Season Turning

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Fresh rain washed away the wildfire smoke of the past few days, removing the recent dust and returning our air quality index to good. I enjoy the scent of moist earth and wet leaves. And the flowers are drinking it in, too!

DSC_0356 New England Aster croppedNew England asters

Deep purple New England asters are flanked by pale lavender silky aster, and clumps of tiny white asters so thick they resemble clouds. Crickets whirr all around me as I follow the mowed trail, and birds hide in the prairie calling furtively to each other.

Golden blooms of black-eyed Susan, Jerusalem artichoke, Canada and stiff goldenrods stand out against the prairie. And the prairie itself is a mosaic of pipestone-red seedheads from big bluestem and Indian grass, green blades of grass and shrubs, beige stripes of dried stalks and stems, punctuated with black wild indigo pods and pools of color from the flowers.

DSC_0421 stiff gentian croppedStiff gentian

I spy the little blue flowers of stiff gentian low in the grass. Great Indian plantain stands eight feet tall, its tan seedheads reaching for the sky. Yellow evening primrose are scattered about.

Long-fruited thimbleweeds are just puffing out with seeds attached to feathery fibers.Compass plant and cup plant flower stalks rise several feet above my head. The petals have already dropped. Blue vervain’s flowers have morphed to walnut-brown spikes of seeds. Geese honk, skeining overhead.

DSC_0477 Yellow woolly bear caterpillar croppedWoolly Bear caterpillar

Gillian, Audrey and Ben have a beige and orange woolly bear caterpillar! They found it walking on the trail near the prairie display garden. It is the larval form of the tiger moth, and legend has it that the markings on a woolly bear can predict the severity of the coming winter. The National Weather Service, however, debunks that as myth.

Trees and shrubs are just starting to turn. An American elm and maples are tinging yellow, and sumac have scarlet tips on some of their leaves.

DSC_0750 Scarlet Canada anemone leaves croppedCanada anemone

Deep maroon leaves of Canada anemone tangle on the forest floor. White snakeroot and elm-leaved goldenrod lighten the woodland edges. A few Indian pipes stand straight, indicating they have been pollinated.

But the highlight of my weekend was the opportunity to join a session of Nature Sketchbooks: A Visual Journal in the Arboretum with Pam. Pam Luer’s art class at the Arboretum was amazing as she guided her students in sketching and painting techniques to capture the beauty that we then went outdoors to capture in pencil and paint.

DSC_0550 Hummingbird croppedHummingbird

Hummingbirds dash and dart through the dahlias on display. Two juveniles chatter and squeak then hover facing each other. They dart up 30 feet while twirling around each other, before racing back down. They are gorging on nectar, preparing for their long migration south.

And the season marches on.

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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Brewing an Exploration

By Sydney Chandler

The Arboretum’s wild side shines in the Bennett-Johnson Prairie. It has a less manicured appearance but is far from neglected. The native plant biodiversity in the prairie gives and air of ease; however, a quick read of posted signs tells a different story. The prairie has had extensive restoration, including controlled burns, to house its current mix of flora.



The Bennett-Johnson Prairie

Exploration in the prairie happens at multiple levels. Each is valuable and lends itself to different ways of understanding and learning. Exploration has no pre-determined curriculum, and curiosity is an excellent guide. Visitors might see the big picture first: understand that the prairie is a singular unit, see where the prairie is interrupted by the three-mile drive, and observe surrounding features.



Flowers in the sunshine

Next, there are individuals within the prairie. Favorite quotes from exploring at this level include “Don’t we have this growing in the yard?” and “Look at the yellow flowers!” Unlike other gardens at the Arboretum, the prairie’s flora is not labeled by species, so it’s a great place for spontaneous plant identification practice!



