Off the Beaten Path

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Joe pye weed and purple coneflowers spill down a slope at the entrance to Three Mile Drive. They are flanked by tall masses of switchgrass, one of Minnesota’s dominant prairie grasses. Its blades are already turning yellow, and the lacy seedheads glow in the early morning sun. Switchgrass will continue to provide lasting fall color and winter interest in the months to come.


In the perennial garden, deep red-violet blossoms cluster atop Ironweed clumps. Great blue lobelia is in full bloom. Slender stems topped with peachy flower spikes rise above the plum-tinged leaves of heuchera. The chortle of a bluebird surprises me, reminding me to check the dahlia walk for hummingbirds.

A drama unfolds as a bevy of belligerent chickadees perch in a nearby tamarack. As each little hummer drones in to feast on dahlia nectar, chickadees swoop past so close and fast that the hummingbirds are thrown off their flight path. The guards scold their tiny rivals loudly. One by one, each hummingbird flies off in search of an easier meal.

I head to Hummingbird Heaven – that sunny patch of jewelweed where the boardwalk starts at Green Heron Trail – and hope the hummers head there too. I am delighted by the white froth of wild cucumber flowers. A few already display spiky little fruits, so lightweight that they sway in the breeze as they dangle from this dainty vine.

Wild Cucumber
Wild Cucumber

A wood chip path leads off from the boardwalk deep into the wetland. The temperature drops, and I am surrounded by lush sunflowers, berried dogwoods, white snakeroot and fragrant wild mint. The narrow path is crisscrossed by graceful brome grass, cool green cattail leaves and flowerheads weighted down by blossoming boneset, turtlehead and flat-topped white aster.

A non-native bee – or wasp – tried to reach deep into a jewelweed flower for nectar, but the long spur is far too deep for his proboscis (tongue, or sucking mount parts) to reach. Ingeniously, the little guy pierces a hole in the spur of the petal. Enlarge this photo to watch see him suck the sweet liquid out. If you ever tasted jewelweed nectar, you would understand its popularity!

Bee on Jewelweed
Bee on Jewelweed

Hummingbirds dart to and fro. Sedge wrens and song sparrows serenade from deep within the shrubs. The wetland floor is dotted with lush mosses that give rise to sensitive fern, goldenrod and asters.

Northern Green Orchid
Northern Green Orchid

I suddenly notice northern green orchids, stiff spikes encircled with a multitude of tiny green flowers. Past their prime, the green petal edges are tinged brown. One of Minnesota’s most common orchids, it is still an interesting and unusual flower!

Back out on the boardwalk, I survey Big Heron Pond. A female wood duck and a female mallard are watching over their broods on opposite sides of the water. The young ducks are almost as large as their Moms. They will be ready to migrate soon.

Grudgingly, I acknowledge more signs of a coming fall: the fleshy red tamarack cones I photographed last June have now donned their late summer brittle brown. Woodbine leaves are starting to turn red. Solomon’s seal berries turned dark black-blue. The young of many migratory birds have fledged and left the nest. And the first red maple leaves from the hybrid maple just outside the sensory garden dot the green grass below.

I make a note to return soon – before it’s too late!

Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the program is available at


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Brian O'Brien says:

    Great set of observations, and I share your feelings about the upcoming fall. Inevitable, though, and with its own particular beauty.

  2. Fall is actually my favorite season, Brian! It’s not that I resent fall’s coming, it’s just that I wish the present would slow down a little. Doesn’t it always seem to fly by? 🙂

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