Nature Notes

Summer Respite

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Bright sunshine and few clouds are welcome relief from the oppressive rain and humidity of the past weeks. And the prairie is magnificent today!

20190721_120027rattlesnake masterRattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master is about to blossom. This unique plant has been classified as a special concern species by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. An excellent discussion of preserving prairie plants, and especially about conservation of rattlesnake master, is available on the DNR website here.

20190721_115810common milkweed flowerCommon milkweed

The sweet heady scent of common milkweed draws me further into the prairie. Its pom-pom like flowers are pinkish-mauve. Many people know that milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on. If we leave the plants up over winter, they not only provide winter interest above the snow; they also provide fiber for orioles to weave their nests in spring.

I hear it before I can see it: three phrases of two syllables each in a high pitch. “Tweet tweet, fwwwt fwwwt, tzeer tzeer”. The indigo bunting perches atop a tall maple snag, lording over the prairie. Its stunning deep-blue feathers shine like silk in the sunlight.

A common whitetail dragonfly suns on a warm boulder, its clear wings smudged dark brown near the tips. Its chalky-white body stands out against the rock. These beautiful creatures hatch from eggs in water, or from eggs deposited on plants in the water. Because they can’t survive pollution, their presence is indicative of a healthy wetland.

20190721_115650 Pale purple coneflowerPurple coneflower

Pale purple coneflowers are in full bloom in the prairie, petals drooping languidly from its cone-like center. Eastern purple coneflowers are just starting to bloom, a taller and sturdier plant. Grey-headed coneflowers sport brown cone-like centers surrounded by golden petal skirts.

Purple seems to be the hue of the season. Soft, fuzzy lead plants have tops layered in light purple flowers. Spiderwort flowers explode from the top of its stalk in purple triangles. White and purple prairie clovers are attracting honeybees as well as our native Minnesota bees.

20190721_121426bee balmBee balm

Bee balm, also called wild bergamot, blooms in lavender swathes against the greenery. Its tubular petals hold the nectar that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. My favorite, anise hyssop, has spikes of pale lavender flowers. Pollinators love its nectar and it makes a wonderfully fragrant tea.

20190721_120300anise hyssopAnise hyssop

Song sparrows trill from deep in the bluestem grass. Common yellowthroats and red-winged blackbirds call in counterpoint. Golden oxeye daisies stretch five feet above the prairie, reaching to the sun. Compass plants tower above my head, their buds just forming.

I am delighted to find a few spikes of blazing star in the prairie display garden. I recall seeing many of these monarch magnets attracting dozens of butterflies in the past and am glad they are returning. A monarch flits by, and a cabbage white follows. At least seven species of dragonflies are in the prairie.

20190721_124154Blazing StarBlazing star

Tall cup plants are setting their buds, and a few are in golden flower. White wild indigo seed pods have turned green and are starting to dry in the sun. Rosinweed is tipped with buds, a few sporting yellow petals around a greenish center. A light breeze ruffles the petals of wild roses.

Clouds move in as I head past the stately American elm near the Ornamental Grass Collection. I am delighted to see it fully leafed out. Kudos to the great Arboretum staffers who protect and nurture this iconic tree.

Hurry in to enjoy the summer respite while it lasts!

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

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