Treasures on the East Side Trails

By Holly Einess

It’s a beautiful fall day and I’m looking forward to finally completing my exploration of the Arboretum’s East Side Trails.

East Side Trails mapEast Side Trails Map

As I head up the Spring Peeper Trail just east of its intersection with the Ridge Trail I am greeted by a lovely grove of birch trees, their golden leaves dancing in the sunlight. A little farther on is a grouping of small oaks, chickadees flitting about in their colorful branches (successfully evading my attempts to photograph them!). Amid all the yellows, oranges, and reds, the purple of a still-blooming New England aster catches my eye.


I pull open a tall gate to enter the wetland restoration area and after several minutes of hiking the Spring Peeper Meadow comes into view. It is bordered on the north by a long stand of Minnesota’s state tree, the red pine (also called Norway pine). I take a moment to savor the sound of the wind whispering through the branches and am surprised and delighted to hear several western chorus frogs singing their signature “fingernail dragged along a comb”call.

Red (or Norway) PinesRed (or Norway) Pines

Heading back the way I came I take a left on a connector trail inviting me into a blazing yellow maple forest. A flock of dark-eyed juncos takes off from the leaf-strewn trail in a flutter of hops and leaps, their outer white tail feathers flashing. Two red squirrels chase each other madly through the leaves, nearly running into me, and a gray squirrel eyes me warily.

Eastern Gray SquirrelEastern Gray Squirrel

A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet clings to an upright twig just long enough for me to get a photo. Moments later I spot its close relative, the even smaller golden-crowned kinglet. These two are among Minnesota’s smallest birds; only the ruby-throated hummingbird is tinier.

Ruby Crowned KingletRuby-Crowned Kinglet

This little patch of forest is fairly thrumming with life, and I’m not surprised when several chickadees appear, and then a hairy woodpecker. Fluttering yellow leaves fill the air like a kaleidoscope of butterflies, and I stand in stillness for a time, reveling in the fleeting beauty of this too-short season.

Emerging from my trance I continue out of the woods into restored prairie, where the grasses rustle dryly in the wind. The trail loops around, taking me back through the gate and once again onto the Spring Peeper Trail.

Restored PrairieRestored Prairie

As I near the boardwalk a common garter snake slithers off the sun-warmed trail and disappears into the brush. Soon it will join other snakes in a rock crevice or underground den below the frost line, spending the winter in a state of brumation (akin to hibernation in mammals). The snake and I both are hoping for a few more weeks of mild days to bask in the sun.

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Fall Splendor

By Mary Beth Pottratz

The ground is a patchwork quilt of leaves in yellows and golds, browns and purples, crimsons, greens, beige’s, greys and more. But look up, and the vista is filled with large swathes of golden yellow maples, brilliant red sumac, crimson dogwood, green tamaracks just starting to burnish gold, and oaks in shades of green to gold, purple and brown.

DSC_0799 Fall splendorFall Splendor

The hill along Wood Duck Trail is a lush mixture of green trees accented by others glowing in its own fall splendor. The prairies and wetlands are blushing seedheads of pastel brick with green and yellow leaves beneath. Fluffy white spires of goldenrod seeds pop up between red sumac and golden grapevines.

DSC_0827 Oak crimson and goldCrimson and Gold

Hackberries are green, with some berries still on the twigs. Oak leaves are a mélange of green and yellow, crimson and gold. The river birch has changed its deep green leaves to patterns of yellow, and many have fallen. Its bark flakes and curls, revealing peach tones beneath.

Catkins can be seen on American hazelnut now that most of its leaves have fallen. The remaining leaves have tones of brick and gold dotted with dark spots.

DSC_0118 shades of mapleMany Shades of Maple!

Most maples are gold, and many are still green, but others glow brilliant red or gold in the sun. There are seemingly many shades of maple!

DSC_0868 blue beech catkin and green fruit croppedCatkins with Tiny Green Fruits

Blue beech has lost almost all its leaves, revealing more of its smooth grey sinewy bark. It still sports some of its interesting catkins with tiny green fruits.