Buzzing bee

A third level of exploration ponders mysteries off the loop trail. Bees buzz, scurrying sounds are muffled beneath the dense grasses, and bugs hop and crawl in all directions. Sounds of the prairie inspire questions: Who is that? What are they doing? With silence, it feels as if mythical creatures and favorite story-book characters might emerge from the thick grasses. Combining the prairie’s wild ease with curiosity and imagination weave a unique and enjoyable adventure.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Fall Fireworks

By Greg Lecker

One can even smell the fullness of the prairie at this time of year.  It’s a combination of wet leaves and spicy flower scent – the density of the biomass with a hint of the decay to come in the coming months.  Today, in addition, there is the faint scent of just slightly acrid fragrance of smoke. I don’t know if we can be certain whether the origin is the wildfires in Alberta, Canada or perhaps the Montana wildfires that recently consumed Glacier National Park’s beloved backcountry Sperry Chalet.  The jet stream and weather seems to connect all of us. Yellow blooms return my mind to a more pleasant place.

Showy GoldenrodCanada Goldenrod

“Fireworks” is my one word description of goldenrod. Among the last plants to bloom, goldenrods flower from August to October, and vary in height.  When most people think of goldenrod, they envision the plant known as Canada goldenrod. Borne on 2’ to 5’ tall stalks, arching spikes of numerous yellow flowers attract many insects.  Its leaves are thin and rough.  Contrary to popular belief, goldenrods are not the cause of hay fever, because goldenrod pollen is moved by insects and not by the wind (its pollen is too heavy—only about 1-2% of airborne pollen is from goldenrod).  The culprit is the less conspicuous, yet ubiquitous (except at the Arboretum), ragweed which flowers at about the same time.  Canada goldenrod spreads by roots that can create large patches.

Another yellow flower that doesn’t tickle the nose is Rosinweed.  Instead, it tickles the sense of touch!


One might wonder if rosinweed feels like the runt of the composite family – even enduring the name “weed”.  The untoothed, opposite leaves are stiff and scratchy to the touch and, while they don’t form a dramatic cup, they do clasp the stem in a manner slightly reminiscent of the cup plant.

I move into the Grace Dayton Wildflower Garden, and see that, like yellow and white fireworks respectively, zigzag goldenrod and white snakeroot light up the woodland shade.

Zigzag GoldenrodZigzag Goldenrod

Zigzag goldenrod provide late season color in the woodland.  From fibrous rooted crowns, its stems grow 2’ to 2-1/2’ in a “zigzag” configuration.  Elongated toothed leaves alternate along crooked stems.   Yellow “firework”-like flowers grow from each connection of the leaf with the stem.  In addition to its unique flower location, this plant differentiates itself from other goldenrods by its habitat – woodland rather than prairie.

White SnakerootWhite Snakeroot

White snakeroot is a white blooming member of the Aster family.  Flat clusters of many, tiny white flowers, somewhat resembling Baby’s Breath, are borne atop the branching top of 2’ to 3’ tall stems bearing lance-shaped leaves.  The plant grows especially well in dry shade and at the edges of deciduous woodlands.  White snakeroot tolerates dry soil and is one of the few wildflowers that seems to be able to rebound quickly, seemingly out of nowhere, after invasive buckthorn is removed from a woodland.

I encourage you to explore the nearest natural area now, while the summer greens area still full!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Gold in the Spring Peeper Meadow

By Holly Einess

At the eastern edge of the Arboretum is the Spring Peeper Meadow, so-named for the little frogs that once inhabited this area. Efforts have been under way since 1997 to restore the meadow, long drained and used for agriculture, to its original wetland state. My walk today reveals a diverse and thriving wetland community; clearly the efforts are paying off!

Spring Peeper MeadowSpring Peeper Meadow

I’m struck by how much gold there is—whole swathes of Canada goldenrod, many with round galls on their stems caused by invading insect larvae. Stiff goldenrod is also present, distinguished from other goldenrods by its round fleshy leaves. I see two other yellow-flowered members of the aster family—sneezeweed (whose leaves, when dried, were once used as snuff) and goat’s beard. Joe-pye weed, with its multitude of tiny pink flowers, offers a contrast to all the yellow.


Goldfinches are singing and calling, some gathering together high in a dead tree, others flitting about in the prairie dock (yet another aster!). Two green herons fly overhead, and a cardinal adds a flash of red to the scene.


