By Mary Beth Pottratz
Friday was the first day of fall, and geese are already honking overhead, practicing their V formations before heading south. Many birds have already migrated. Even the flowers are paying attention to the calendar.
Most of the coneflowers have lost their petals, flower heads are morphing to seedheads, and leaves are dry and often brittle. It’s time for the wildlife to enjoy their annual harvest festival!
I spot a goldfinch with its neck bent 180 degrees. It eyes me warily, all the while plucking its dinner from deep within a coneflower head. Chipping sparrows are picnicking beneath a canopy of sunflowers, nabbing the seeds just after they hit the ground.
Two chipmunks squeak merrily at each other as they play tag. They pause to gorge on a pile of seeds, then scamper off to the next buffet. Even the deer are enjoying the red spikes of sumac seeds along the wood’s edge.
White wild indigo sports a column of large oval seedpods in a raceme along its upper stem. I crack one open to get a look inside, where its yellow seeds hang. A few stems of white sage flowers stand behind the indigo. The matte black indigo pods against the flower tops of green-gray sage are a striking combination.
Foxglove beardtongue is especially dramatic. Stalks of coppery purple teardrop-shaped pods contrast its deep magenta leaves. Great St. John’s Wort sports pods in the same teardrop shape, but larger and with lime green coats. Strings of shepherd’s purses reach straight out, their scalloped edges catching both my eye and my sleeve as I brush by.
Cute and curly, a few milkweed pods have just opened. Soft white strands of silk tipped with a tiny brown seed catch in the wind and float away. Milkweed is critical to monarch butterflies and their larvae. I worry how many seeds land in soil on the prairie floor with enough space, water, and light to grow before some lucky critter snaps them up for lunch.
Four-foot tall switchgrass blades are edged with brilliant yellow that shines in the sunlight. Their lacy panicles of red-brown seeds flutter with every breeze. Big bluestem and its three-toed seedheads have turned pipestone red. Little bluestem glows with high and low lights of yellow, clay, and brown.
These treats of nature are displayed everywhere at the Arb–along the sides of the entry drive, in every parking lot, along the edges of woods and fences, at the pond, around the bog, prairie, and formal gardens.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.