Sunny Superbowl Sunday

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Nothing is more beautiful than a wintry sun casting sparkles like fairy dust onto a snowbank. The snow crust twinkles while the shadows reflect a soft steel blue.

DSC_0528 Snow sparklesSparkles on a Snowbank

Clear skies and full sunshine warm me despite temperatures hovering at zero and a twenty-below windchill. It’s not just today’s Superbowl LII in Minneapolis keeping people away!

DSC_0562Lisa and StephenLisa and Stephen

But I’m not the only one enjoying the Arboretum today! A couple cross-country skis on a distant trail; a family on snowshoes explores the forest. Lisa of Excelsior and Stephen of St. Paul pause to chat and raise their goggles to pose. We hear a nuthatch make nasal alarm calls from the woods. They’ve seen the barred owl in the woodland garden during other visits. The couple strolls away to explore the snow-frosted rose garden.

DSC_0533 witch hazelWitch Hazel

Witch hazel’s tiny yellow petals and stamen are almost completely fallen away, but the calyx are curving back and inside its ovary is swelling. Although it was pollinated in the fall, it will not be fertilized until spring. Some fruits have turned hard and opened, their seeds already ejected far and loud. Witch hazel can send its seeds 20 to 30 feet away with a loud snap!

DSC_0535 Ironwood leavesIronwood Leaves

Peachy-rose leaves droop from thin ironwood branches. Thick brown pods rattle in the breeze from the tops of Kentucky coffeetrees near the patio behind the Snyder building. A chickadee calls.

I stop to warm up inside the visitor building, and find the “Fragrances of Spring” exhibit showcasing plants at several stations in the hall with a variety of scents and how they are used.

DSC_0541 Rosemary flowerRosemary

A potted rosemary plant stands five feet tall. It’s tipped with blue and white flowers matching the length of the rosemary needles.The tiny blooms resemble miniature orchids – a bottom spoon-shaped petal flanked by two side petals, and a white-tipped top structure with wings arching over the spoon.

Outside, I check the bird feeders on the terrace and am pleased to see additional feeders set out to help our birds during these unusually low temperatures. A pair of squirrels gathering fallen seed are the only visitors. I look skyward for a hawk or owl but see none. They’re probably all hunkered down for the cold night we have coming.

As should I.

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at 

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Gilded in Frozen Fog

By Sydney Chandler

Recently, King Midas’s lesser-known, winter enthusiast sibling descended on the Arboretum. Rather than beautifying with gold as their brother would do, they gilded the landscape in an intricate layer of frozen fog. The resulting ice crystals give Arboretum visitors a new take on the beauty of winter while simultaneously challenging how they observe and recognize contrast in the landscape.


The frozen fog transforms the landscape into ice-covered white shapes. Up close, these frozen formations mimic the detail in snowflakes. No features escape the ice: dried flower buds, grasses, tree branches, park benches, sidewalks, and dried leaves all transform.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATurkeys Find a Comfortable Perch

A fascinating consequence of the ice-gilded surfaces is that visitors must re-calibrate their eyes to notice stories on the landscape. Typical color contrasts to the white snow, such as blue sky or brown bark, are now greatly minimized. Visitors notice subtle shape differences to be the outlines of plants and trees against the foggy backdrop of the sky, shadows in the trees are clues to the presence of wildlife, and textures on the ground are evidence of the many animals that have shared the Arboretum trails since the snow fall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASharing the Snowshoe Trail with Deer

The gilded landscape is dramatically different from the usual color contrasts at the Arboretum but provides the opportunity to observe with re-calibrated senses and to foster an appreciation for winter worthy of Midas’s winter enthusiast sibling.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Winter Delights

By Greg Lecker

What a pleasant spell of warmth tucked between frigid cold and an upcoming forecast snow!  I need no gloves; and I am more than comfortable in my heavy coat.  The rising sun has just disappeared behind a dome of overcast gray and white.  I can just make out the red barn on the horizon.

Sunrise and Red BarnSunrise and Red Barn

Turkeys gobble from afar.  Several birds glide away from me as I enter the woodland.

Turkey TrotTurkey Trot

A saturated earth orange stained woodland pool delights me.  The dye source is tannin – a yellow or brownish organic substance released by barks, leaves, and other plant tissues such as fruit skins.Tannins add bitterness and astringency to wine, tea.

Tannins DelightTannins Delight

Paths are clear – some are even dry!  Here and there, a small frozen puddle of runoff is etched with ice crystals.

Ice EtchingIce Etching

I exit the woodland and return via Three Mile Drive through the maple woodland.  My sight is caught by a patch of green between tree trunk and retreating snow.  Moss is far more than mere “decoration” in the woods – not just the “carpet” of the forest floor.

