By Mary Beth Pottratz
Remember the cozy feeling when, on that first chilly fall evening, you tuck a warm blanket under your chin?
That is the feeling the prairie brings to me today, the autumnal equinox – the first day of fall.
Most prairie plants have finished flowering. Yes, I still see some goldenrods flashing yellow. The large New England Asters are purple against a deep blue sky. Flat-topped White Asters and tiny Heath Asters dot the landscape. Golden sunflowers and bright Canada Hawkweed stand tall above masses of white Boltonia, looking like baby’s breath in a prairie bouquet.
But most interesting are the changes taking place as plants ready themselves for winter. They are sensing: maturing and preparing for the next generation.
For example, Stiff Goldenrod’s yellow petals have long fallen, leaving green calyxes bursting with tiny white strands of silk tipped with ochre.
Crackly-dry cup plant leaves, turning brown and black on dramatic 7-foot stalks, look as though they have been torched! But man had no hand in it. This is the natural senescence of this statuesque plant, even in wetlands and rain gardens.
Sage’s gray-green leaves still sit along stems topped with spires of brown-tufted seed pods. Grey-headed Coneflower seedheads are reminiscent of tiny pine cones. Goldenrods’ yellow florets have now burst into tiny white pompons.
Vervain’s leaves are black, each plant topped with spires of dry, brown seedheads where once blue florets attracted bees. Milkweeds are dry and grey, with pods now splitting from the pressure of silk-sprouted seeds inside.
Some may find these ugly or sad, and quickly prune them from the garden. But try leaving these stalks standing all year to learn about their special gifts.
Seedheads or stalks of pods with unusual forms rise above white blankets of snow. Greater St John’s Wort sports pointy upside-down ice cream cone shapes in vivid clays and purples.Wild false blue indigo pods are large and bean-shaped. Their matte black color is striking against a sparkly white snowfall.
And the seeds, naturally striated by winter’s freeze and thaw cycles, drop to the ground to sprout as new plants come spring.
Graceful grasses, a moving sculpture, sway in the fall and winter winds. Their colors change from greens to yellows, to peach and orange, to pipestone red and gray.
Birds will have handy spots to perch on amid wide swaths of snow that is usually too deep for their short legs. Seeds provide food during the harshest winter months. Bits of dried plants will warm their nests.
During winter, plants break down and wash into the ground. Rain, snow, enzymes and insects will turn plant material into nutrients. Fiber and air are added to soil, making it rich and arable for the next generation of plants to flourish.
Come spring, you can watch Baltimore Orioles tear long, thin strips from now-brittle milkweed stems. They will weave those strips into soft, warm pouches fortified at the bottom with tiny plant twigs to raise their young.
So as each night feels chillier than the last, pull your blanket up around your chin. And let the plants do the same in your garden.
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.