At first study, it seems to be a dead landscape, devoid of the greenness I associate with life. Leafless branches, flowerless stalks, dry grasses and cattails under dull grey clouds leave me feeling listless and flat.
I’ve been anticipating today’s predicted snowfall with pleasure. It’s already mid-afternoon, and I can even smell that crispy-fresh scent of snow in the air. A few white dustings lie here and there from several days ago, but not the fluffy coating I yearn for. Will I be able to blog about something in this dearth of greenery?
But within only a few steps, I notice a group of milkweed. Its dried pods have long popped open. Wisps of sweet white silk are tipped with brown, horseshoe-shaped seedheads. These little soldiers have half marched out of their pods, tripping over themselves and catching their threads on the nubby pod casings. I giggle to notice their tumbling, bumbling into a pile below.
Usually I shun the terrace gardens for wilder tracts, but today I stroll behind the Visitor Center. The display of trees, shrubs and plants here are artfully composed, even for late fall. Honey-colored fountains of dried prairie dropseed grasses flow in clumps. Its slender stalks rise up, tipped with racemes of tiny pale cream seeds, and backed by the deep green of a Norway spruce.
A stunning arrangement stops me in my tracks. Flaxen clouds of switch grass glow before a tall blue spruce. Both are dappled by the terra cotta flower heads of sedum.
Then, the brilliant orange of three-foot tall yellow loosestrife jumps out at me. Its characteristic curvy flower spikes are now dried into fantastic silhouettes. Unlike aggressive purple loosestrife, the yellow is sometimes planted in wetlands for its magnificent color year-round. I recall the stunning sight last year of yellow loosestrife against a backdrop of water and golden-needled tamaracks up north.
“Sweet-sweet!” A group of cardinals call to each other. My thoughts exactly! One adult male in his bright-red suit and females and juveniles in paler imitations are so easy to see in the bare branches. They flit from ground, to tree, to bush, in unending rotation.
Amused by their game of tag, I almost miss the small globe thistle. I bend low to inspect the mathematic precision of its perfectly round head and spine-pointed leaves. Spikes of thistle seeds explode like fireworks in geometric spears. Nature’s exactness always amazes me.
I laugh at myself, remembering how easily I feared the fall landscape. Yet it’s the very lack of green leaves and flowers that allows me to see and learn so much more.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer.