Nature Notes

Natural Color

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The terrace outside the Arboretum buildings is adorned with planters of fresh green pine, cedar and spruce boughs trimmed with red-osier and sulfur yellow dogwood twigs and tan balls of hydrangea flowers. The morning’s clouds begin to brighten as I stroll the grounds.

DSC_0150 witch hazelWitch hazel

Witch hazel shrubs have lost their leaves, but its branches are dotted with tiny yellow flowers! This latest-flowering native plant is listed as threatened in our state. Turkeys trot through the grounds, gobbling quietly at each other and picking in the soil for treats. Sunbeams peak through clouds, making their feathers glow iridescent.

DSC_0205 Hornets NestWasp’s nest

Now that the leaves are mostly gone, I look for nests in the naked tree branches. The first find is a beautiful wasp’s nest suspended from slender tree branches. Made by bald-faced hornets, it is the size and shape of a football. The industrious wasps mash bark or wood with their saliva, and layer it in scalloped shapes around the nest. Some naturalists can even determine which trees the hornets were using by the bands of color around the nest!

DSC_0208 wild cucumber vinesWild cucumber pods

Pale beige wild cucumber pods swing like miniature paper lanterns from their vines, festooning the tops of red osier dogwood. Little bluestem grass blades are faded burgundy and tan near the tip. Each blade is studded with white tufts of tiny spikelets that glow in the sun.

A hairy woodpecker flits silently between tree trunks, picking at the bark. Chickadees call “tseet” from deep inside shrubs, and a distant blue jay calls an alarm. Golden tamarack needles dust the boardwalk, and the tall trees above are bare. But young tamaracks recently planted hold fast to their golden glory.

DSC_0266 bird's nestBird’s nest

A bird’s nest is woven into the crotch of red osier dogwood. It is made with dried leaves, grasses, mud and fine twigs, and seems too deeply cupped and smaller in diameter than a robin’s nest. Winter assignment:  learn about identifying bird’s nests!

DSC_0254 goldenrod seedheads croppedGoldenrod seedheads

White meadowsweet is tipped with open seed pods. Goldenrod seedheads appear trimmed in fur. Asters are tipped with tiny white cotton balls of seed. Even cattails are bursting white fuzz from brown flowers.

DSC_0253 Sun glintsSun glinting on leaves

The sun glints on leaves, stems, and seedheads. Indian pipe stems are shriveled brown and tipped with upward-pointing seedpods.

Not the pastel shades of spring nor bright summer hues, these muted tones of fall have a beauty all their own.

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

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