by Mary Beth Pottratz
Thick clouds mute the colors today. It doesn’t feel as cold as the thermometer’s39⁰. Tomorrow, several inches of the season’s first snow is predicted.
But today, I can see deep into the forest’s jumbled collage of bare branches. The ground is thick with leaves, now faded to soft tans, browns and ochres.
Bright spots of yellow draws me deeper in. Leafless stands of witch hazel are at peak bloom! Four tiny petals resemble pompoms made of inch-long strips of crepe paper only 1/8” wide. Interesting natural history of this state-listed species of special concern is at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg/profile.html?action=elementDetail&selectedElement=PDHAM02020.
I breathe deeply the scent of moist earth and crushed leaves in the woodland. Flower stalks remain, but have switched their summer greens for fall khaki and camo.
Ironwoods and oaks hang stubbornly to their leaves. Chubby squirrels gnaw noisily on seeds and crash through dried leaves. Chickadees call from above. Silent cardinals flit about.
Flower seeds are everywhere. Fluffy cream-colored poufs atop cattail stalks. Red-orange caps of Great St. Johnswort seedpods recall elegant candelabra in flame. Nepeta, or catmint, is a ghost of its former self. Its flowerheads have turned from lavender to grayish brown.
A trio of hooded mergansers dive and pop back up in the Wood Duck Pond. One male puffs his bright white crest wide open; the other paddles with his lowered halfway. A lone brown moth searches for nectar.
Over the wetland, geese honk and fly in V-formations, preparing for their journey south. Delightful bulrushes are tipped with nutlets that explode into puffy balls of seeds. Blue vervain and liatris are lined with seedpods ready to burst open.
Stalks of blue vervain with tightly packed brown and tan seeds point skyward. Liatris hang stubbornly to a few withered purple blooms. A mallard family floats lazily on the pond near the Iris Garden, dabbling and quacking at each other.
Puffy heads of showy goldenrod wave above the prairie. Wild mints have lost their leaves. But their square stalks lean sideways, with balls of brown seedpods spaced evenly every inch.
Mountain mint leaves are crispy-dry, and one crush emits its strong heady scent. Its tiny balls of seedheads are clustered at stem-top. They look as though tipped with frost. Little bluestem blades run tan to brick, punctuated by tiny white wisps of seeds.
A few deep purple New England Asters, bright yellow Maximilian sunflowers and golden Black-eyed Susans remain in the prairie. Most petals are wilted and faded, but a few bring a little splash of color to the neutral landscape.
The tamaracks near Green Heron Pond have lost many of their yellow needles already. Large and small brown cones are visible. But the stand on the outside of Three Mile Drive is still beautiful gold. A blue jay perches atop a spruce to call.
I wait for wild turkeys to cross the road and watch them poke at the ground. Heads down, they seem to sense the coming snow as they focus, peck, step; focus, peck, step.
The turkeys and fading light remind me of duties I need to complete before tomorrow’s snowfall. But I’ll be back!
Mary Beth Pottratz is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer. More information about the Master Naturalist Volunteer program is available at http://www.minnesotamasternaturalist.org.