As I start down the boardwalk I see that the arrowhead is in bloom. The tubers of this aquatic plant provide food for many animals, including muskrats, geese, ducks and, yes, people. I greet a family as they enjoy a picnic lunch on one of the many boardwalk benches.


At the end of the boardwalk is a stand of sumac, starting to show its brilliant fall reds. Gray-headed coneflower, lead plant, and purple prairie clover have all lost their blooms and are going to seed; further signs that summer will soon be drawing to a close. As I’m about to leave the Spring Peeper Meadow, two eastern tiger swallowtails frolic past and a monarch alights nearby, bookending my visit with these final glimpses of yellow and gold.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Nature of Light

Purple coneflowers are in radiant glory curbside near the visitor building, flanked by lavender blooms of catmint alive with bees.

DSC_0077 We Are Light by Ashley DullOil Painting

Inside, I check the Nature Notes board for updates. Sunlight spilling from a large oil painting in the hallway by Ashley Dull draws me in. The Incredible Being of Light showcases works by four artists in oil, mosaic and glass. These stunning works will be in the Reedy Gallery through Sept. 4.

DSC_0114 prairie dock flowerPrairie Dock

Outside, sunlight spills through the woodlands, too, and the prairie is bathed in it, glowing golden with sunflowers, cup plants, prairie dock, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and rosinweed. Crickets and grasshoppers chirp a wavering melody as I stroll.

DSC_0323 Indian grass flower croppedIndian Grass

Prairie dropseed stems arch above their grassy clumps in airy seed tops that glint in sunlight. Indian grass has smooth bronze-colored seeds opening to reveal yellow stamen dangling and feathery white styles.

In the prairie garden, a female monarch nectars on her favorite -rough blazing star,Liatris aspera. Despite fewer liatris than in previous years, I see at least a dozen monarchs over the prairie.

Other blooms include rattlesnake master, great Indian plantain, flowering spurge, grey coneflower, wild quinine, American vetch, and stiff goldenrod.

DSC_0240 new England asterNew England aster

I find my first aster of the season, a deep purple New England aster. Nearby, an orange sulphur butterfly is camouflaged as it sips on golden cup plant blossoms. It flits away and leads my eyes to another aster: the miniature daisy-like flowers of false aster.

DSC_0254 bottle gentian croppedBottle Gentian

A blue glow between the grasses catches my eye. Bottle gentian in full bloom! Blue vervain is sporting its last blooms, and song sparrows serenade from cattails bursting in seed.

A bumblebee and a dark female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly nectar in tandem on a thistle flower and then switch spots! A monarch hovers patiently above when suddenly a female ruby-throated hummingbird darts in, wings buzzing, to take a turn.

DSC_0353 Grit PickersGrit Pickers

In the shady forest, chickadees call furtively, blue jays warn, and a gray catbird meows. Pagoda dogwoods have just a few leaves starting to tinge claret. Just outside the woodland wildflower garden, I stop to hear the Grit Pickers trio of banjo, guitar and fiddle entertaining a crowd with a lively polka in the shade of crabapple trees.

The magnificent American elm near the Ornamental Grass Collection is starting to fade pale green on its southern side, where the sunlight hits it most, in just another facet of light.

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


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Dancing Grasses

By Sydney Chandler

Most people don’t likely jump at the suggestion to explore a garden of grass. But visitors to the Oriental Grasses have the special opportunity to meet a variety of quirky characters. The garden has a pulse, and a sunny evening with a slight breeze seem to bring out personalities in each species.

The Feather Reed Grass shows off in the evening sun with its vibrant golden color and dancing movements. This thin grass is topped with tufts of seeds nearly ready to depart on their own adventures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Avalanche’ Feather Reed Grass

Taller and greener across the garden is the Giant Miscanthus. Its dramatic height gives visitors the ants-eye view in grass exploration. These broader leaves create a dense mass of bright green that towers over seven feet upward. Gazing skyward to look at grass is a very different perspective when exploring.


