Nature Notes

Spring Phenology

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Phenology – the timing of events in nature – is evident everywhere today at the Arboretum!

A goose loafs on the ice in the sunny wetland. Protected from today’s winds that are gusting up to 32 mph, its mate dabbles in the water nearby. A pile of dried reeds forms their nest.


Meadowsweet seedheads have turned a rich brown, the seed follicles open. Water makes a slow gurgling sound as it drains the melting snow from the wetland. Sunlight glints off the current and warms me, despite the high-30s temperature.

DSC_0122Pussy willowsPussy willows

Pussy willows decorate the panorama. Their furry catkins have just started popping out of their buds, and the silver-gray fur glows in the bright sunshine. Traditionally, the first catkins bursting from their buds signal spring has arrived!

A pileated woodpecker complains softly from the woods nearby, its bright red crown standing out against bare trees. Another responds.

DSC_0175Orchid seedheadsOrchids

Our lovely native orchids have set their seeds in the wetland, the hulls are dried and split, and dust-like seeds dispersed long ago. These plants require specific habitat, moisture, soils, fungi and other conditions; I hope some of the seeds find the right place! Minnesota’s State Botanist, Welby Smith, recently published Orchids of Minnesota, detailing our many native orchids including our state flower, the Showy Lady’s-slipper.

DSC_0150Pitcher plantPitcher plants

Carnivorous pitcher plants have been placed and are growing next to the boardwalk, where they should be able to digest some curious insects! A dark-eyed junco thinks he is hiding in a red osier dogwood thicket and nibbles at a freshly opened green bud. The wind is strong in the middle of the wetland, and most birds are hiding from its chilly bite.


A few horsetails have just poked an inch out of the dirt. They are the only living members of the genus Equisetum. Britannica states that others in the same division are extinct and known only by their fossils, some dating to 416 million years ago.

DSC_0187Skunk cabbageSkunk cabbage

Skunk cabbage, our first flower to bloom in spring, rises just a few inches above the wetland fray, its thick purple spathe, like a single thick leaf, still hiding the budding flowers within.

Last year’s pinkish tamarack cones are now hardened to brown. The buds aren’t swelling yet, so it will be a while before any needles appear.

After all, it’s still March.

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

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