DSC_0906 Ironwood leaf and catkinsIronwood, Also Called Hop Hornbeam

Ironwood, also called hop hornbeam, is often confused with blue beech. Its scaly bark has thin vertical stripes. Its mottled green leaves are awash with yellow and pale orange highlights. The papery scales on its catkin are nut-brown. Each scale protects a fruit inside.

That graceful grass, prairie dropseed, has red or yellow stems with pale green and yellow grasses above. It is tipped with airy seeds that sway fast in the wind.

Little bluestem is a study in pale reddish-brown stems dotted throughout with fuzzy white spikelets, spouting from neat clumps. Canada wild rye is swollen with fruit and wiry, curled awns.

Indian grass sports beige tips with spikelets and tiny feathery fluff. Two wiry awns poke upwards from each seed.

DSC_0046 bumblebee on hairy goldenasterBumblebee

A bumblebee hangs onto the yellow petal of hairy false golden aster, unable to move at today’s 52⁰. He will camp here for the night!

Several black-eyed Susans are also in bloom. Deep purple New England aster flowers have shriveled to brown. Its leaves are still deep green as its seed matures. Wild geranium leaves are burgundy washed with green or yellow. Smooth blue asters are still flowering, but their yellow centers are turning reddish-purple.

DSC_0035 milkweed pods and seedMilkweed Pods

Goldenrods are done flowering, and are either maturing their seed or already dispersing it in fluffy white clumps. Milkweed pods have opened to allow the dark brown seeds to escape. Each is attached to a silky white set of fibers to carry it on the wind.

Leaving milkweed stems up is important: pollinators such as native bees and flies hibernate in the stems. And when spring arrives, orioles and other birds will strip thin fibers from the stems to weave into their nests.

The colors of fall are royal crimsons, stately purples, trimmed in rich golds against backgrounds of pale grasses. Visit soon to see the splendor of fall!

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

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Smelling the Rain

By Sydney Chandler

It rained.

As with most phenomena, such a simple statement is not the full story. Comparisons between rainy day visits and “nice days to visit the Arboretum” include differences in sounds, plants’ appearances, and smells.


Rain on the Green Heron Trail

The Green Heron Trail lacks the normal bustle of feeding birds and small mammals; the trees seem deserted. Wet leaves don’t crunch crisply on the forest floor, and other subtle sounds are drowned out by the steady patter of rain drops on the canopy.


Sweet Potato “Sweet Caroline Bewitched Green with Envy”

Rainy days provide an opportunity to observe plants as they interact with a vital resource: water. Sweet Potato leaves cleanly funnel water toward their stems. In comparison, raindrops cling to the pedals of the Chinese Hibiscus as if they were glued in place.


Chinese Hibiscus “Cherie”

Smells also change in the rain. Dropped leaves begin to mold and release their distinct scent with each step on the trail. Plants on the Green Heron Trail smell particularly vibrant as compared to the less intense smells along the road. The plants are calling out “We’re thirsty!”


Green Heron Pond

Catching plants on a rainy day is like a student seeing their teacher outside of school: it throws a familiar subject into a new context. A rainy day at the Arboretum is the opportunity to explore familiar plants and trails in a context full of different sounds, sights, and smells.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Signs of the Season on Lost Pond Trail

By Holly Einess

As often happens when I’m at the Arboretum I’m drawn to the East Side Trails, and today I decide to explore Lost Pond Trail. A blue jay cries raucously in the distance as I set off. Several eastern gray squirrels(one of them albino) are busy gathering acorns in the woods. Their rustling in the dead leaves is accompanied by the light clatter of other leaves as they flutter down from the trees.

Lost Pond TrailLost Pond Trail

Lost Pond itself is covered in a green carpet of duckweed. Often mistaken from a distance for algae, duckweed is a food source for waterfowl and marsh birds. The cattails are quickly losing their tidy cigar shapes and bursting into cottony fluff; they reproduce both by wind-dispersed seeds and through their thick white roots, called rhizomes.