Moss - more than meets the eyeMoss – more than meets the eye

Moss is one of the most primitive of land plants – a “step” above water-dwelling algae.  Mosses form a “bridge” between water and land.   Mosses do not have roots but rather tiny hair-like anchoring structures called rhizoids that attach them to soil, rock, or tree bark.  Without granting mosses roots, nature has conferred upon mosses the ability to survive long dry periods better than most higher plants.  Mosses act as sponges – wicking moisture across many small open spaces between small leaves.

Mosses and water share a close relationship.  In a forest, little rain that falls directly reaches the ground.  Plant leaves and twigs and bark intercepts rain drops.  Rain running over surfaces collects sediments and nutrients that eventually reach the forest floor and feed tree roots in the soil.  Mosses slow down the flow of water whether across surfaces of the tree bark or along the soil itself.  Mosses keep the soil moist for the trees and for other plants.  The more mosses, the greater the humidity…the more humidity, the more mosses.

Though mosses are not eaten – at least not by humans (mosses are bitter and gritty), human uses of mosses have included:  “chinking” to fill gaps between logs in log cabins; absorbent and cushion material in bandages, bedding, moccasins; decoration for natural crafts; and lamp wicks and scrubbing “sponges”.

Nature – so much more than meets the eye!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Life on the Winter Prairie

By Holly Einess

At first glance the prairie in winter appears lifeless and rather bleak. The colorful flowers of summer and fall are absent, replaced by the dull golds and grays of dormant plants and trees.

bennett-johnson prairie trailBennett-Johnson Prairie Trail

However, to the careful observer the winter prairie reveals a world full of life and drama, albeit on a smaller scale, and has many stories to tell.

Way back in June (a distant memory on this January day!), a gall fly laid an egg on a goldenrod stem. The egg hatched into a larva that ate its way into the stem, and in response the plant created a ball gall. The larva lived inside the gall all summer, continuing to eat and grow until autumn, when its body started producing glycerol (a kind of antifreeze) and it entered diapause, the insect version of hibernation. There it would have remained until spring, when it would have transformed into a pupa and finally emerged from the gall as an adult fly. Unfortunately for this particular larva, it was discovered by a downy woodpecker or a chickadee, which knew that pecking a hole in the gall would likely yield a tasty snack.

goldenrod ball gallGoldenrod ball gall

In autumn wooly bear caterpillars are a common sight, crossing paths and sidewalks en-route to winter resting sites. But crawling along the snow on a January day? Why yes, entirely possible when the temperature is above freezing! The wooly bear is the larval stage of the isabella tiger moth. Unlike most butterflies and moths, it overwinters as a caterpillar, spinning its cocoon come spring.(Fun fact: ALL caterpillars become either butterflies or moths.)

wooly bear caterpillarWooly bear caterpillar

Like the gall fly larva, the wooly bear produces glycerol to help prevent its hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) from freezing. Rather than spending the winter in diapause, however, it does so in a state of quiescence; it can come out if its hibernation-like state when conditions warm, then return to it when the temperature drops again. And all those legs helping it move along? Only the front six are true legs (a characteristic all insects share); the others are called prolegs, small fleshy structures attached to the caterpillar’s abdominal segments.

The prairie plants themselves have life cycles too, of course, growing both from seed and from rootstock in the spring and lying dormant in winter.Today I identify thistle, goldenrod, sunflower, golden alexander, indigo, and mullein. Though far more showy when in flower, they retain a muted beauty in winter.

indigo seed podsIndigo seed pods

Leaving the prairie, I take the Wood Duck Trail back to the visitor center and can’t resist a peek at the bird feeders. There are chickadees in abundance, and I wonder if any of them had gall fly larvae as an appetizer!

black-capped chickadeeBlack-capped chickadee

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Close Encounters of the Annual Kind

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Today’s 30⁰ brought relief from the bitter cold we had at the end of the year. I am nice and toasty-warm in my winter wear.Several couples, groups, and families are also hiking along Green Heron Trail this afternoon. We greet each other with a smile and “beautiful day!” as we pass.

DSC_0452 Julie and SteveJulie and Steve

Julie and Steve are testing out a new camera and looking for owls. But Steve’s binoculars are in his pocket, and mine dangle uselessly. We all notice the delicious stillness and quiet, but there is an odd lack of birds calling. I keep checking the sky for raptors, but see none.

DSC_0457 glintingGlinting

The late afternoon sun just starts peeking out from the day’s clouds, glinting off snow and backlighting cattail seedheads like yard torches. The earth is at perihelion this week, in which it is closest to the sun for the year.

Our moon is also at its closest point to the earth for the year right now, called lunar perigee and known as a Super Moon. Maybe you noticed the brilliant and large moon this week. But, wait! That’s not all: Since we will have a full moon on both January 1st and 31st this month, they also are Blue Moons!

DSC_0485 ironwoodIronwood

Clusters of ironwood trees hang on stubbornly to their wilting leaves. Their pale peach color illuminates the brown tree trunks. Finally, a bird call! I am actually grateful to hear the grating caws of crows.