In another quadrant of the garden, three varieties of the Japanese Silver Grass and the purple Switch Grass show off their fashion-forward patterns and colors. Among the four grasses, they represent polka dots, stripes, vibrant color combinations, and fur-like textures.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Strictus’ Japanese Silver Grass

It’s easy to anthropomorphize these varieties: they dance in the breeze, they proudly shine in the evening sun, and they reach energetically outward and upward. Meeting these grasses face-to-face is a great way to notice their intricate details, observe similarities and differences, and appreciate the species represented in the garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘Cheyenne Sky’ Switch Grass

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Prairie: Garden of the Senses!

By Greg Lecker

Exploring an August Prairie is an experience for all the senses.  Sounds abound – birds, but mostly cicadas.  Cicadas can be surprisingly loud, especially at close range.  Their calling is temperature dependent – signifying temperatures in the 80’s and above.  They can be found July through September wherever deciduous trees are found – though they do not harm trees or other plants.  But again, though one may not find them visually, one cannot miss them audibly!  That high pitched power line whine that induces apprehension (in me at least, at times) – that is the cicada’s calling card.  Born from eggs laid in tree bark, cicadas hatch (as nymphs) and crawl down the bark to nurse from tree roots for four to five years!

Having grown up, they climb back up the tree, transform into winged insects and begin mating – or at least calling for a mate.  I’m always taken by stories connecting nature to mythology; and I’ve found one that applies to cicadas.  The Titan goddess Eos falls in love with a beautiful prince, and grants him immortality, but forgetfully not youth.  (Details; details.)  His body shrivels to a corpse-like shell of his former self; yet he continues calling forth with the power of the young.   I don’t find them unattractive, though in the only form I’ve seen them – a shed skin or a dead cicada on the sidewalk – they’re not fully whole.  Annual (or dogday) cicadas are 1-1/2” long, stout with a green or brown body, marked with black accents.  They hold their wings tent-like over their body.  Annual” because these cicadas can be found annually; compared with the type that appear once every thirteen to seventeen years!

Prairie Dock and Cup PlantComposite Portrait:  Prairie Dock and Cup Plant

Sight overwhelms first:  lush height and width, riotous yellow accent amidst a sea, of, yes, waves of greens.  In the prairie, the flower plant family most dominant in terms of variety and beauty is the Composite or Aster Family – and they are blooming now.  The term “composite” describes the flower heads:  clusters of many small flowers (florets). The florets may be of two different types — disk and ray florets. The disk florets, the smallest and most numerous, are located in the central portion of a typical flower head and form the yellow center of a daisy or the brown center of a black-eyed Susan.  The “petals” surrounding the central disk are the ray florets. Most composites have both disk and ray florets, while some have only one or the other.

Providing food, water, and cover, Cup Plant is species that many native plant gardeners select to attract birds.  Cup Plant bears lance-shaped leaves opposite pairs that clasp around the stem forming a pocket for water collection.  The scientific name of Cup Plant, perfoliatum, means “through the leaf,” referring to the stem that appears to pierce the leaves.  These leaf cups catch and store rainwater, often for many days.

Cup PlantCup Plant

That tall plant in the prairie – it’s most likely Prairie dock.  Like compass plant, its flowers are arranged opposite on a stem that stretches to thirteen feet.  The flowers may point north and south – though I wouldn’t rely on this for navigation.   Its basal leaves are very large, 1 foot or more in length, thick, rough, resinous, and heart- or spade-shaped. Like the compass plant, the leaves of the prairie dock stand erect presenting only their thin edges to the intense mid-day sun, thus reducing transpiration.  The foliage grows 24”-36” tall.  In August, smooth tall stalks arise from the cluster of leaves. At the top of these tall stalks, about six bright yellow sunflower-like heads open from smooth, round buds, and last for a month or longer.  Very long-lived, individual plants are known to flourish for decades.

Prairie DockPrairie Dock

Come explore the prairie – bring bug spray and a change of footwear.  You won’t get “cold feet” but you may leave with wet feet from the damp mown grass and dripping foliage!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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