A wild cucumber vine has snaked up a cedar; its Dr. Seuss-looking seed pods have begun to open and eject their seeds. I’m told wild cucumber blossoms, now gone, emit a lovely fragrance. I’ll need to wait until next summer to find out for myself!

Wild cucumber seed podWild cucumber seed pod

Leaving the pond behind, the trail again becomes winding and wooded. A cluster of white pines towers amidst the deciduous trees. A sudden movement catches my eye, then a flash of white, and I spot the undulating flight of several northern flickers. They are Minnesota’s only brown-backed woodpecker, and the only woodpecker to regularly feed on the ground, hunting for ants and beetles.

Northern flickerNorthern flicker

Two barred owls begin calling to each other—“Who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you?”—and I head off in their direction to see if I can spot them, but they soon quiet.

All around me summer’s lush abundance is dying back and turning to autumn’s harvest of seed and storage.As I arrive back at the Snyder Building two chipmunks are doing some harvesting of their own, one with already-bulging cheeks and the other doing his best to achieve the same.They, like many Minnesotans, are using these lovely autumn days to prepare for the months to come.

Eastern chipmunkEastern chipmunk

Holly Einess is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer

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Fullness of Fall

By Greg Lecker

The first fall day is full.  Full – full of plant biomass (foliage, flowers, fruits) and full of temperature. I enter the Grace Dayton Wildflower woodland seeking a bit or relief.  Clumped on a patch of wood chips is a small pile of black and green.  At first I think it’s scat (animal droppings).

Not Scat - Black Walnut HullsNot scat – Black Walnut Hull

Looking more closely, I see that it is the outer hull of black walnut fruit – already eaten by squirrels.  Also near the forest floor is a bit of red – berries atop a short stalk.

Jack-in-the-pulpit berriesJack-in-the-Pulpit Berries

Jack-in-the-Pulpit is woodland plant that grows best in deep shade in moist, humus-rich soil.   Resembling a green calla lily, it is attractive in bloom in late April to mid-June and again in the fall when it produces clusters of bright red berries on 2-foot tall plants. The tip of its spaethe (its hood or pulpit) droops to hide its spadix (the Jack). The seed berries form at the base of the spadix. It can be easily grown in a shady garden by planting the fleshy corms in the fall.  These are the same corns that wild turkey seems to pursue as it forages in leaf litter with those sharp, strong feet!  Another method – and nature’s preference – is for plants to grow from the tiny seeds present in each fleshy red berry.  In the first year, a single heart-shaped leaf appears.  After several years of producing pairs of three-part leaves, the plant will produce the flower.   This plant may go dormant if soil dries out.

False Solomon's Seal BerriesFalse Solomon’s Seal – Berries

Walking slowly up the serpentine path leading back up to Three Mile Drive, I spy ribbed alternate leaves on an arching stem that ends in red and pink berries:  false Solomon’s seal.  These berries have been making a slow color change this summer — first striped green and brown, then a yellow-white, next speckled with pink, and finally red when ripe.  Blooming in mid-May to late June, False Solomon’s Seal is smaller than the Great (or true) Solomon’s Seal.  It can be found in open woods, prairies and along roads throughout Minnesota.   It prefers moist humus-rich non-alkaline soil in light to full shade, although it blooms more in full sun.

Crossing the roadway, I hear a familiar honk.  I barely turn the camera lens upward in time to capture the source – Canada geese flocking and flying as they gather for their journey southward.

Canada GeeseCanada Geese in Flight

In the prairie, two different asters are blooming:  the taller New England Aster and a smaller more-delicate, blue-violet aster – which I think is sky-blue aster.

Pale Blue AsterPale Blue Aster

Changes – in color and temperature – are expected over the next month. Get outside and explore!

Greg Lecker is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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Season Turning

By Mary Beth Pottratz

Fresh rain washed away the wildfire smoke of the past few days, removing the recent dust and returning our air quality index to good. I enjoy the scent of moist earth and wet leaves. And the flowers are drinking it in, too!