DSC_0507 Track superhighwaySuperhighway of animal tracks

The frozen wetland is a superhighway of animal tracks: large pebble-texture on three toes of turkey, the long rear feet ahead of the circular front feet of squirrels, and deer dragging their hooves in the snow. Petite mouse and vole prints often have a thin stripe of trail drag down the center of the straddle, or width, of the print. I can almost see coyote and fox slink along the edges of cattails and brush, leaving cautious and purposeful prints in a curving line.

DSC_0520 witch hazel croppedWitch Hazel

I am thrilled to find tiny yellow blossoms of witch hazel still in bloom. In any other season, this wrinkled flower would be dwarfed by larger petals and brilliant colors. Today, they glow in sunlight and dot the bare branches like Christmas lights. I lean close and let the teeny petals fill my camera frame.

As I head through the forest, a single furtive “tseet” and another staccato “tew” from the treetops make me smile. At least they are still here!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at

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Enduring the Extremes

By Sydney Chandler

Winter has taken on traits of groundcovers, creeping vines, and invasive species to learn to choke out warmth and leave a frozen trail behind. The cold seeks out exposed skin and seeps through layers of warm clothing. Arboretum residents– both flora and fauna– have hunkered down to survive the cold. Flora seem frozen in time: colors approach gray scale, ice forms on branches, and fresh snow clings to trunks and leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATrees surviving the cold

However, tracks near the Rose Garden are evidence that some individuals have ventured from their cozy shelters. Deer tracks lead to the base of a Plum Tree. The snow-cover beneath is disturbed and reveals that the deer likely foraged through the groundcovers for a snack. The tracks lead back toward the Sensory Garden where another patch of groundcovers has been combed through.


Deer in search of a snack

Other evidence of animal activity demonstrates the clever ways some individuals strategize. A small highway of tracks surrounds a downed log. Tiny footprints trace from holes in the ground to small slots in the log where a cozy den likely houses members of the rodent family.


Track highway to a cozy log

Explorers at the Arboretum have opportunities to experience a dramatic range of conditions. For visitors, these extremes mean frozen eyelashes vs. sweaty brows, icy toes vs. grass-stained feet, and chapped cheeks vs. sun-burned faces. Observing our own responses to the extremes in conjunction with those of the Arboretum inhabitants is both humbling and sparks curiosity.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Nature’s Decorations

By Greg Lecker

Two grey squirrels frolic – chasing one another through the Japanese garden as I move into the woods near home demonstration garden.  In the dim morning light, American cranberrybush berries brighten a thicket of twigs seen against snow and dark evergreens.

American Cranberrybush BerriesAmerican Cranberrybush Berries

I’m happy we’ve crossed over the solstice and that daylight is lengthening – even as temperatures plummet into the depths of meteorological winter.  Among its seemingly cozy, fuzzy buds, star magnolia stubbornly holds onto its leaves.  The early onset of cold weather is likely responsible here and elsewhere.

As the slight breeze shifts to and fro, I hear the faint sounds of gobbling turkeys, buzzing chickadees, a dog, and chatter of red squirrels.  Looking up, I spot a leaf nest.

Squirrels' Leaf NestSquirrels’ Leaf Nest

Besides nesting in cavities made by woodpeckers, squirrels nest in constructions of twigs, leaves, moss loosely woven within tree forks.  I find it hard to believe that such a home can withstand winter’s chill.

Wild (or prickly) cucumber vine has been fruitful this year, darning its stems and tendrils in and out of the thicket of red twig dogwood growing next to Green Heron Pond.

Wild Cucumber FruitsWild Cucumber Fruits

Though blooms are inconspicuous, the fruits of its kiwi-shaped pods – ”Cactus balls” or “porcupine eggs”, along with its tendrils, are eye-catching at this time of year!The vine is found near streams, rivers, and wetlands.

Glancing down as I walk along the boardwalk, I find a most interesting sight.

Frozen and FlowingFrozen and Flowing

Amidst the snow and ice surrounding the bulrushes is a flowing stream within which there is ballet-like dancing of organic matter.  On a cold 17-degree day like today – likely even when a skim of ice locks away our viewing – there is sufficient water movement to allow some liquid water to flow and to sustain life.

Walking further around green heron pond I see the contrast of darker ice in the middle of the pond compared to the snow-covered fringes. This is yet another indication of the strength of water movement through Green Heron Pond.    The sky is a cotton candy blur of pink and blue.

Snow and Thin Ice BeyondSnow and Thin Ice Beyond

Turning onto Three Mile Drive to return to the visitor shelter, I see turkeys encircling each other in a kind of dance.  Practicing for spring mating or just trying to stay warm?  I’m heading inside myself.  There are plenty of sights indoors on days like today!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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