Nature Notes

A secret garden at the Arboretum

The call of the Dakota peoples’ deep winter’s moon, Witehi Wi, brings you to this secret garden and a time for renewal.

By Zan Tomko

Come along on a short winter walk in a very special space. Park in the Marion Andrus Learning Center parking lot to begin. Walk west on the service road, a flat, level surface over the wetlands. This secondary, service road leads to the Dog Commons and overflow parking lot, now closed. The wetlands are a continuation of Lake Mishawaka wetlands that march toward the Arboretum from across Highway 7. 

A service road that cuts through the secret garden wetland

Standing like a sentry to the wetlands, this red cedar, blighted by weather, would fit right into a Japanese garden. Wetlands are a space of renewal and regeneration. Pause and take a slow look at the marvelous transformation, a deep cleansing breath carries the scent of snow-laden cedar needles in the quiet space. Eastern red cedar, a hardy native species, is a sign that the land is drier at the entrance to the wetlands.

A weather-worn Eastern red cedar

I call this a secret garden because it is a slightly disheveled natural area with a road through the middle and it is off the map. It is full of biodiversity, mixed habitats, with areas of transition, from very wet and moist, to very dry terrain. 

Cattails bend from the winter wind

These wetlands vary in moisture content along with the seasonal water cycle or seeps from surrounding moraines. The service road goes through the cattail wetlands; there are narrow-leaf (invasive), broad-leaf (native) and a hybrid in Minnesota. Cattails are a valuable filter in wetlands, but they readily reproduce through underground stems called rhizomes as well as their seed pods and many wetlands have a high nitrogen content from runoff, so cattail stands require management in many areas. There are two ephemeral ponds in this area, adding to the seasonal diversity of plants, insects and animals.

Cattail seed pods with snow caps and cattail fluff and seeds

Cattails are an indicator species of wetlands and the Swiss Army knife of the plant world. The soft seed floss was used for insulation inside moccasins, the leaves were woven into baskets and stems were used to make rush floor mats. Many parts are edible, including roots and young flower heads, cattail pollen and gel within the leaves is used as a culinary thickener.

Wild bur cucumber, a member of cucurbit family, is a relative of the luffa gourd; its insides resemble the luffa sponge. Wild cucumber looks tougher than it is; the pods are now soft and hollow; the seeds have long ago exploded out of the pod, leaving an exit hole in the bottom. This Minnesota wildflower thrives in moist areas. 

Wild bur cucumber vine, growing through red dogwood

Near the entrance, on the right, along a drier edge, look for Clematis virginiana, called virgin’s bower when it’s in bloom in late summer, old man’s beard in autumn and devil’s darning needle after it’s gone to seed, as shown. 

Seed pods of virgin’s bower, also called devil’s darning needle

The walk along the wetlands is a short loop down one side of the road and back up the other, perfect for practicing snowshoeing and slow-looking at this rich natural area of wetlands, woods and snow. January season for Dakota peoples in Minnesota is Witehi wi (Wee-teh-hee-ween) Hard or Severe Moon, the coldest season; a time when the snow is hard and crusted. Dakota winter camps were set up in sheltered woodlands.  

The call of the Dakota peoples’ deep winter’s moon, Witehi Wi, brings you to this secret garden and a time for renewal.

Zan Tomko is an artist, horticulturalist and a Minnesota Master Naturalist.

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