Pairing Up

By Mary Beth Pottratz
An early spring garden greets me as I enter the Great Hall. Graceful, naked birch trees rise above clumps of cyclamen in valentine shades of white, pink and deep rose.

Birch and Cyclamen
Birch and Cyclamen

At the west end, a two-story tree composed of hundreds of showy tropical orchids is topped by a glass star sculpture. Although none of Minnesota’s 49 native orchids would survive transplanting to grace an indoor tree, many will bloom at the Arboretum this summer.

Orchid Tree
Orchid Tree

The 2nd New York Botanical Garden Triennial Exhibition is on display. Of dozens of watercolors and sketches, my favorites are a compass plant and prairie dock that have hybridized in nature, insect galls on winter rudbeckia stems, and a sketch of the ghostly white Indian Pipe.

But I eschew indoors for the deep blue sky spotted with sailing clouds. Twenty-five degrees feels balmy in bright afternoon sun this day before Valentine’s Day. The long, fast drumming of a hairy woodpecker beckons me.

Two Glorious Oaks
Two Glorious Oaks

The two glorious oaks in front of the rose garden reach towards each other, holding hands as they guard the gardens. A Swamp White Oak stretches gracefully for the sky. Its dried red leaves rustle in the breeze, whispering “Don’t let go… Don’t let go…” to each other.
I stop to count the birds at the Snyder Center bird feeder for Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count. I note black-capped chickadees; cardinals; white-throated, tree and house sparrows; dark-eyed juncos; blue jays and a couple hairy woodpeckers. Don’t forget the crows!

Suddenly, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches twitter and spiral in the air. Is this territorial display, or the beginnings of a great romance?

Squirrel Tracks
Squirrel Tracks

The light dusting of snow is perfect for animal tracking. A pair of squirrel tracks show an adult with a juvenile – or perhaps a gray squirrel next to a red squirrel? Wild turkey prints run in the light snow across the footpath. They, too, are running in pairs.

Tiny Pine Cones
Tiny Pine Cones

A leafless tamarack stands tall against the blue sky. Tamaracks are monoecious – they bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. These branches are studded with tiny pine cones– the female flower – resembling wooden sweetheart rosebuds. Some cones will stay on the tree for several years. The tiny round buds are male. They develop yellow flowers that will pollinate the female cones when the wind blows.

My new camera – a gift from a dear friend – keeps right on working although temperatures drop and sunlight fades. As I head home in gratitude, a pair of nuthatches flirt and chase each other headfirst down a tree trunk, making nasal “ank, ank” calls. They’re preparing for tomorrow.

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


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