By Greg Lecker
Red and purple tulips at the entry drive make me question my calendar – is this April or the latter half of May? How wonderful that late-blooming cultivars and staggered plantings extend springtime! Today’s 82 oF weather and tomorrow’s forecast of 90oF are rushing a season of birth and renewal that is running nearly a month ahead by some accounts. One finds much new life throughout the Arboretum and especially within the native ecosystems of the Grace B. Dayton Woodland Wildflower Garden and Capen Prairie Garden.
Within a few easy steps from the Sensory Garden parking lot, I enter the edge of the woodland. Directly adjacent to a sloping asphalt path and so easily accessible to eye and camera are the delightful Small Flowered Yellow Lady’s Slippers. How appropriate that their maroon and gold blooms celebrate the school colors of the University of Minnesota.
Spring’s true ephemeral flowers have come and gone, and with them, their foliage. A few Trillium flowers remain; their blooms faded to pink. Woodland (Celandine) Poppies either bloom or pendulously dangle their bristly seed pods.
After a month’s worth of rain falling in early May, it’s been a week without meaningful rain. So, deeper within the woodland, Arboretum staff have erected a high-powered sprinkler centered on the area of the garden’s Showy Lady Slippers, thus ensuring spectacular blooms. The buds are large but not yet showing any hint of color within the oval carriage that transports a slipper – not of glass, but a pale ruby and white. When is the ball? Certainly within the fortnight.
Walking through the upper woodland garden on our way to the prairie, we smell the distinctive odor of skunk – but there is no sight of Pepe Le Pew. The umbel flower clusters of Pagoda Dogwood offer a more pleasing fragrance.
On my walk through the shade tree collection, I see a flying flash of blue dart by; then I notice the nearby bluebird house. What a cheery fellow – the Eastern Bluebird.
In the Capen Prairie Garden, Prairie Smoke Flowers and their showy seed heads coexist. While their flowers appear to be mere buds, it is their seed head that dazzles us with wind-tousled headdresses – pink hairy filaments glistening and dancing in the beams of the setting sun.
A lone Pasque Flower bloom stubbornly remains. Its neighbors have cast off their robe of petals to display a radiant seed sphere.
On my return trip through the woodland, I note that the Kentucky Coffeetree buds have erupted and their large compound leaves are unfurling. The new foliage is washed with shades of yellow-green and orange-brown – similar to young oak leaves. A lifelong native gardener once told me that this false color helps to camouflage the delicate new leaves from pests who are confused, expecting to see medium green foliage. Can this be confirmed? I wonder. Viewing the current leaf length of six inches, I find it hard to believe that the mature leaf will span up to three feet long – that’s one giant leaf! Looking quickly at a Kentucky Coffeetree foliage, one thinks “many, small leaves”; and one would be wrong. Forty or more leaflets make up one pinnately (feather-like) divided leaf.
Speaking of feathers, a special sight greets me on my return trip through the woodland. A Red-tailed Hawk rises from a fence post, a gray squirrel in its talons. It appears to struggle somewhat to hold onto its limp but substantial parcel. As I wend around the path for a better view, the bird disappears amidst plants and brush on the hillside.
But for human and bird alike, good things come to those who wait. About fifteen minutes later, with much of its prey remaining, the hawk flies from the woodland to a northern red oak branch near the Sensory Garden restrooms. For fifteen minutes, the hawk picks at the flesh and bone, its crop bulging with its large meal. The feathered form finishes its feast, forcing down the final furry flesh.
I’m awestruck and reflective, realizing that the carnivore that captured and consumed this meal was not a human, canine, or feline hunter, but a bird not unlike the seemingly gentle Northern Cardinals and American Robins that dwell in my backyard. One creature’s death provides for another’s life. It is the natural way and neither good nor bad. And it can be witnessed amidst the cultivated beauty of the Arboretum as sure as in the wilderness.
Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer