By Mary Beth Pottratz
It feels strange to be wearing clothes in layers on this first nippy morning of summer, and my feet rebel against the confinement of shoes. A deep blue sky is punctuated with large billows of cumulous clouds. The sun does little to warm the brisk breezes from the Morth. No bugs and no sweat–a perfect day for a hike to the Spring Peeper Meadow!
The trailhead is just below Ordway Picnic Shelter. I follow its shaded edge where the woodland meets the bog that encircles Green Heron Pond. A gray catbird meows plaintively from a sumac perch, whose leaves are just starting to tip with red. Open water is not visible through tall grasses, sunflowers, cattails, banks of yellow-orange jewelweed and wild grape vines. Golden-yellow sunflowers, rudbeckia, sneezeweed, goldenrods and goat’s beard brighten the landscape in splashes.
Suddenly a boardwalk juts to the right, and spotted jewelweed flowers bloom in tall waves. The bright golden yellow flower resembles an inch-long cornucopia ending in a curled spur. Dotted with orange, it hangs from thin stem-tips branching from succulent, almost transparent, main stalks. Slender green seed pods, called siliques, extend from other stem tips.
When dry, the silique will explode when touched, and can project its seeds six feet away! Paradoxically called touch-me-not, jewelweed is a high-value native plant. Humans can lessen the itch and sting of nettles and poison ivy by rubbing its juice on the area. Bees and other insects love to siphon out its sweet nectar.
Perhaps most important, its nectar is a critical food for hummingbirds at a time when monarda, columbine, cardinal flowers and other hummer favorites have long finished flowering, and young hummingbirds are just fledging. Ruby-throated hummingbirds prefer jewelweed’s sucrose-based nectar to flowers with nectars of fructose or glucose. In return, hummingbirds pollinate jewelweed better than bees and flies. Rapid wing beats as they hover cause pollen to shake onto hummingbirds – and off of them at the next flower.
A ruby-throated juvenile three feet in front of me hovers with its face thrust into a jewelweed. Other blooms bob as it fans them with wing beats so fast they are a blur. A second juvenile drops from above and, with a squeaky scold, pushes the first away. They chatter at each other, face-to-face, before darting off. Looking out after them, I see more than a dozen hummingbirds flitting and diving among the flowers for yards around.
Others stop to watch the show, and hummers pass our ears with a whoosh as they play and dive-bomb beneath the jewelweed canopy. Little Caribou, perched on her dad’s shoulders, watches a pair spiral over our heads, beak-to-beak, and decides they are kissing.
The hummingbirds supported my decision to hike the trail rather than park at the convenient lot right off Highway 41. Boardwalk gives way to mowed trail through old field, past stands of young aspen and elm, and alongside a forest. Lacy panicles of grass curve in the breeze, and sensitive ferns edge the woods.
Suddenly, a path leads downhill, opening onto the Spring Peeper Meadow. Cattails mix with pale pink spikes of smartweed, daisy fleabane, grasses, rushes and sedges along a stand of red-pine. Seven-foot tall cup plants stand flowerless, with branches of shiny green pods like candelabras. Goldfinches are all but invisible in the sunflowers, goldenrod, and evening primrose. Barn swallows swoop over the open water below, chasing dragonfly dinners.
Along the boardwalk, arrowhead sports the last of its three-petaled flowers, along with round, green seed pods from spent flowers. Giant bur-reed’s frothy white flowers have given way to spiked seed balls, zig-zag stems and papery brown nutlets. The meadow displays clumps of pink smartweed, wide bands of golden sunflowers, splotches of white false asters and daisy fleabane. Arrowhead points skyward, milkweeds are still growing their green seed pods, cattails bend in the breeze, and water edges are frosted with glowing green duckweed.
Too late in the year for waterfowl, and a little too early for migration, I make a mental note to check back soon. I have seen some amazing birds here in previous years, but this restored sedge meadow changes quickly. Details about its history and wildlife that visits are on its website: http://www.arboretum.umn.edu/springpeeper.aspx#wildlife .
As I lope through the back edges of Spring Peeper Meadow, a rare glint of sapphire blue catches my eye. My favorite – bottle gentian –glows almost hidden in the deep grass. Its sapphire blue is lit from within petals that never fully open, as though bottling the sun to help it through the coming winter.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.