The two glorious oaks in front of the rose garden reach towards each other, holding hands as they guard the gardens. A Swamp White Oak stretches gracefully for the sky. Its dried red leaves rustle in the breeze, whispering “Don’t let go… Don’t let go…” to each other.
I stop to count the birds at the Snyder Center bird feeder for Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count. I note black-capped chickadees; cardinals; white-throated, tree and house sparrows; dark-eyed juncos; blue jays and a couple hairy woodpeckers. Don’t forget the crows!

Suddenly, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches twitter and spiral in the air. Is this territorial display, or the beginnings of a great romance?

Squirrel Tracks

Squirrel Tracks

The light dusting of snow is perfect for animal tracking. A pair of squirrel tracks show an adult with a juvenile – or perhaps a gray squirrel next to a red squirrel? Wild turkey prints run in the light snow across the footpath. They, too, are running in pairs.

Tiny Pine Cones

Tiny Pine Cones

A leafless tamarack stands tall against the blue sky. Tamaracks are monoecious – they bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. These branches are studded with tiny pine cones– the female flower – resembling wooden sweetheart rosebuds. Some cones will stay on the tree for several years. The tiny round buds are male. They develop yellow flowers that will pollinate the female cones when the wind blows.

My new camera – a gift from a dear friend – keeps right on working although temperatures drop and sunlight fades. As I head home in gratitude, a pair of nuthatches flirt and chase each other headfirst down a tree trunk, making nasal “ank, ank” calls. They’re preparing for tomorrow.

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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Patterns, Familiar and Otherwise

By Boak Wiesner

Early in my walk, I come across some fresh tracks of turkeys. A bit further on, I hear the scratching of dried leaves: something is afoot. I look for any horizontal lines that might catch my eye and there he is, a nice tom turkey. Because all the lines are vertical in the woods in winter (the exception being downed trees, which at this time of year have white snow on top), one need only to seek out a horizontal line to find an animal nearby.

How can other patterns help me to experience Nature in new ways I wonder? At the far end of the boardwalk, I come across some Speckled Alder that has catkins already growing.

Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins

Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins

And it strikes me, for the first time in my life, they show a very familiar pattern, namely, the male flowers are at the terminal end of the branches while the female ones are only on axial branches. Like birch, their cousins. But, it strikes me, also like conifers, which they are completely unlike. Or are they?

The edge of the wetlands is, as usual, a riot of small mammal tracks. Here I see those of a Red Squirrel, easy to pick out in the thin snow cover. These have prominent impressions from the metacarpal-phalanx joints that is so characteristic of squirrel tracks.

Red Squirrel tracks

Red Squirrel tracks

I look up and realize that, even though there are many tree species right along here, some natural and some planted, each has its own pattern of bark. Why are some vertical, like the elms, while others are horizontal, like this Yellow Birch?

Yellow Birch

Yellow Birch

The elms around this area are dying which makes me reminisce about the avenue I grew up on in Minneapolis lined with an archway of mature elms.

Elm

Elm

The crack following the growth of dead tamarack showed me another pattern that may be the most widespread one in nature, the helix. DNA is only the most famous example. Starch and some domains of proteins also show this. Whole plants including trees grow in a helix, called circumnutation and I wonder if that is the reason behind the spiral I see before me.

DSC_0261

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer

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