DSC_0356 New England Aster croppedNew England asters

Deep purple New England asters are flanked by pale lavender silky aster, and clumps of tiny white asters so thick they resemble clouds. Crickets whirr all around me as I follow the mowed trail, and birds hide in the prairie calling furtively to each other.

Golden blooms of black-eyed Susan, Jerusalem artichoke, Canada and stiff goldenrods stand out against the prairie. And the prairie itself is a mosaic of pipestone-red seedheads from big bluestem and Indian grass, green blades of grass and shrubs, beige stripes of dried stalks and stems, punctuated with black wild indigo pods and pools of color from the flowers.

DSC_0421 stiff gentian croppedStiff gentian

I spy the little blue flowers of stiff gentian low in the grass. Great Indian plantain stands eight feet tall, its tan seedheads reaching for the sky. Yellow evening primrose are scattered about.

Long-fruited thimbleweeds are just puffing out with seeds attached to feathery fibers.Compass plant and cup plant flower stalks rise several feet above my head. The petals have already dropped. Blue vervain’s flowers have morphed to walnut-brown spikes of seeds. Geese honk, skeining overhead.

DSC_0477 Yellow woolly bear caterpillar croppedWoolly Bear caterpillar

Gillian, Audrey and Ben have a beige and orange woolly bear caterpillar! They found it walking on the trail near the prairie display garden. It is the larval form of the tiger moth, and legend has it that the markings on a woolly bear can predict the severity of the coming winter. The National Weather Service, however, debunks that as myth.

Trees and shrubs are just starting to turn. An American elm and maples are tinging yellow, and sumac have scarlet tips on some of their leaves.

DSC_0750 Scarlet Canada anemone leaves croppedCanada anemone

Deep maroon leaves of Canada anemone tangle on the forest floor. White snakeroot and elm-leaved goldenrod lighten the woodland edges. A few Indian pipes stand straight, indicating they have been pollinated.

But the highlight of my weekend was the opportunity to join a session of Nature Sketchbooks: A Visual Journal in the Arboretum with Pam. Pam Luer’s art class at the Arboretum was amazing as she guided her students in sketching and painting techniques to capture the beauty that we then went outdoors to capture in pencil and paint.

DSC_0550 Hummingbird croppedHummingbird

Hummingbirds dash and dart through the dahlias on display. Two juveniles chatter and squeak then hover facing each other. They dart up 30 feet while twirling around each other, before racing back down. They are gorging on nectar, preparing for their long migration south.

And the season marches on.

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

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Brewing an Exploration

By Sydney Chandler

The Arboretum’s wild side shines in the Bennett-Johnson Prairie. It has a less manicured appearance but is far from neglected. The native plant biodiversity in the prairie gives and air of ease; however, a quick read of posted signs tells a different story. The prairie has had extensive restoration, including controlled burns, to house its current mix of flora.



The Bennett-Johnson Prairie

Exploration in the prairie happens at multiple levels. Each is valuable and lends itself to different ways of understanding and learning. Exploration has no pre-determined curriculum, and curiosity is an excellent guide. Visitors might see the big picture first: understand that the prairie is a singular unit, see where the prairie is interrupted by the three-mile drive, and observe surrounding features.



Flowers in the sunshine

Next, there are individuals within the prairie. Favorite quotes from exploring at this level include “Don’t we have this growing in the yard?” and “Look at the yellow flowers!” Unlike other gardens at the Arboretum, the prairie’s flora is not labeled by species, so it’s a great place for spontaneous plant identification practice!



Buzzing bee

A third level of exploration ponders mysteries off the loop trail. Bees buzz, scurrying sounds are muffled beneath the dense grasses, and bugs hop and crawl in all directions. Sounds of the prairie inspire questions: Who is that? What are they doing? With silence, it feels as if mythical creatures and favorite story-book characters might emerge from the thick grasses. Combining the prairie’s wild ease with curiosity and imagination weave a unique and enjoyable adventure.

Sydney Chandler is a Minnesota Master Naturalist Volunteer.

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